Was Santa Claus inspired by Odin?
At first glance, the question seems ridiculous. What could a jolly, fat man who slips down chimneys to bring children presents possibly have to do with the one-eyed, wolf-flanked, raven-infested, bloody-handed Viking god of war? Upon closer examination, however, the similarities between the two become unmistakable. Very few historians deny that many of our modern day Christmas traditions were directly inspired by the ancient Norse festival known as Yule or Yuletide. So it only makes sense to take a second look at the comparisons between Santa and Odin.
First, let us state that we are not questioning the historic reports of St Nicholas and his giving of gold to poor people during the 3rd century. We are simply pointing out that there also existed even older Norse stories of Odin flying through the sky with a chariot pulled by his 8-legged flying horse, leaving gifts for children (more on this below).
Consider what Santa Claus would have meant to our earlier ancestors. Santa symbolized facing hardship (for winter is a time of great hardship in agrarian societies) with protection, abundance, generosity, and joy. These same qualities were also inherent in the writings of Odin, who was not merely the god of war, but also of poetry and wisdom, and the embodiment of gift giving and heroic stoicism.1
When we look past our modern, advertisement-adjusted image of Santa Claus to more traditional images, our comparison rapidly takes shape. Odin was known for taking on many forms, and had many names. But one of the more popular forms he used most was that of an old, white-bearded traveler clad in a cloak and broad-brimmed hat or hood. Odin used this attire as a disguise while he traversed the nine worlds seeking knowledge.1 As seen in this 1886 black & white depiction on the right of Odin by Georg von Rosen (which yes, looks a lot like Gandalf, another character believed to be inspired by Odin). This imagery of Odin was the one that any Viking would recognize.
As for the original description of Santa. Before the Victorian sentiments of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” in 1823 (the Victorians loved to corrupt ancient folklore), and before the reinvention of Santa in the 1930's by Coca-Cola, Santa was originally depicted as a tall, gaunt man with a fur-trimmed cloak and broad-brimmed hat or hood (as seen in this blue cloak found on this very old Christmas card).2
Santa leaves gifts in your stockings. The strongest and most obvious connections is that Odin was also known to magically visit homes at night during the Yule season to leave gifts for children. In anticipation of Odin’s return from the Great Hunt every Yule, Norse children would leave their boots stuffed with straw by the hearth (fireplace). When they awoke in the morning they would find that Odin had left sweets and presents in place of the straw.3 While gift-giving at Christmas is usually attributed to the well-documented giving of gifts during Roman Saturnalia (December 17th), and the chimney-stocking tradition has also been traced to Saint Nicholas, the similarity between this Norse tradition and our hanging of (boot shaped) "stockings" by the fireplace are undeniable.
Santa rides a sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer. Odin rides a chariot / sleigh that was pulled by his 8-legged flying horse, Sleipnir. Santa's reindeer is yet another reinvention of Santa by the writing of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’. Original accounts of Santa speak of a single flying horse that pulled his sleigh. Reindeer were also well known as beasts of burden in Finland and other cold lands bordering the Northern Scandinavian realms of Viking homeland.4 On a side note, Thor also had a chariot which was pulled by two flying goats.1 Thor was the male deity most worshiped at Yule, and interesting enough there is also evidence that ancient Yule festivals included a man dressed as a goat would dispense gifts from a large bag.5,6
Santa has elves making all of his gifts.The dwarves of Norse mythology were known to be the creators of wondrous things (including Thor's magical hammer called Mjolnir). In many instances, the elves are referred to as "Odin's men" (ex. Thorsdrapa, Lay of Thor)
Santa knows if you've been bad or good. Odin was considered the far-seeing god of Norse mythology. His two ravens Huginn and Muninn were his spies and known as his eyes and ears. Vikings believed that Odin was always watching them.1
Santa has a magic bag that could carry unlimited toys. Odin was known for leaving gifts in every home for the children, so it makes sense that he too had the ability to carry unlimited gifts.
Santa lives in the North Pole. While Odin technically lives in Asgard, much of Scandinavia is above the Arctic Circle and the people of Scandinavia naturally equated those Northern mountainous, inhospitable regions of the midnight sun and the northern lights to be the 'lands of the gods.' As well, Vikings were known as "The Northmen" to the rest of the world at that time.
- Santa was originally called Father Christmas. Odin is called the Allfather.1 The image of Father Christmas (in particular) and that of the Allfather are strikingly similar.
Folklorist Margaret Baker stated the following, "the appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is the 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. … Odin, [over time] transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christchild, and became a leading player on the Christmas stage." 6
Santa Claus is a complex cultural-conglomerated character. He has many evolving points of origin, ranging from Saint Nicholas of the third century Eastern Roman Empire to the Coca Cola ads of the 1930s. However, many of his most famous and enduring characteristics are originally from older stories of Norse lore and Yule traditions.
