Category Archives: Children
Other names: Snegurka, Snow Maiden, Snowflake, Snow Princess, Niègette, Miss Snow
Etymology: Sneg (Russian) Snow; Snow Maiden, Snowy, Snow Girl, Snowflake, Snow Princess, Niègette, Miss Snow
The character of Snegurochka is a figure found in Russian fairy tales. She is prominently known as being Ded Moroz’s granddaughter and accompanies him at New Year’s to deliver gifts.
Father – Ded Moroz (Father Frost), later he becomes her grandfather.
Mother – Mother Spring or Spring of Beauty. Sometimes, in later stories, the Snow Queen is Snegurochka’s mother.
Soviet Era & New Year’s
Christmas Traditions? – Before the Soviet prohibition on celebrating Christmas, figurines depicting Snegurochka would be used to decorate the Christmas tree. Russian nesting dolls would also feature Snegurochka and her appearance can appear on various items as decoration.
In 1935, when the Soviet government decided to introduce Ded Moroz as the wintertime gift giver for New Year’s, Snegurochka also found herself reintroduced at this time as his granddaughter and accompanies him to deliver gifts.
As Ded Moroz’s granddaughter, Snegurochka dresses in a long silver-blue gown with a furry cap to keep warm. Alternately, she may be seen wearing a snow-flake crown. In this respect, Snegurochka is uniquely Russian as not very many other winter celebratory characters will have a female companion.
Once Upon A Time….
Snegurochka is relatively new to the scene as far as any myths are concerned. She makes her first appearance in Russian folklore and fairytales during the 19th century.
A few people will claim that Snegurochka’s roots and origins lay within Slavic pagan beliefs and mythology.
Despite being relatively new, there are several fairytales, stories and even plays showcasing Snegurochka’s origins.
Spring Ritual – There is mention that in some areas of Russia, there is a spring-time ritual that involves drowning a straw figure in a river or to burn it in a fire to symbolize the turning of the seasons from Winter to Spring.
This folktale was collected and published by Alexander Afanayev in his second volume of “The Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs.” In this tome, Afanayev makes mention of a similar German figure by the name of Schneekind, “The Snow Child.” Andrew Lang called this story “Snowflake” and included it in his “The Pink Fairy Book,” published in 1897.
In the story of Snegurka, there is are childless Russian peasants who make a snow doll that comes to life. The magical child grows quickly and one day, some girls invite her to go for a walk with them into the woods. This particular day is St. John’s Day and as per tradition, the girls make a small fire that they take turns jumping over. When Snegurka’s turn comes, she evaporates into a cloud of mist when she gets halfway over the flames.
The Snow Maiden (Spring Fairytale)
This is another version of story, in this one, Snegurochka is the daughter of Ded Moroz and Spring the Beauty. This version was made into a play by Aleksandr Ostrovsky and music by Tchaikovsky in 1973.
In this story, Snegurochka longs for the companionship of humans. There is a shepherd boy by the name of Lel whom she is fond of. Due to her frozen heart, Snegurochka is unable to truly love him. Eventually, Mother Spring took pity on Snegurochka and softened her heart by giving her a spring wreath or garland to wear that she would be able to love. Once Snegurochka really fell in love with Lel, she melted.
I’ve come across a couple of variations that seek to combine the two above stories into one, longer version. One change is that Father Frost is secretly watching the couple as they create their snow daughter and brings her to life to their delight. Later, when the Spring celebrations are coming, Snegurka wants to go and she is warned by Father Frost to be careful of the warm sunlight and fires. In the village at the celebrations, she meets a young man whom she falls in love with and when she runs out to greet him, she melts on stepping into a bright, sunny patch.
Morozko (Grandfather Frost)
Also known as Old Man Winter, this story tells of a young girl who is sent out into the cold one night by her stepmother. Instead of freezing to death, the young girl is given gifts and warm furs and clothing by Morozko after she is courteous and shows him respect.
The young girl in this story isn’t Snegurochka, but worth noting due to similarities and any slim chance of inspiration for other stories involving her.
