Germanic Paganism Tis Season
'TIS THE SEASON TO BE GIVING
By Robert Von Rudloff, M.Sc., M.A.
(First printed in Hecate's Loom, Issue 20, Yule 1993)
Gift-giving is a central part of the modern Christmas holiday. Particularly important for young children is the related tradition of Santa Claus and his elven helpers, sleigh, and flying reindeer. But where did this come from? Saint Nicholas (from which the name Santa Claus is derived) is a rather questionable fourth century figure of the Mediterranean world, who became a protector of sailors;
there certainly is no record of him associating with pointy-eared folk, arctic ungulates, or winter sleighs. So how did this jolly old man and his band of magical followers become associated with a Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus?
A bearded man, associated with otherworldly beings and flying at night with horned animals, is of course quite reminiscent of the Horned God leading the Wild Hunt. Among the Celts, He is known as Cernunnos or Herne; among the Germanic peoples, as Odinn or Wotan. The Germanic traditions are probably more relevant here, because in some of them the Hunt occurred during the days immediately following Christmas (or more precisely, the Winter Solstice).
However, a major obstacle to equating Santa with Odinn is that the Wild Hunt is usually not associated with charity, but rather is typically quite a fearful event best to be avoided.
A more likely source, or at least one that could have been combined with the fear- some Wild Hunt, is perhaps the traveling associated with numerous goddesses recorded throughout Indo-European lands. The most basic element in the various accounts is the driving about of the Goddess in a wagon or chariot drawn by animals (for example, Freyja and Kybele). Once again, of those documented the Germanic traditions are quite relevant, because they often involve a charitable element. The evidence is unfortunately quite limited and mostly limited to Christian literary sources, which are often very distorted and uninformative. The documentation that is most extensive and most accessible to English-speakers is the four-volume work Teutonic Mythology, by Jacob Grimm (one of the Grimm brothers who were famed not just for their re-telling of "fairy" tales but also for their pioneering work in linguistics and mythological studies in the early nineteenth century).
Several names are recorded, each with numerous variant spellings; the most familiar are Berchta, Holla and Huldra. It is not unreasonable to suppose that these names may have all referred to a specific, single Goddess, given the similarities in the accounts, and the titular nature of the names: Berchta's name is connected with words meaning "bright, luminous or glorious," while Holla/Huldra's is connected with "kind, well-disposed or merciful." For simplicity sake, I will use Huldra hereafter. (As an aside, in the now-dead Gothic language, Holla/Huldra's name also seems to relate to the verb "hilthan", meaning "to bend or bow"; this is interesting because the likely origin of the word "Witch" is the Anglo-Saxon stem wic-, which also means "to bend".)
The most notable version of the voyage of Huldra is that during the twelve days following "Christmas," She travels the countryside in her wagon with her host, unrecognized, bestowing gifts to those who have been generous and punishing those who have been greedy or lazy. Variations have Her flying over fields promoting fertility to the crops. The last of the twelve days was apparently sacred to Huldra. This Goddess, under her various names, was also commonly associated with Witches by Christian writers in Mediaeval Germany. Huldra in particular was considered to fly about with Witches on brooms, and often was identified with Diana in this respect. Other accounts describe her host as specifically including the spirits of unbaptized children: could these be the forerunners of Santa's elves?
The limited nature of the evidence makes it difficult to say with certainty whether or not Huldra or Odinn were the original Santas. Nevertheless, the conversion of a Pagan deity into a sanitized, comical gift-giver would hardly be unique; consider the original and modern forms of Mother Goose. For modern Pagans, the prolonged celebrating, gift-giving and general charity of the modern Christmas season can take on a lot more meaning if one treats the period from Winter Solstice to January 1 (or thereabouts) as the 12 days of Huldra's travels, during which She and her Witchy companions dispensed gifts and abundance to all.
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Article Source [wicca.com]