Monday, 8 December 2014

Will the real Father Christmas please stand up?

A Winter’s Tale:

In the family home at Christmas I used to muse over the plastic fairy on top of the artificial conifer  tree: who is that supposed to be - & she holds a star (wand), what's this star? Many years on and I realise that it represents the day star, dying and being reborn at the winter solstice - so what exactly is this tree – introduced by Victorian nobility in the 19th century? I think it's the solar tree, it wears the sun in its crown. The star is equally the Pole Star around which the great, antlered female elk circles, today known as the constellation Ursa Major - at the midwinter rite it symbolised the frail midwinter sun, a tiny star (prehistorically Thubron) at the apex of the soaring solar tree or world axis if you prefer. I have patiently restored this narrative from stories and tales, including the Kalevala where the elk has been predictably demonised by subsequent cultures and systems of belief.

Googling Father Christmas invariably gets you a jolly old Norse Odin (Old English Woden) showering his admirers with gifts. That looks a bit suspect to me. I can't find an Odin gift tradition; perhaps there is one, the ‘ring giver’? But gift-giving is a fairly universal and ancient activity with an important social function; & is Odin jolly like Santa? Not really, this hooded figure is called 'Grimr' meaning masked and in the context of the violent, furious god it can only be the grim, set mask of death - this being a god of the dead.  The name Woden corresponds to Old English ‘wod’ meaning mad: possibly recalling the pejorative ‘wooden head’ in English. Secondly, what we have for Odin doesn't appear to be that old in terms of prehistory, he is frequently associated with riding (Wild Hunt) & riding is a comparatively recent activity (Eurasia) c.4 to 3500bce and later still in Western Europe. Odin is called 'Jolnir' after the festival of Jol or Yule but gods tend to attract attributes to them, just like saints absorbed qualities of older pagan divinities, so I don't read too much into the name: Odin had many names, such as 'Yggr' meaning the terrible, not particularly jolly that one. What does Odin bring as a gift? He is credited with bringing poetry to humans but he is also reputed to have stolen this poetry in the first instance, so it's a bit of a wayward gift it seems to me

I leave Odin here & am unconvinced  that Odin is Father Christmas; also worth noting that historically the pagan English called Yule 'Mothers' Night' according to the venerable Bede, there's no apparent reference to Odin or Woden in that naming. What we do have however is Wednesday, the day of Woden. But I don't think anyone for sure knows why Yule in England (then eastern Britain) was referred to as Mothers' Night by Bede. There have been attempts by some to weave these mothers into Teutonic tradition but it's unconvincing & if it were so, why don't we see a winter's Mothers' Night in Teutonic and Scandinavian mythology? Mythological mothers – female groups - are certainly attested to in Romano-Celtic cultures though. According to the Odin ‘Jolnir’ model, Yule should be recorded as being presided over by this deity in England, and it isn't. Not that Bede is particularly reliable, but it's what he leaves out that is questionable, not so much the information he supplies, which appears to me muddled & perhaps not even thoroughly understood by England's first historian. Bede was a cloistered soul, he had no practical understanding of what pagans did or believed in. When in doubt he invoked classical sources - which is what everybody did - and still do to a degree. This was also pleasing to Rome, Bede was painting a picture agreeable to Rome, a picture of a people ripe for conversion. So he wasn't perhaps that bothered about the detail of his description only the overall impression it would create.

Bede notwithstanding – the name means prayer - in our hunt for the real Father Christmas, we shall proceed on to the next venerable & festive gentleman: Saint Nicholas. The saint gives us Santa Claus, 'santa'=saint, 'claus'=Nicolaus. And what is so Christmasy about St Nick? His 'feast day' falls on the 6th of December which is tolerably close - but not that near - to the winter solstice, that's about it. The folklore (hagiography) surrounding the saint is for me awkward in its attempts to absorb the prehistoric & astronomical midwinter event, when the sun 'stands still' on the horizon for three days. He resurrects three murdered children; he gives dowries to three young women, thrice, but most tellingly the triple dowries turn into 'three gold balls' in some versions & there can't be much more of a graphic reference to the three standstill solstice sun days than this. St Nicholas & the Church purloined the solstice event as far as I am concerned. But there's more -

The Austrian/Italian St Nicholas tradition has split the saint into two distinct personages, a medieval demonic  goat & a saintly gift bringer, so what's going on? You'll notice that the Krampus figures are not necessarily goats, they're composites: furry hides & horned or even antlered. That's the key to the puzzle I think.

Nicholas aka Santa aka Father Christmas brings gifts - three golden orbs in one instance - but there is a much older & more important winter solstice gift-bringer whom Santa has displaced. Combing through the myths of Eurasian peoples who have retained remnants of their hunter-gatherer culture it is possible to tentatively reconstruct the picture. At the winter solstice a giant, antlered female elk gathers up the sun with her horns & dashes with it into the deep forest of the night, taking with her the light of humanity, potentially never to return. The world is plunged into the longest, darkest night. There appears a 'culture hero', in this instance a bear. However, the female elk (obviously inspired by antlered doe reindeer) is the sun herself. The bear-god either captures or marries the doe, and that is probably the significance of the furry Krampus's wearing horns, they represent a sacred marriage, a 'hieros gamos' - elk and bear as one. Who the bear-god actually was is lost in the remote past - I think he is the northern constellation Bootes pursuing the Great Elk [just like in the Kalevala] we know as the Plough. But what was his original name? In Siberia he is known as Mangi.

Otherwise, an obvious candidate is going to be Arthur whose name, some say, not only means the bear, but additionally his personage also answers to a 'culture hero', just like the lost bear-god, but surviving down to the modern period. Moreover, the Arthurian hunt for the Grail is I believe the hunt for the sun goddess herself - a retelling of the same age-old story. In Arthurian lore there is the Grail Maiden, Elaine, and 'elain' means deer in Middle Welsh.

It follows that the gift-bringer at Christmas brings us that most precious jewel, the light, the sun reborn into a new solar year. 

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