Other Retellings, Ballets and Movies
There is a story “The Little People of the Snow” written by the American poet William Cullen Bryant in 1864. In this story, the Snow-Maiden befriends a mortal girl by the name of Eva. When Eva comes to Snow-Maiden’s homeland, she is horrified when Eva freezes to death in her sleep.
“The Snow-Maiden: A Legend of the Alps,” was written in 1876 by an unknown author. In this story, a man traveling through the mountains falls in love with the Snow Maiden named Niègette. When he brings her down to the valley, intending to marry her, she melts reaching the warmer areas.
The composer Ludwig Minkus and Balletmaster Marius Petipa created a ballet of Snegurochka titled: “The Daughter of the Snows” for an Imperial Ballet in 1878. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov adapted the story of Snegurochka into the opera “The Snow Maiden: A Spring Fairy Tale” in 1880 thereabouts.
In 1886, Emilia, Lady Dilke wrote the story “The Secret” wherein Snow Maiden kills her lover by freezing him with her gaze. Other plays have included “The Christmas Chain” by Lilian Pearson in 1921 and “Queen Christmas: A Pageant Play” by Carolyn Wells in 1922.
An animated movie of Snegurochka was made in 1952 and a later live-action movie in 1969. The author, Ruth Sanderson has a retelling called “The Snow Princess” where instead of dying, she becomes mortal to marry Lel. Even as late as 2012, a ballad fairy tale called “Snegurocka” was written by Svetlana Makarovic.
Kostroma – In the fairytale that first mentions Snegurochka, this is where she originated. It helps that this is the hometown to Alexander Ostrovsky. As a child, his nanny inspired him with various stories and fairy tales. Ostrovsky’s former home has since become a museum. Further, the love that Kostroma has for Snegurochka is seen every year at New Year’s when the whole city decorates and again in March for a two-day celebration attributed to Snegurochka’s birthday.
Veliky Ustug – Later, when she becomes associated with Ded Moroz, Snegurochka moved here as part of the winter, New Year’s traditions. Veliky Ustyug has become a popular tourist destination for many Russians to travel to Veliky and visit. Ded Moroz’s lives in a log cabin out in the taiga forest near where three rivers meet. Snegurochka can also be found helping out her Grandfather and engaging with visitors.
Other Similar Winter Entities
The Snow Child, mentioned briefly earlier, this is a Germanic story about a boy made of snow who eventually melts. There are a number of various versions to this story, one where an unfaithful wife tells her returning husband that the child she has is the result of having swallowed a snowflake. The husband is angry and when the boy is old enough, he takes the boy with him and sells him into slavery. When the husband returns home, he tells the wife that the child melted in the heat. Other variations of this story will have the children be magical in nature to their snowy origins.
The Snow Queen
Written by Hans Christian Anderson, this story has some similarities to Snegurochka and became very popular with Soviet animators in the 1950’s. In Russian, the Snow Queen is called Snezhnaya Koroleva.
This is this Japanese snow maiden who, much like Morozko, can be very deadly to anyone unfortunate to be caught out in a blizzard. She appears as a calm, pale woman who will sing to people lost in the cold, lulling to them to sleep before she takes their life with her cold, deadly breath. That sounds a lot like hypothermia. At least with being asleep, their death is painless?
Pronunciation: Djet m-aw rohz
Other names: Dzyed Maróz (Ukrainian), Did Moróz (Russian), Dédushka Moróz (Serbian), Deda Mraz (Bulgarian), Dyado Mraz (Slovenian), Dedek Mraz (Russian), Morozko (Russian), Grandfather Frost, King Frost, Father Frost, Ice King
Etymology: Grandfather Frost
Ah Santa Claus, Sinterklaas and Father Christmas…. That magical time of the year with Christmas and Yuletide celebrations. When we jump over to the Russian and Slavic celebrations for Winter, there is Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost who will be bringing gifts.
Just who is Ded Moroz? Let’s see…
To start, Ded Moroz is described as an elderly looking man with a long, flowing white beard who wears a long red, blue or white fur coat and round fur hat and boots. He carries with him a long magical staff and rides along with an evergreen tree in a sled or troika pulled by three white horses.
