Ho ho ho

Of all the myths about magic mushrooms, the one I most wanted to be true was that Father Christmas is secretly and originally a fly-agaric munching shaman from Siberia. Alas, there's very little evidence that he was, and rather a lot to suggest he wasn't, and it turns out this myth was invented by the poet, Robert Graves, in one of his poetic flights of fancy, back in the early 70s.

But while researching Shroom, I discovered something interesting: Santa Claus and Father Christmas are not the same figure at all (see Ronald Hutton's The Stations of the Sun). Saint Nicholas, and the tradition of leaving presents for children on Saint Nicholas' eve, arrived in America with the Dutch, at their colony on Manhatten island. By the time New Amsterdam had become New York, Saint Nicholas had been quite forgotten, that is until he was revived by Washington Irving who transplanted the saint's traditions to Christmas Eve.

Irving inspired others. Most of the imagery associated with Santa (flying reindeer, chimneys and all) comes from one subsequent source, Clement Clark Moore's saccharine poem T'was the night before Christmas: the rest was cooked up by artist Thomas Nast and the advertising executives at a popular fizzy drink manufacturer (who need not be named). In other words, the modern Santa Claus is an American confection.

I've just written about my feelings towards the festive season for Spiral Earth so I shan't repeat them here, but it seems to me that everything that is wrong with Christmas is encapsulated by Santa: the consumption, the excess, the mad rush at a time when we should be still, the shmaltz and pester-power, the pretence that this is all somehow magic.

No wonder people like me need Santa to be something else, something genuinely rooted in the myths and traditions of what is an ancient midwinter festival, one that exists not to sell us stuff, but to heave body and soul through the dark days ahead. If Graves had dug just a little deeper in his quest to find re-enchantment he would have realised that he didn't need to invent a spurious shamanic tradition for Santa: he could just have drawn attention to the English figure that Santa superceded and who is more than fit for purpose - Father Christmas.

According to Hutton, people began to personify Christmas here in the seventeenth century (that's tradition aplenty). There was always something slightly unruly about Sir, Lord or Father Christmas, concerned as he was with feasting, merry-making and adult concerns. As such he appears in various seventeenth century masques and still, today, in Mummers Plays. This photo doesn't depict Father Christmas, but you get the idea...

In my imagination Father Christmas becomes a swarthy figure, crowned with holly, mistletoe and yew, carrying a double-headed axe (with which to sort out Gawain) and a flagon of magic winter solstice brew. No presents. No mad rushing about trying to meet the insatiable demands of children. No ersatz gestures. Just an ancient figure with a story or two, hoying us through the night with a fart, a joke and a twinkle in his eye. High time, then, that we rid ourselves of Santa, the gaudy imposter, and bring back the true spirit of Christmas.

And on that note, have yourselves a happy Yule. Whatever you do, may it work it's ancient magic upon you. Thank you for reading, and I'll be back in the new year for more. See you then.


  1. And I, Sir, hoy you with a fart. Have a merry one!

  2. The Church of St. Nicholas in ancient Myra (modern Kale or Demre) is a ruined Byzantine church containing the tomb of St. Nicholas of Myra (the inspiration for Santa Claus), as well as many fine mosaics and murals.

    St. Nicholas was born in Patara around 300, became bishop of Myra, and died around 350. Only these basic details are known to history, but legends abound concerning the life of the saint. A much-embellished hagiography (life of the saint) was written by Simon Metaphrastes in the 10th century.

    St. Nicholas is said to have been born of wealthy parents and to have traveled to the Holy Land in his youth. He was tortured and imprisoned during the persecutions of Diocletian, and released when Constantine ordered official toleration of Christians. Nicholas is said to have attended the famous Council of Nicea in 325 (although his name does not appear in the official lists), where he became so infuriated by the heretic Arius that he slapped him hard in the face!

    Many of the legends of St. Nicholas involve him helping young people and the poor. In one tale, a butcher lured three boys to his house during a time of famine. While they slept, he killed them, cut them up and placed the pieces in a barrel of salt, intending to sell them for food. Nicholas, who was told of this horrendous act by an angel, hurried to the butcher's house and restored the boys to life.

    Another popular legend has it that three daughters of a poor merchant were about to be forced into prostitution since they had no marriage dowries, but St. Nicholas saved them from a life of sin by dropping three bags of gold into the merchant's garden or chimney (versions vary), enabling them to get married.

    The saint was buried in Myra upon his death, and a church may have been built over his tomb soon after. If so, it would have been badly damaged in the earthquake of 529 and repaired along with Myra's other buildings later in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian. Damaged in the Arab raids of the 7th century, the Church of St. Nicholas of Myra was rebuilt in the 8th century; it is this structure that largely survives today.

    After his death, Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors and seafarers, and many pilgrims came to visit his tomb. Over the centuries, the legends and great popularity of St. Nicholas of Myra led to the Christmastime figure of the bearded man who secretly brings toys to children. He is still known as St. Nick in most of Europe (and he brings his gifts on December 6, not Christmas), but in America he came to be known as Santa Claus.

    The church suffered another Arab attack in 1034 and was restored in 1043 by Emperor Constantine IX, at which time a walled monastery was added nearby. In 1087, a group of Italian merchants pushed past the monks and broke open the saint's sarcophagus. They stole the relics and took them to Bari, Italy, where they were placed in a shrine in the cathedral.

    Happy yule...

    Dave R

  3. I was under the impression that there might be a link to Woden as he was supposed to leave pennies on the doorsteps of poor families at midwinter. On the other hand I might be conflating several half remembered things.

  4. Happy Yule, Andy... I definitely have created my own deeper and more ancient mythology around Santa.... with his flying reindeer and medicine bag. In my mythology, he Yoiks his heart out while beating his drum and flying on his reindeer over the tops of snow-laden fir trees in the far north near Samiland.

  5. Oh God, I'm so sick of 'Santa'! When I was a kid, he was still Father Christmas...and he never gave out the big stuff. Mum and dad provided the bigger presents...it was important to them (and I've continued the idea with my girls) that my brother and I understood that they worked hard and provided what they could because they loved us, NOT that the richer kids got better stuff because Father Christmas liked them better. FC just dropped by and filled our stockings with little extras. I hate the fact that FC has been replaced with Santa, my kids don't call him FC at all, and it annoys me no end.



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