“Santa The Shaman” and the origins of other seasonal traditions

December sees a plethora of religious and cultural celebrations worldwide, including Christmas, New Year, Hannukah, and Kwanzaa. The month also plays host to the year’s darkest day on December 21 or 22 which comes with the promise of the returning Light.

Tracing the origins of these holiday seasons is a fascinating subject, and something I dedicate a chapter to in my book, Sacred Ceremony. Santa Claus who, for many, is the personification of Christmas celebrations, has a particularly interesting history. Mention of Santa will likely conjure images of a jolly, rosy-cheeked, white haired and bearded gentleman in a red suit. This depiction owes much to a Swedish-American, Haddon Sundblom, who was commissioned by the Coca-Cola Company to depict Santa wearing the brand’s red and white in a 1931 Christmas advertising campaign. 

However, it’s not true to say that this was the first time Father Christmas was seen wearing red. There are many depictions of different kinds of Santa Claus – some showing a thin man, others an intellectual, even scary individual wearing scarlet clothing, all of which pre-date the ad campaign. I mention a few in Sacred Ceremony:

“There are legends about the fourth century Bishop of Myra, Nicholas—robed, grey-bearded, wearing the pointed bishop’s cap—famous for his anonymous generosity, especially to children.  

In Germany, legend tells of a man named Knecht Ruprecht, who traveled from town to town, testing children’s knowledge of their prayers. If they passed the test, he gave them treats, and if not, he gave them a stick. 

Christmas plays in England from the middle ages onwards often featured “Father Christmas,” a jolly, white-bearded old man who wore a wreath of holly. 

Washington Irving, in Father Knickerbocker’s History of New York published in 1809, is credited with a description of our modern Santa Claus, with his sleigh and magical reindeer who brought gifts to good children.” 

However, the magical figure of Father Christmas could have an even more ancient, shamanic heritage, as his character shares many similarities with the shaman. Not least his ability to fly through the air (on his sleigh) as well as communicate with animals – his reindeer – who help him move from one realm (house) to another.

Like the shaman, Santa also lives on the edge of ‘Village Earth’ in the North Pole and is seldom seen without his magical sack that’s full of surprises, something that can be compared with the shaman’s medicine bag.

But what of the origins of some of the other traditions of the Christmas festival? 

The Yule Log

The burning of a special log on Christmas Eve was practiced throughout Europe, from Scandinavia to Italy. Indeed, the words for Christmas among Lithuanians and Letts literally signify “Log Evening.” And in some traditions, The Yule log is seen as the Fire Mother of the Sun god.

The Christmas Tree

In his book, Celebrate The Solstice, Richard Heinberg reveals that in Seventeenth Century Germany, we find the first written descriptions of “fir trees set up in the rooms of Strasbourg and hung with roses cut from paper of many colors, apples, wafers, spangle-gold, sugar, etc.”  This German tradition had transferred to England by 1840, as that’s when records reveal that Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria, set up a tree in the palace for his wife. And soon, the idea of decorating trees at Christmas had crossed the Atlantic to the USA, evidenced by the 1845, children’s book, Kriss Kringle’s Christmas Tree, which has been described as the most influential Christmas book in the United States.

Ways to celebrate

Whatever festival you celebrate or commemorate at this time of year, one of the best ways you can mark the occasion is to slow down. After all, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this is the time of year when life is dormant, when seeds change little as they wait until the proper amount of light and heat beckon them to germinate and sprout. 

Use this time to rest and recuperate, to settle down for “a long winter’s nap,”. Perhaps go to bed earlier and take a longer lie-in. Of course, these options aren’t always possible for all of us all of the time. But showing an intention to slow down will help avoid many of the stresses and strains caused by rushing around during the holidays, ticking off things to do and buy as you get ready for the season’s celebrations.

“One effective ceremony to remind us of this is an energy fast. Let yourself surrender to the darkness. Light candles, and go to bed very early. An addition to this would be a day of silence. If you want to round it out, at the same time as these do a cleansing fast.”
Sacred Ceremony

On the morning after the longest night of the year, I like to go up on a mountain and greet the sunrise, the Return of the Light.. One year, I danced and drummed as the sun rose. However you choose to celebrate this holiday season, I’d like to wish you a peaceful and relaxing December and a happy new year. 

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