Much like his American and other European counterparts, Ded Moroz is known for bringing presents to good children. Unlike Santa Claus who brings his gifts on December 25th or Sinterklaas who arrives on December 6th, Ded Moroz brings his gifts on New Year’s Eve.
Other little factoids about Ded Moroz include that his birthday is on November 18th, this coincides with when the first frost arrives on the ground in Veliky Ustyug, Russia. Many sources will also place Ded Moroz’s age at around 2,000 years old.
Ded Moroz appears to have a strong connection to Eastern Slavic Paganism before spreading out into Russian beliefs and culture. Here, Ded Moroz is the Wizard of Winter and a snow demon who personifies Russian winters.
In folklore, Ded Moroz is originally Morozko, a powerful blacksmith and hero known for freezing water to become frost. As a force of nature, Morozko isn’t necessarily evil, he is known to help those who show him proper respect and giving gifts, plus he can be devastating to those who are rude, disrespectful and otherwise mean-spirited.
Slightly different origins place Morozko as a god of frost and ice who’s married to the harsh, unforgiving Winter. As a deity, he could freeze people and the countryside in a moment’s notice. With the Russian Orthodox Church, there was an attempt to label Morozko as a demon. Later fairy tales would soften Morozko’s image to be an elderly old man who could be more benevolent and not quite as harsh.
You Called Him A Demon!
Before we freak out, the Slavic use of referring to entities as demons is very similar to the Greeks usage of the term daimon when referring to a spirit or a minor local deity, or force of nature. As more of the Slavic countries and Russia became Christianized, the term demon would take on more negative associations.
I should throw in at this point, a note that scholars and historians do have some disputes about the exact origins of Ded Moroz. He does appear to be derived from a Slavic deity of Winter and to be the personification of cold and frost.
I’ll touch on it more, further down; there was a period of religious prohibition during the Soviet era and the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t seem to be settled on the nature and role that Ded Moroz has. He goes from scary demon to a figure that can now allow for some of the religious traditions to come back, even if they’re claimed to be pagan in origin.
However, myths and legends do evolve, grow and change. The very image of Ded Moroz that many people have, especially in Russia does come out of the Soviet era. Why ruin a good thing that people love?
Morozko (Grandfather Frost)
Or Old Man Winter
This is the main story and source for Ded Moroz and is also the origin for his granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden). It is a Russian fairy tale first collected by Alexander Afanasyey for his Russian Fairy Tales collection and then is included in “The Yellow Fairy Book” compiled by Andrew Lang in 1894 as “The Story of King Frost.”
The story begins with a stepmother who dislikes her good-natured stepdaughter who is always good and kind and always having to hear about it. Of course, the stepmother loves her own daughter and dotes on her whim and desires.
As is the nature of these type of stories, the stepmother tells the father to send the stepdaughter away, so she didn’t have to see or hear her again. The man begs his wife to reconsider and she is unrelenting about getting rid of the stepdaughter. So, the man, the father takes his daughter out on their sled, out to the woods before giving the girl a kiss and abandoning her there.
Realizing her lot and fate, the sobbing girl sits down next to a tree. She isn’t sitting there long before she hears a crackling noise and looks up to see that King Frost is standing there.
In a stern voice, King Frost snaps out doesn’t the girl know who he is? He is King Frost, king of the red-noses.
The girl says “All hail” to King Frost and then she asks if he is here to take her.
King Frost asks if she is warm enough. The girl answers, saying she is warm enough despite the fact that she is shivering fiercely.
The King repeated his question, stepping closer and the girl insisted that she was still warm.
At this, King Frost takes pity on the poor girl and wraps her in furs to keep warm. He goes further with covering her in blankets and giving her gifts of gems and lastly, a sleigh pulled by six white horses.
In the morning, the stepmother tells the man that he should go out and retrieve his daughter’s body for burial. To the stepmother’s surprise and shock, the man returns with a chest filled with gems and his still-living daughter, more beautiful than before with the splendid furs and her silver and gold dress.
