Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 12.20.07

Santa Exposed
From Turkish saints to mushroom-tripping shaman

Spoiler warning: Don’t read any further if you believe in Santa Claus!

The original St. Nick
Odin and his 8-legged horse
A group of Norwegian Nisse
Rudolph in pop-up book form
Amanita muscaria

Yes, Eugene, there is a Santa Claus. And though many will tell you our modern image of the jolly red elf comes from a cross between “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and Coca-Cola advertisements, it’s a little more than that. Turns out that Santa is a mixture of a Middle-Eastern saint, some Scandinavian elves and a little bit of mushroom-eating Sámi shamanism thrown in for good measure. Our modern celebration of Christmas is neither just a commercial enterprise nor a purely religious celebration; it’s a melting pot of folklore from around the world.

Frosty the Snowman

Knew the sun was hot that day

So he said “Let’s run

And we’ll have some fun

Now before I melt away.”

— “Frosty the Snowman,” Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins

In the summer of 2000, visitors to the Arctic were shocked to see that for the first time in 50 million years, there was water rather than ice at the North Pole. The ice continues to melt at a “record pace,” said scientists at November 2007 meeting of the American Geophysical Union. As most American kids know, the Arctic is home to polar bears and Santa’s workshop, both of which are in danger of sliding off the melting ice into the sea due to global warming. Luckily the Bush administration recently agreed to many (but not all) of the stipulations towards reducing greenhouse gases at the international climate conference in Bali. After all, who wants to be known as the first American president to drown Santa Claus?

The original St. Nick would not have fared so well at the cold North Pole. According to legend, St. Nicholas was born around A.D. 245 in a much warmer place — what is now Turkey. As the story goes he was a rich and generous man who began giving away money to the poor and to children. He became the Catholic bishop of Myra and was later sainted after performing several miracles.

One of the miracles involved a poor man with three daughters. He had no dowry for marriage, and without dowries they were destined to become prostitutes. St. Nicholas tossed sacks of gold in through the windows of their house for the first two daughters, but the window was closed the night he tried to provide gold for the third girl. So he dropped the sack down the chimney. This, according to Dr. Roger Highfield, in his book The Physics of Christmas, is why people hang stockings by the fire — to catch the gold.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.


The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.

He had a broad face and a little round belly,

That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

— A Visit from St. Nicholas

So how did a Turkish saint wind up a “jolly old elf” living at the North Pole? Santa Claus is the result of what folklorists call polygenesis. The roots of what became the guy in the red suit come from all over the world, but in particular they came from the Nordic regions.

As Christianity spread over the next several hundred years after St. Nicholas, it became traditional to give gifts to children on Dec. 6, St. Nicholas’ Feast Day. Meanwhile in Scandinavia, prior to Christianization, it was believed that the Norse god Odin would have a hunting party at Yule (the time of the winter solstice). Children would leave tasty treats for Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir (hmmm eight legs, eight reindeer), and Odin would leave gifts or candy for the kids.

Santa’s elves demand treats too. Elves come from Scandinavian folklore, where they are nisse in Denmark and Norway and tomte in Sweden. Norwegian tradition nisse “typically lived in barns and helped the farmers throughout the year, so long as they were rewarded each Christmas. So Norwegians put out a bowl of porridge for the nisse, rather than milk and cookies,” says Ellen Rees, a professor in Scandinavian at the UO. If people were rude to a nisse or didn’t give him his porridge, he would take revenge — breaking things or tying the cows’ tails together, for instance.

Norwegian nisse “have white beards, red stocking caps, a sweater and knickers with suspenders,” says Rees. Their outfits haven’t changed much over the years and coordinate nicely with Santa’s red suit.

In the early 1800s, it was the julenisse (Christmas elves) who brought gifts to good boys and girls in Scandinavia, and this soon became blended with other Santa traditions. Scandinavian children were probably grateful for the julenisse because before the 1800s, it was a julebuk or Christmas goat that brought presents. Rather than dress up like Santa Claus, nineteenth century Scandinavian men got to dress up as goats.

Before becoming a gift-giver, the julebuk was known for scaring children and demanding gifts for himself. In fact many early versions of Santa Claus were not benevolent bearers of gifts but punishers of ill-behaved children. Santa’s sack originally held not gifts but naughty children.

The name Santa Claus itself is thought to come from the Dutch Sinter Klaas, which was a colloquialism for St. Nicholas. Sinter Klaas was often depicted with a long beard, hat and pipe. His costume was often green and sometimes even purple. The tradition of giving gifts to children in honor of St. Nick came to the U.S. with early Dutch settlers, in the late 1700s. Sinter Klaas become St. A. Claus in a 1773 newspaper story, according to

The name Kris Kringle comes from an Americanization of the German Christkindl or Christ child. The idea of the Christkindl was introduced by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who wanted to get away from the Catholic saint associations of St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas appears in Washington Irving’s 1809 A History of New York (Please note: Irving is also the guy responsible for the Headless Horseman). It was Irving who described him in a wagon flying above the trees and “laying his finger beside his nose.”

