“Who is Father Christmas?”
“Is he real?”
And this is where I realised that I didn’t know an awful lot about Father Christmas / Saint Nicholas / Santa Claus — cue some Googling. Turns out, the story takes us north and south.
First up, he’s old. Nikolaos of Myra (Lycia, Turkey) lived from 15 March 270 to 6 December 343 (Wiki). He was known as a kind man, to the extent where his actions elevated him to sainthood.
Tales of him waver between myth and history, but the one that bears most relevance to our Christmas is possibly that of the poor man whose three daughters, without a dowry, would be denied a marriage and be consigned to a life of servitude or prostitution. Anonymously, perhaps out of humility or compassion for the poor father’s pride, Nikolaos donated a bag of gold for the first daughter as she came of age. He did the same for the second. When the third child came of age, the father waited up to see who was giving the gold, so Nikolaos threw the gold down the chimney, where it became caught in the daughter’s stocking as it hung by the fire. St Nicholas’ day is 6th December and in some European countries, that’s when children receive their presents. His name — Saint Nikolaos — evolved, as it spread north, to St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and by derivation, Santa Claus. We also know him as Father Christmas.
The origin of the flying reindeer might be explained by the Wild Hunt, in which the huntsman (depicted as variants of Odin, Frau Hulde, Herne, Gwynn ap Nudd, Harlequin, et al) and a pack of hunters and hounds pursue souls through the dark nights around the solstice. Woe betide anyone who sees them; prophesies vary between death, famine and disease but generally it’s agreed that any witness will be taken with the hunt, to reside in the land of the dead.
Alternatively, the ‘flying’ could be linked to the Saami shamans who used to collect hallucinogenic mushrooms (Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric) at Yuletide. Found at the base of birch and spruce (hence the Christmas tree), these poisonous mushrooms could be eaten if prepared properly. (Advice on how to prepare them safely varies sufficiently to dissuade me from trying.) The reindeer would eat these too. Some sources say that reindeer were considered spirit creatures of the shamans — while others suggest that the reindeer ate the fungi and hallucinated. Either way, after ingestion, the reindeer flew. Once the hallucinogenic chemicals were excreted, the effects wore off, and there are tales of users drinking their own, or the reindeer’s, urine to prolong the chemical effects.
I’m drawn to anything involving nature; the magic of a red-and-white-clad shaman climbing through the roof of a yurt, bearing a sackful of mushrooms, sounds intoxicating on many levels. But as I try to explain Father Christmas to my child, I might focus on the kindness of Nikolaos rather than the eating of deadly fungi or the drinking of reindeer pee.
Nikolaos has been dead now for the better part of two millennia, but his actions live on for one night a year; a celebration of goodwill and kindness towards our families and others. As a spirit, he feels no less real as he takes hold each Christmas, ushering us to fill food banks, offer soup in homeless shelters, hold hands in hospitals, and give gifts.
I took my children to see Santa yesterday, and found a stone set in a quiet garden.
“The spirit of ubuntu —
that profound African
sense that we are human
beings only through the
humanity of other human
beings — is not a parochial
phenomenon, but has added
globally to our common search
for a better world”
— Nelson Mandela
We’re all linked to one another. If a few acts of kindness in 300AD can be remembered seventeen hundred years later, then today’s child could become the Father Christmas of the future.
That’s real enough for me.