Wanting the same for her own daughter, the stepmother tells the man to take her daughter out to the same spot where the stepdaughter had been left. The man did as he was bid, taking the stepmother’s daughter out and leaving her there.
As soon as the man left, the daughter sulked as she sat down by a tree. Just as before, it wasn’t long until King Frost appeared.
Just as before, King Frost asked the daughter if she was warm. Unlike the stepdaughter who had been respectful with her words, the daughter was rude, calling him a blind fool, of course she was cold, her hands and feet are nearly frozen.
Angered by this girl’s words, King Frost snapped his fingers and froze the girl to death.
Of course, the stepmother expected her own daughter to return just as the stepdaughter had, loaded with wealth and finery. That clearly wasn’t what happened when the man went out to retrieve her and brought back only the daughter’s cold, lifeless body.
It just shows, it pays to always be polite and respectful as you never know who you’re talking to or dealing with.
Moroz – Red Nose
This is a poem connected to Ded Moroz written by Nikolai Nekrasov. The story found within this poem highlights a dark aspect to Ded Moroz’s character as it depicts him killing a peasant woman and orphaning her children.
Other darker aspects to Ded Moroz as a wizard of winter would have him kidnap children and he would only be willing to return them when parents offered him up gifts.
Within the Christian Orthodox Church, the character of Ded Moroz has changed over the years. Most notably during the 19th century with different plays featuring him. The two most notable plays are Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s Snegurochka and a similarly named play by Rimsky-Korsakov.
The Russian Revolution
1917 saw the Bolshevik Revolution. More forward a few years into the 1920’s with the formation of the Soviet Union and Government, we see that many Christmas traditions were discouraged as they were considered to be too religious in nature and materialistic. Especially Saint Nicholas, who had been Russia’s patron saint, his feast day of December 6th were done away with.
It doesn’t help that Ded Moroz was declared to be “an ally of the priest and kulak” as Russia tried to remove many religious elements. Other sources give the history that Ded Moroz was seen as too childish and not acceptable.
This isn’t just Christmas that got banned by the Soviet Government, this is a prohibition on any religious holidays, observances and celebrations.
Soviet Santa – An Alternative
Luckily a complete banning of the holiday spirits wouldn’t last long. I’m sure there are many children psychologists and just even psychologists in general who can extrapolate much better than I can about the importance of play, the use of imagination and human spirit. If you crush it completely, we’re going to have problems.
Seeing a need and importance for some type of holiday seasonal celebration, Ded Moroz would take on his more familiar image thanks in part to a letter written by Pavel Postyshey on December 28th of 1935. Pavel stated that the origins for the Christmas traditions pre-dated actual Christianity and that it would be beneficial to bring back these traditions for the sake of the children.
Now, instead of arriving on Christmas Day, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka would arrive on New Year’s or Novy God, bringing presents to leave under an evergreen tree. This change provided an alternative to the American Santa Claus and one seen as a secular celebration by the Soviet Union.
Letters To Ded Moroz
Much like how Santa Claus will receive letters from children, Ded Moroz will receive his share of letters from numerous children requesting gifts. Millions of letters over the years from all across Russia and around the world have been addressed to Ded Moroz.
Where Santa makes his home in the North Pole, Ded Moroz does hang his hat and call home?
To answer that, in 1998, it was declared that the town of Veliky Ustyug, in Vologda Oblast is Ded Moroz’s home. Since then, Veliky Ustyug has become a popular tourist destination for many Russians who travel to Veliky and visit. Ded Moroz’s lives in a log cabin out in the taiga forest near where three rivers meet.
Ded Moroz spends his summers reading letters from children all over the country in preparation for the New Year’s Tree on January 1st.
Ded Moroz’s Granddaughter
Snihurónka or the Snow Maiden is Ded Moroz’s granddaughter who often accompanies him. She is shown wearing a long silver-blue dress or robes and a fur-lined cap to keep warm.
Ded Moroz is often shown being accompanied by his granddaughter, Snihurónka. She’s noteworthy as numerous other, familiar Winter figures don’t have a female companion.