By the time either Clement Clarke Moore or Henry Livingston Jr. — there’s some dispute at to the authorship — anonymously published “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” aka “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” in a New York newspaper in 1823, the image of Santa as a jolly pudgy man in a red suit had already made its way into public folklore. The poem just cemented his features.

He sees you when you’re sleeping,

He knows when you’re awake;

He knows if you’ve been bad or good,

So be good, for goodness’ sake!

Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry,

Better not pout, I’m telling you why:

Santa Claus is comin’ to town.

— “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” Haven Gillespie

Santa’s move to the North Pole was probably a creation of artist Thomas Nast, according to an article on a Harper’s Weekly history website ( illustrated Santa for Harper’s Weekly in the1860s. Having Santa living in the Arctic may have come from the interest at that time in Arctic exploration and also because the Pole was not possessed by any one nation (though nations are fighting over it now). Nast also reinforced the whole “naughty or nice” idea. He was a German immigrant and probably familiar with the scary German Belznickel or “furry Nicholas,” who left bad children ashes, along with other Germanic Santa figures who were just as apt to whip children as they were to give them presents.

The jolly red Santa image was reinforced further in 1931 in a series of advertisements for Coca-Cola. Coke is sometimes credited for creating the Santa we know today, but the advertisements reflected what was already appearing on Christmas cards and in folklore. Coke removed Santa’s pipe, replaced it with a bottle of soda and used him to persuade people that Coke could be drunk in cold as well as warm weather with the slogan, “Thirst knows no season.”

Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer,

Had a very shiny nose.

And if you ever saw it,

You would even say it glows.

— Johnny Marks

St. Nicholas probably became associated with reindeer through the fascination outsiders have had for the land of the Sámi (once known as Lapplan) since the publication of Johannes Schefferus’ 1673 Lapponia. So says professor Troy Storfjell of Pacific Lutheran University, who studies the Sámi, the indigenous peoples of circumpolar Scandinavia.

Reindeer antlers were used in British winter solstice celebrations and dances dating back to at least 1226, but Santa’s association with reindeer first shows up in print in “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The association was solidified, says Storfjell, when an American businessman, Carl Lomen, took a herd of 76 reindeer with accompanying Sámi and Inuit herders on tour across the U.S. He was prompted by the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” editorial published in the New York Sun in 1897. Lomen wasn’t trying to promote Santa; he was actually trying to sell reindeer meat.

The fact that Santa’s reindeer fly may well also be tied into an explanation of why Santa usually wears a red suit, according an article by mycologist Jonathan Ott. Santa’s red hat with its white pom-pom looks a lot like Amanita muscaria, commonly called fly agaric. A. muscaria is the cool-looking mushroom with a bright red cap spotted with white you might remember from books of fairy tales or even the 1980s cartoon The Smurfs.

Victorian-era travelers in the 1800s came home with stories of exotic reindeer and of fly agaric consumption in Siberia and the far north that would have made their way into the folklore of the time. A. muscaria can be quite poisonous, and a related mushroom called death cap is lethal. However as reindeer (called caribou in the U.S.) know, fly agaric will also make you hallucinate. According to a 1989 book by Ronald Siegel called Intoxication, reindeer eat the mushrooms and become so inebriated they stagger around and sometimes wind up getting eaten by wolves.

Sámi shaman, called noaidi, were said to eat the dried mushrooms themselves or to feed the fresh mushrooms to the reindeer to remove the more toxic elements and then consume reindeer urine. Some claim this trance induced by consuming the urine of one who has eaten the hallucinogenic shrooms is the origin of the phrase “to get pissed.” The hallucinations brought on by A. muscaria include a feeling of flying. During the trance brought on by the mushrooms, writes Roger Highfield, the shaman’s soul would “leave the body as an animal and fly to the otherworld to communicate with the spirits.” So our modern American Santa may have his origins in indigenous hallucinogenic religious traditions.

The Sámi have many words for different kinds of reindeer, but it’s doubtful any of those words involve describing one with a red nose. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer raised Santa’s herd to nine when he appeared in 1939 thanks to a Montgomery Ward advertising campaign. Montgomery Ward executives were a bit concerned that the idea of a red nose would associate Rudolph with drunkards, writes, but Rudolph was soon a hit, and later a hit song.

So Santa as we know him — the jolly fat man in the red suit with flying reindeer — is a folk tradition stemming from Catholic saints, Scandinavian elves and tripping shamans, made more famous by various newspapers and advertising campaigns. Is his workshop going to slip into the sea with the rest of the ice at the North Pole? That remains to be seen, but Santa himself will live on and maybe even continue to change.

As Francis P. Church once wrote to Virginia: “Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus.”                

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”

— “A Visit from St. Nicholas”