By Birgitta Lauren
Today’s Christmas traditions are a medley of various international rituals without any real cohesive thread but with strong Nordic influences.
Santa Claus is primarily based upon the mythological St. Nicholas, an unproven 4th-century Christian bishop from Lycia (now in Turkey), but he is also strongly influenced by early Norse religion. St. Nicholas was known for giving gifts to the poor. Among early Germanic tribes, one of the major deities was Odin, the ruler of Asgard. A number of similarities exist between some of Odin's escapades and those of the character who became Santa Claus.
Odin was depicted leading a hunting party through the skies, riding his eight-legged horse Sleipnir. The 13th-century Poetic Edda described how Sleipnir leaped great distances, which some scholars have compared to the legends of Santa's reindeer. Odin was portrayed as an old man with a long, white beard — just like St. Nicholas himself.
The tradition to give presents has its roots in Roman New Year’s gift-giving. When Europe became Christian, it changed the ritual to coincide with the birth of Jesus and the Holy Night. But these dates are also controversial. Gifts were given by the Three Wise Men, but the Christmas evangelists soon had competition from St. Nikolaus, an Asian saint, as well as from the Italian La Befana, the Austrian satanic goat Krampus, the Dutch Sinterklaas, and the German fluffy Belznickel.
But gift-giving wasn’t always tied to a specific character.
During the mid-1800s in Sweden, the streets were full of dressed-up masked characters for Christmas. Servants dressed as kings, queens, sailors, soldiers and harlequins marched in small groups laughing and singing and bearing large baskets with Christmas presents for their friends.
Among the gift-giving characters in Sweden in the late 1800s was the Christmas goat - Julbocken. Merry songs were written in 1901, 1913 and in 1947. In Elsa Beskow’s book “Petter och Lottas Jul” the goat was mentioned as the gift-giver who asked “if there were any good children around”.
The oldest descriptions of Julbocken appear from 1870 in affluent homes. The goat would be greeted with questions of its heritage and age. Julbocken would reply that he was from far, far away and 700 years old.
Like most traditions, Julbocken’s has dark origins. Legend has it that he was a relic from Christmas pageants as early as in Catholic times. In the beginning he was portrayed as Satan. Lucifer is a large horned human/goat creature just like Julbocken, and Jultomten’s coat is the color of Satan. But over time, the pageants were closed down. The Stockholm government banned them in 1721 to prevent popular unrest.
However, in etymology, the English term Christ-mas consists of two words: Christ – the son of God, and Mas – carnival celebration and Hate, so Christmas = Christ Hate. Even Santa spells Satan after rearranging the letters. Claus sounds like claws, and with letters rearranged Claus also spells Lucas, another version of Lucifer. “Old Nick” is an old English term for the devil. Satan in Hebrew means the Opposer (doing the opposite, telling people to do opposite, deceiving people by saying one thing but doing another). Old historical accounts speculate that the goat and Saint Nick/Santa Claus used presents to trick children to commit mischief.
The Goat might also have had its origin as St. Nikolaus’ partner – a devilish-looking character whose job it was to punish naughty children. Saint Nick himself rewarded the good children. All around Europe the partner became so popular that he alone got to hand out the presents. But when Beskow wrote about him he was old and grey. Later he totally disappeared from rituals so as to make way for Jultomten.
The very special duty to hand out Christmas presents became a new phenomenon in the Swedish Christmas tradition. The common attribution of Tomten’s forebears has fallen to Victor Rydberg as author and Jenny Nyström as graphic artist. Rydberg’s TomteGoblin may have originated in the American Santa Claus who over time changed his attire from fur coats to a dark red coat with fur trim – a jolly ol’ elf with a sleigh drawn by horses or reindeer. Later, Julbocken pretty much got scrapped. But was he really? Even today, most Swedes decorate their homes with a Julbock, and every year in central Gävle a very large Julbock is erected which gets burned down at regular intervals, most likely because of its devilish origin, or else due to plain vandalism.
Over time, the Santa Claus mythology has built up an invisible old man handing out presents on Christmas Eve – a phenomenon who eventually gets a whole Christmas gift factory going at the North Pole with small elves as workers, along with a wife and a reindeer named Rudolf. But while Rydberg’s Tomte fails, the fat jolly white-bearded Santa Claus becomes unbelievably popular in the US.
The Jultomten who got a foothold in Sweden in the late 1800s was different. He arrived on foot in the evening of December 24th, banged on the door, and was invited in to hand out presents before he disappeared in the dark. Who made the presents and where he spent the rest of the year remained a mystery.
Today the Swedish Jultomte seems to be a mix of St. Nikolaus and the Tomte who guards farm animals. So Rydberg may have had some influence after all. To sum up, Jultomten has his origins in the Christmas Goat, from the coat, mask, sack, door banging, the slightly threatening look, to the mandatory “Are there any good children here?” And of course Christmas has become one mega commercialized tradition where everybody except baby Jesus gets presents.
Håkan Strömberg – Historian, Gothenburg’s Museum.
Rauf Kazeem Isaac, Mathematician, Scientist, Teacher, ICT Expert and Tutor
St. Nicholas Center