Holiday Twins & Counterparts
So, what are the difference between Santa Claus and Ded Moroz?
We know there are differences, after all, Santa Claus arrives Christmas Eve and Ded Moroz arrives on New Year’s; both bringing presents. Santa Claus classically dresses all in red, especially in America and Ded Moroz is known for dressing in not just red, he will also dress in blue or even white, much like how a Russian noble would be expected to dress. They certainly look like cultural syno-entities and cultural twins (given the history, that’s how Ded Moroz got his start.) Santa Claus is known for being short and rotund and Ded Moroz is tall and thin. Russian children will affectionately call Ded Moroz, “Ded Moroz the Red Nose.”
Other notable differences between the two is that Santa Claus will enter a home coming down the chimney and leaving his gifts in a stocking. Whereas, Ded Moroz will enter in through the front door and leave his gifts under the New Year’s Tree.
During the 1990’s, the character of Santa Claus began to make his way into the Russian Federation as more and more influences of Western culture made their way through the previous Soviet Union.
There have been efforts to show cultural goodwill by having Santa Claus (or his various counterparts) and Ded Moroz (sometimes his Belarus counterpart Dzied Maroz) has one-on-one meetings or friendly competitions.
December of 1997 saw the creation of ‘Christmas Without Borders” where Ded Moroz and Santa Claus met a bridge crossing the Narva River between Estonia and Russia. The whole point was to spread goodwill and increase cooperation between the two countries and neighboring border towns. I wasn’t able to determine if this started a new tradition and continued or if it just petered off after a few years.
The early 21st century saw a resurgence for the character of Ded Moroz and his granddaughter, Snegurochka where they arrive on New Year’s bringing gifts, often showing up at children’s parties. Much like Saint Nicholas who battles Krampus in some of the Germanic countries, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka will face off with Baba Yaga who wants to steal the presents.
Of course, there are a few will say that Ded Moroz is really Santa Claus’ grandfather. That works too given how long the two have been around and who’s mythologies are older.
Tracking Ded Moroz On His Nightly Runs
Where Santa has NORAD tracking his nightly flight, Ded Moroz has GLONASS tracking his run on New Year’s. This began in November of 2009 when the Russian Federation offered to compete with NORAD.
Alright! May the best Present-Giver win!
What’s In A Name – Regional Variations
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many of the countries that formed after sought to move away a Soviet heritage by reclaiming their own regional heritages and roots. This means that Ded Moroz and Snegurochka will frequently have a different, variant name or change altogether as each country seeks their ancient traditions or move forward to something different.
Armenia – Dzmer Pap, meaning “Grandfather Winter,” his granddaughter is known as Dzyunanushik, meaning “Snow Sweetie” or Snow Anush. They have been part of Armenia traditions for some 160 years since the Russo-Persian War. Both wear red, blue or white winter coats. They make an appearance for both Christmas and New Year’s with bringing gifts. Children are expected to sing songs or recite poems before getting their gifts.
Azerbaijan – Saxta Baba, meaning “Grandfather Frost,” his granddaughter is known as Qar Qizi meaning “Snow Girl.” Saxta Baba brings gifts during New Year’s. Qar Qizi isn’t usually seen.
Bashkir and Tatar – Qis Babay, which means “Winter Old Man.”
Belarus – Dzied Maroz, he replaced Sviatv Mikalai who was more local, but had been disapproved of due to being Christian. Dzied Maroz’ makes his home in the Bialowieza Forest.
Bulgaria – Dyado Koleda or Grandfather Koleda is often equated with Santa Claus and appears alongside Dyado Mraz or Grandfather Frost. Dyado Mraz was popular during the Communist rule but has since fallen by the wayside since 1989 as Dyado Koleda began to gain more popularity.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – Ayaz Ata is the name for Ded Moroz.
Nenets – Yamal Iri, which means “Grandfather of Yamal.”
Poland – Poland didn’t have a version of Ded Moroz and during the communist era, there were efforts to try and introduce Dziadek Mróz as historically speaking, Communists didn’t want religion and view Saint Nicholas as being too religious in nature. It’s fairly obviously that Dziadek Mróz was meant to create a culture link and tie to Russia.
