December Histories: The Wild Hunt on Christmas Eve

Peter Nicolai Arbo’s Asgardreien (The Wild Hunt of Odin), 1872, wikipedia.

Dear Reader: this is one of my favorite holiday posts, so I couldn’t resist a repeat for 2022.

Pretend this is the Jeopardy category: Common Bonds. The Wild Hunt, mind control, and the 1871 Polaris disaster. What do they all have in common? Got it? Add in fan fiction, Zwarte Piet, shoemakers, Martin Luther, reliquary theft…. Yes? Norse mythology? Saving girls from prostitution? Louisa May Alcott, Thomas Nast? How about Shadrack, the Black Reindeer?

It will soon be Christmas Eve, after all.

The mythology–the extensive fan fiction, which is what mythology is, isn’t it?–around the legends of Santa Claus and Christmas have roots that go waa-a-a-y beyond the Coca Cola commercial. Although I dug deep into a comparison of Santa and Jesus back in 2021, there are Santa rabbit holes to be discovered. Even if we just talk about Santa and his helpers, there’s plenty that even that Greek scholar and seminarian Clement Moore didn’t envision.

Santa Be Real

It’s always interesting when people who celebrate Christmas start debating the proper age to tell children that Santa isn’t real. Because Santa is real, y’all. Are you doubtful? He’s tracked by NORAD. He appears in millions of images and stories, worldwide now. There are scientific explanations about his light-speed Christmas Eve performance. If Santa is capable of light speed engines, then he may also have solved invisibility (stealth technology), which is why you haven’t seen him.

Plus, clearly, Santa has long mastered mind control. Even if he personally isn’t coming down all those chimneys, he has employed millions of toymakers worldwide, with mass distribution and production, to put those wrapped toys under millions of trees at the precise moment. All those production agents follow his bidding, then tell the same story, despite interrogation. I say, prove to me that Santa isn’t real. Somebody got me that rockin’ bike when I was eight, and it wasn’t under the Christmas tree after dinner on December 24, 1969, or in the garage or basement beforehand, either. Mind Control might be just as powerful as moving at warp speed. Did I mention being tracked by the U.S. Military?

Santa via NORAD:

St. Nicholas, of course, was a real person. Fourth century, bishop of an Eastern Roman town now in Turkey, doled out gifts. In particular, he was credited for giving money to the father of three daughters who was too poor to give them dowries; the gift prevented them from becoming prostitutes, which was apparently their only other option in Myra in 427. December 6th , St. Nicholas’s day, became a holiday. The Catholic church used saints day nearly every week because that’s how people had a calendar when they couldn’t read. (Hey, are you coming over for dinner on St. Cyril’s Day or St. Joseph’s Day? Oh, I was planning on St. Mark’s Day, after we plant the beans.)

Unfortunately for Nick, the religious people in Myra didn’t all agree with each other. In 1054, the Greek or Eastern Orthodox church was declared no-goodniks by the Western Orthodox i.e. the “official” Catholic church, according to the Western Catholics. Also, there were Persians and Turks hanging around in Turkey, and they wondered what the Western Catholics were doing so far from the West, so there was religious strife. For safekeeping, some Italian merchants stole took the best parts of Nick’s skeleton out of his Myra sarcophagus and housed them in a brand new basilica in Bari. Later, Venetians took them from Bari over to Venice. Over time, then, the Real Santa Claus ended up in many places at once. See? Travel across the multiverse was possible even in 1054, so it ought to be a piece of cake to move across a few billion houses. Plus the mind control thing.

Drawing by Ryan Starkey

The Winter King

The phrase “winter is coming” is only a few decades old, but even those who don’t follow Game of Thrones are familiar with the feeling it invokes. One of the original Winter Kings, the Norse one, presided from Valhalla with cold dispassionate judgment. One of the original names for Odin was Jólnir which is the derivation of the word Yule. As Ryan Starkey summarizes it:

During Yule, [Woden] would fly through the skies on the back of his giant 8 legged horse Sleipnir leading the other gods in the Wild Hunt across the sky. Families would gather together for a Yule feast, and decorate their homes with evergreen plants like holy, mistletoe, and pine-tree branches….Wōden/Odin often took the disguise of a wise, bearded old man, dressed in a cloak, with a pointed hat.

from “The Evolution of Father Christmas”

Here are two important contributions to Santa’s legend. First, the winter king is a long-held legend, even predating Norse mythology. Some northern European legends associate him with the stag god, Cernunnos, known to Celts and Romans. The thing about the horned dude is that he wasn’t a jolly fellow. No presents. You did not mess with the horned god. He definitely knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good, otherwise The Wicker Man.

Secondly, the Wild Hunt is also widely depicted in many stories. The Wild Hunt riders and their mounts are ghosts or supernatural beings. They might hunt humans; they definitely hunt indiscriminately, which is why seeing them is an omen of war or hard times. Michelle West’s multi-volume fantasy epic about Essalieyen includes extensive use of a sorcerer bringing in the Wild Hunt, knowing that it can’t be controlled and that she must agree to return with them to the underworld. Guy Gavriel Kay’s fantasy Fionvar Tapestry uses the Wild Hunt in a battle against the armies of the Dark, and it works, at least until the Wild Hunt kills all the Dark and then starts on the Light. Can’t control the Wild Hunt.

Which is why it’s so interesting, if Santa was originally the Winter King and presided over the Wild Hunt as Woden did… that Santa ends up flying reindeer across the sky around the world… hunting for addresses.

Tudor Father Christmas, wikipedia.