Yule compared to Christmas
The Vikings celebrated the Norse holiday called Yule or Jul. Like many other holidays celebrated across time in conjunction with the winter solstice, it was a holiday about the “rebirth” of the dying sun (which had been declining, but would now begin to lengthen the days again). In that way, it was associated with the belief of cyclical creation and destruction (see our article on Ragnarok). It was a holiday devoted to Thor, though Odin was important, too. It was a holiday of feasting to prepare for the cold, dark winter, and it was a celebration of New Year.5 Following is a brief list of traditions or cultural elements that transferred from Yule to Christmas in Europe and America:
Carols and Caroling: Though they were almost certainly of a very different character than our Christmas carols, the Norse sang Yule carols. Nordic children would wear masks and go door-to-door among their neighbors singing carols.5
Nights of magic, magical creatures, and holiday miracles: Vikings believed that the time around Yule was magical, especially at night. As in Celtic Samhain, the barrier between our world and the supernatural world was at its thinnest. Spirits could travel the forests and fields. Elves, dwarves, and other beings were active and could become involved in the affairs of humans. These various spirits and beings could sometimes bring blessings or justice to humans who needed it, and who showed them their due respect.5 Our Christmas imagery of nocturnal magic such as in The Nutcracker, or the spiritual journeys of Ebenezer Scrooge are stories from much later times, but their feeling and themes would have been perfectly familiar to the Vikings.
Gifts of fruit cakes and sweets: These items were offered to the fates (Norns) and mother (fertility and nurturing) forces that probably originated with older Indo-European cults, but suffused the Aesir Goddesses of the Viking Age (such as Freya and Frigg).5
Veneration of goddesses: To many Christians (especially Catholics), Mary is always important, but receives special attention around Christmas. The Vikings were the same regarding their emphasis of the female deities and the forces of motherhood around Yule.5
Wreaths: One Yule tradition involved making large wheels of pine boughs, lighting them on fire, and rolling them down a hill in honor of the sun. The round shape of wreaths also depicted the cyclical nature of the seasons and of the Norse conception of the cosmos/time.7
Yule Logs: At the Yule feast, Vikings would burn large logs of oak inscribed with runes for good fortune in the coming year.7 Oak is the hardest of woods, and so these logs would burn long and hot throughout the night to gladden the feast and to chase the darkness away.
Drinking: Christmas and New Year are the main times of year that conspicuous drinking of alcohol becomes more socially acceptable. The Vikings celebrated Yule with nights-on-end of drinking mead from long horns (and sometimes the skulls of their enemies).
Mistletoe: Loki, the god of mischief and misfortune murdered Baldur, one of the most beloved of the gods, with a spear made from mistletoe. The Mistletoe berries later became a symbol of love in the epilogue of the same story, hence the tradition of kissing under it; Baldur’s death was also supposed to lead to rebirth after Ragnarok, in keeping with the theme of Yule.8
Christmas trees: Vikings decorated trees with food, gifts, and small carvings (particularly in honor of their gods).5 The tradition of lighting candles on trees was not documented until the early 19th century, and so we can hope that the ever-practical Vikings had better sense than that.7
Holidays are times when the traditions of our many ancestors come down to us in blended forms. This blending of forms and traditions is called syncretism. Syncretism is a natural human phenomenon that occurs when people living amongst each other (as the Vikings ultimately did) accentuate the similarities in religions, cultures, or ideologies (instead of focusing on differences) until they merge together.
Of course, the most important thing is not so much where something came from, but what holidays mean to each of us. This sacred season is to strengthen the bonds with those we love and to nurture hope in the darkness.
- McCoy, D. The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion. 2016 https://norse-mythology.org/viking-spirit-introduction-norse-mythology-religion/
- Image Gallery of Vintage Santa Claus https://www.pinterest.com/laurarcaballero/vintage-santa-postcards-images/
- Wigington, P. The Origins of Santa Clause. ThoughtCo. December 11, 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-origins-of-santa-claus-2562993
- Reindeer husbandry. http://www.barentsinfo.org/Contents/Economy-and-Business/Reindeer-husbandry
- Kvilhaug, M. The Old Norse Yule Celebration. Lady of the Labyrinth. December, 2012. http://freya.theladyofthelabyrinth.com/?page_id=397
- Vinje, J. G. Don’t Take Odin Out of Yule. The Norwegian American. December 19, 2014. http://www.norwegianamerican.com/featured/dont-take-odin-out-of-yule/
- How We Inherited Christmas from the Viking Yule. http://skandland.com/vikxmas.htm
- McCoy, D. The Death of Baldur. Norse Mythology for Smart People. https://norse-mythology.org/tales/the-death-of-baldur/
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