Midwinter, Yule, Christmas…. winter holiday celebrations here in the UK are a hodgepodge of native and imported customs and myths. The identity and appearance of the central holiday figure known as Father Christmas has changed significantly over time. Even in Victorian Christian imagery his robes were always green…
It’s not difficult to see a connection with the pagan god Odin as they both have long beards and a penchant for sky riding as did Odin’s son Thor and many other pre-Christian gods.
As a child I visited Lewis’s department store in Birmingham where Uncle Holly was a familiar and popular figure at Christmas time. Uncle Holly Circle badges were issued by the Lewis’s owned Selfidges in the 1960s.
On the wild side
There are links with the Wild Hunt and Cernunnos too. ‘In many Celtic-based traditions of Neo-Paganism, there is the enduring legend of the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King. These two mighty rulers fight for supremacy as the Wheel of the Year turns each season. At the Winter Solstice, or Yule, the Oak King kills the Holly King, and then reigns until Midsummer, or Litha. Once the Summer Solstice arrives, the Holly King returns to do battle with the old king, and defeats him. The Holly King then rules until Yule, when the cycle continues.’
Echoes of the Wild Hunt and a seasonal battle can be found in the role of Krampusse and Sinterklaas. After losing the battle with Saint Nicholas the horned Krampus, or demon, was enslaved by the bishop; surely a vestige of the struggle between Christianity and Paganism?
The Krampus is a servant helper of Sinterklaas or Nikolaus and his role, along with a ‘long black birchen rod’, is to scare children into behaving well. More sinister is the emergence of Zwarte Piet, Black Peter, as the minstrel substitute for the devil. We now have little green clad elves…
These days however Father Christmas aka Santa Claus has red robes… Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, was a Greek bishop of Myra, (Turkey), in the 3rd Century. His long white beard, bishops robes and secret gift-giving tendencies closely resemble the modern version of Santa Claus. In the UK we hang boot-like stockings for Father Christmas identical to the tradition of the Nikolaus-Stiefel (Nikolaus boot).
The image of Santa slowly evolved and his current image and redness first appeared in America in Harper’s Weekly 1863; the interpretation of illustrator Thomas Nast. Haddon Sunblom’s Coca Cola version appeared much later in the 1930s.
I’m happy to know that Coca Cola’s can’t take credit for the shift from green robes to red – they simply copied. In the UK the colour seems to have changed in late Victorian times – who knows why. I will be bringing holly, ivy and mistletoe indoors to add to my decorations in the age-old style – I love green!