The Expedition Races

So, the Norse Woden was one precursor to Santa Claus, and St. Nicholas turned into Sinterklaas, which allowed Dutch immigrants bring his gift-giving tradition to America. The English Tudors solidified the late December merrymaking and feasting by creating Father Christmas, and he also came over to America. Santa stories end up in the American melting pot, and like apple pie and burritos, the Americans dial it up to 11.

Clement Moore has his sugarplum-acid flashback about the guy with the presents, pipe, reindeer and all that. Coca Cola puts him in a red suit, Ed Asner and Tim Allen start playing him in the movies, and we all end up with a shared (*mind control*) vision of what Senor Claus looks like. But what about those reindeer and the North Pole?

Thomas Nast drawing of Santa with Union Troops, 1863, in Harper’s Weekly. Wikipedia.

Thomas Nast, credited with inventing political cartoons, drew many pictures of Santa. He had an entire series published in the middle of the Civil War, showing Santa supporting the Union troops, distributing cheer like Marilyn Monroe. Nast continued with Santa-themed drawings throughout his decades-long career, from the 1860s to the 1890s. That time-frame also coincided with explorations of increasingly remote areas, namely the poles.

Although Robert Peary wasn’t credited with reaching the North Pole until 1909, there were well-publicized attempts made starting in the 1820s. A British Navy man went as far as 82 degrees north latitude in 1827, prompting repeated expeditions mounted by the American navy in starting in 1850. The last one, the 1871 Polaris expedition, beat the British record north, but ended in disaster when the Captain, Charles Francis Hill, mysteriously died, possibly due to a love triangle. Point being, expeditions to the North Pole were all the rage right when Nast was coloring in Kris Kringle, so Nast gets the credit for putting the initials N.P. as Santa’s address.

Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, illustrator unknown, 1821. Wikipedia.

Reindeer: the Popular and the Politically Incorrect

OK, North Pole. Reindeer live nearby, and plenty of Arctic peoples hitch them to sleighs, ipso facto, it’s not so hard to see why Santa was helped out by reindeer. The first image of Santa’s sleigh from 1821 beats Clement Moore’s poem by two years.

Moore is credited with naming eight reindeer. L. Frank Baum also wrote a story about ten reindeer, about 80 years later, but it didn’t catch on. Otherwise, we’d be celebrating Flossie and Glossie instead of arguing over whether it’s Donner or Donder. Later, the Rudolph in the Johnny Mercer song was picked up by Rankin-Bass… Rudolph, now including Abombinable Snowman! the fan fiction widens further.

A fascinating, albeit slightly offensive, reindeer was Shadrack, the Black Reindeer. This song by Zero Jones was recorded by Loretta Lynn in 1974, on the flip side of Let’s Put Christ Back in Christmas. Shadrack, the black reindeer, is incredibly fast. Santa won’t give him a try-out, so he steals the key to the sleigh. Aging Rudolph is ordered to get the key back, but fails and is fired by Santa. Shadrack then takes pity on the forced unemployment of his colleague and returns the key. I don’t know, something about a story of the only black reindeer, who just happens to be super fast, committing theft and protesting on behalf of the poor… somehow that just didn’t catch on with audiences. Thank heavens. (Will I get in trouble if I type Black Reindeers Matter?) I don’t even want to get into discussing the Dutch helper to Santa, Zwarte Piet.

Alfar and the Baby Jesus

So many rabbit holes! If this post were the Twelve Days of Christmas, imagine this to be the part of the last chorus four calling birds…. We’ve covered reindeer, North Pole, Santa flying across the sky, what’s left? Ah, the elves.

There’s a debate about whether Louisa May Alcott ought to be credited with writing the first story about toy-making elves. She did apparently write it, in 1850, but it may not have been widely published. And, Clement Moore, who was a Greek scholar and seminarian, did mention that Santa was a “jolly old elf” so educated white man = credit.

But maybe the credit really should go back much further to Martin Luther. Germany had a tradition of the Christkind, a version of the Baby Jesus, which Luther helped spread. The Christ Child was originally the one distributing gifts on St. Nicholas’ day, December 6th. Although meant to be Baby Jesus, the Christkind was small and angelic, with ageless features.

Germany’s Christkind, wikipedia.

Maybe you don’t think about Baby Jesus making toys, but Martin Luther was trying to make the connection. German children aren’t supposed to peek when the Christkind is bringing the toys in, no looking until someone rings a bell. If no one has an actual bell, someone “pretends” to have heard it. Or, maybe the bell is only heard by those who believe in the Christkind or Jólnir can hear. Mind control, remember?

Meanwhile, ageless angelic figures–i.e. elves–have their own long legacy. Alfar to the Norse and fairies to the Celts, they have their own stories named for them. The Grimm story about their interaction with shoemaker is well known. The shoemaker, if you recall, is helped by elves out of poverty. He and his wife want to know who is crafting the wonderful shoes that have made him rich, and, when they discover the elves at work, they fashion little sets of clothing on Christmas Eve to distribute to the little helpers. It’s a Christmas Story!

Some argue that stories set on Christmas–like Die Hard, The Long Kiss Goodnight, or even the new Spiderman–are not truly Christmas stories. But why not? The mythology, as I’ve explained, is pretty all-embracing.

In fact, season two of The Witcher remains a Christmas present for all. And, lo and behold, I the Wild Hunt played a very prominent role in Season Two.

Clearly, a Christmas Story. Pass the mead, Father Christmas!

The Witcher, novels, video games, and two Seasons on Netflix.

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