I have heard quite a few people suggest that the image of Santa Claus, an important character in the Christain Christmas festival, is based on Odin, the All-Father and principal Viking god.
They make a good point. If you look at traditions surrounding Santa Claus, especially before Coca-Cola reimagined him for their brand in the 1920s, it is not hard to see similarities. Also, many Christmas-time rituals can be traced back to pagan practices.
But it is worth treating this “evidence” with healthy scepticism when suggesting that the image of Santa is based on Odin. Let’s not forget that similar and often stronger arguments can be made for the connections between the Greek Saint Nicholas of Myra and the Dutch Sinterklaas and Santa. Modern ideas of Father Christmas are clearly a complex amalgamation of traditions.
It is also worth bearing in mind that cultural influence is multidirectional, and “histories” say just as much about the time in which they were written as the time that they were written about. Most of our sources for Norse practices at Yule come from the Christian period when the lines between old traditions, new practices, and where they meet were already very blurred.
But, with all that said, let’s take a fun look at some of the striking similarities between Odin the All-Father and Yule Father, and Jolly Old St Nicholas, and Norse Yule practices and modern Christmas traditions.
Yule time was an important period in the Viking calendar. Over a 12-day festival known as Jul, family and friends would gather to reinforce the bonds that connected them. The period would include shared hospitality, plenty of feasting and drinking, and even the exchange of gifts between loved ones. Sound familiar?
It was also at this time of year, when there is very little sunlight in Scandinavia, that the walls that divide the worlds were considered to be at their weakest, and gods and men were most likely to interact.
What did the gods do at Yule? Odin led a group of gods, elves, and ancestral spirits on a great hunt against the ice giants to defeat the forces of chaos and darkness. This could be a perilous time for humans, as if you provoked the wrath of the passing gods, they might just strike you down. Similarly, you could earn the favor of Odin overhead.
As the leader of the hunt, the All-Father creator deity, and the most important deity in the Viking pantheon, Odin was known as the Yule father.
Odin the Wanderer
While these days we imagine Santa Claus in his fluffy red fur-lined suit given to him by Coca-Cola, he was originally described as a gaunt older man with a long white beard and wearing a fur coat and wide-brimmed hat.
This description is very similar to the disguise that Odin took on when he decided to wander the world in pursuit of knowledge. Santa was also initially described as riding a horse, and Odin used the same mode of transport.
Surely Odin did not go around giving gifts to good children and punishing bad children like Santa? Well, no, but he was known to be a gift giver and would often show up in disguise to give gifts to worthy people who would need them.
In the Volsunga Saga, Odin in his disguise as a wanderer gives Sigmund a magic sword that helps him successfully complete his quests. In the Saga of Hrolf Kraki, the king refuses gifts of hospitality, armor, and weapons from an old, bearded man missing an eye. This turns out to be Odin, and Hrolf later dies for lack of the weapons that he needs.
It is unclear when the idea that Santa Claus rode in a sled pulled by eight flying reindeer emerged, but this is the kind of transport that one might expect to see Odin using.
Odin was known to have an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir that was incredibly fast and could slide between the worlds of the Norse cosmos. While Odin is usually depicted as a warrior on his back, he probably also used the horse to pull his chariot, which may have looked more like a sleigh when tackling the Scandinavian ice.
We know that other gods used chariots or sleighs drawn by animals. Thor’s chariot was drawn by goats (which he could also eat and then bring back to life), Freya’s chariot was drawn by cats, and Freyr’s chariot by a boar. Sleipnir probably also pulled Odin’s chariot. Or the god may have used reindeer, which were known to be good pack animals in Scandinavia.
Gift Making Elves
While Odin is nowhere described as having a toy workshop, just like elves are the makers in Santa’s workshop, dark elves were known to be the makers in the Norse universe. Dark elves inspired the Dwarves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
They made many of the great gifts possessed by the gods including Odin’s spear Gungnir, Thor’s Hammer Mjolnir, and Freyja’s necklace Brisingamen. While some stories say that it was Loki who procured these treasures for the gods in penance for some bad behavior, others suggest that it was Odin who commissioned the dark elves to make his spear.
Naughty and Nice List
While Odin might not make a list of naughty and nice folk like Santa Claus, he certainly kept a close eye on what was happening in the universe.
He had two ravens, Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory) which he would send out into the world to gather news and report back to him. He also had a throne in Asgard from where he could sit and look out over the entire world.
Odin was also certainly involved in judging people. He chose only the bravest fallen warriors to take to live in Valhalla, his hall in Asgard, while leaving the rest to alternative afterlives.
Many of the things that we do at Christmas can be traced back to Scandinavian traditions.
It was common to make wreaths of evergreen boughs and hand them around the house. Some communities would also set these boughs on fire and roll them down hills in imitation of the sun.
Scandinavians have a long tradition of decorating pine trees at Yule, using food, gifts, and small carvings to embellish the tree.
Yule songs were also a tradition, though they probably sounded very different from modern Christmas carols. But there is some evidence that children would don masks and travel from house to house in the local community singing.
Viking descendants would also hand mistletoe in their doorways. The berries of the fruit were connected with romance and love since pagan times.
The Vikings burned Yule Logs inscribed with runes for good fortune. These were made from Oak, an extremely hard wood, which meant that they would remain hot for most of the night.
What Do You Think?
What do you think? Is there a strong link between Odin the All-Father and Santa Claus, the Christmas father? What do you think explains the similarities between the two?