Romania – In 1948, a Communist party gained power and Christmas celebrations were done away with. Mos Cracium (Father Christmas) was replaced with Mos Gerila (Old Man Frosty), the Romanian name for Ded Moroz who would now bring gifts on December 31st for the New Years. Anyone paying attention, knows that New Year’s celebrations begin on December 30th, the Day of the Republic, when King Mihai I abdicated the throne in 1947.
Sakha Republic – Chys Khan, meaning “Master of Cold” and Khaarchana (Snow Maiden).
Slovenia – In this country, Ded Moroz’s name translates to Dedek Mraz. He is a slender man who wears a grey leather coat trimmed with fur inside and out and who wears round dormouse fur cap. This image of Dedek Mraz is based on pictures by Maksim Gaspari in 1952. Dedek Mraz’s home is located on Mount Triglay, the highest peak in both Slovenia and Yugoslavia. In the 1990’s when Communism ended, Miklavž (Saint Nicholas) who arrives on December 6th and Božicek (Christmas Man) who arrives on December 24th, Christmas Eve began making an appearance in Slovenia. Some Slovenian families in the 1940’s would have the Christkind (Jezušcek or “Little Jesus”) who brought gifts on Christmas Eve. It varies by family in regard to their political and religious views, current culture will show all three of Grandfather Frost, Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus as friends. The attributes of each will also get mixed with the others.
Tajikistan – Boboi Barfi, meaning “Grandfather Snow” and Snegurochka is known as Barfak, meaning “Snowball.” There was an effort briefly on December 11th of 2013 to do away with the state televised celebrations of Boboi Barfi, Barfak and the New Year’s. That lasted all of about a day and the next day, the televised broadcasting plans were back on.
Ukraine – With the current conflicts with Russia, as early as 2014, there have been efforts to replace Ded Moroz with Sviatyi Mykolai (Saint Nicholas) and well, Sviatyi Mykolai is more popular in Western Ukraine.
Yakut – Chys Khaan, meaning “Master of Cold.”
Yugoslavia – The socialist Yugoslavia that comprises Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia, has a character by the name of Grandfather Frost. In Bosnian, this name is Djed Mraz or Djeda Mraz, in Croatian, this name is Djed Mraz, in Macedonian, the name is Dedo Mraz, the Serbian name is Deda Mraz and the Slovenian name is Dedek Mraz.
For a bit of a history lesson here, in Croatia, Djed Mraz was viewed as a communist figure and the character of Djed Božicnjak or Grandfather Christmas is introduced. It’s taken a while for Djed Božicnjak to replace Djed Mraz and then, not completely. After 1999, both Djed Mraz and Djed Božicnjak have become synonymous. Some families still have Djed Mraz arrive on New Year’s bringing gifts. Thanks to some historical Austrian influence in parts of Croatia, children will get gifts on December 6th brought by Sveti Nikola (Saint Nicholas) who is accompanied by Krampus. More religious families will have the baby Jesus (Isusek, Mali Isus or Kriskindl) who brings gifts on Christmas. Getting into some areas of Dalmatia, it is Sveta Lucija (Saint Lucy) who brings gifts.
Etymology: orbh- (Indo-European) “to change allegiance or status”, orbus meaning: “bereft” or “childless”
When in Rome, there seems to be a deity for just about everything, including orphans. Enter Orbona, the goddess of children, especially orphans. Childless parents would call upon Orbona to bless them with children.
I’m not sure you could really call it worship. There is however enough significance for Orbona that she had an alter near the Lares Temple in Via Sacra. Here, parents who had lost a child or might be about to lose one to illness would call upon and invoke Orbona.
In Roman mythology, Orbona was the goddess who granted new children to parents who had become childless. She was also the goddess of children, especially orphans.
Well sure, but only after parents had lost their child and hoped to ensure the survival of future children or to be granted more children.
Protector Of Children
That makes sense. That was the whole point of why parents or would-be parents would call upon Orbona, to ensure the safety of their children or potential future children. She was seen as a guardian of children, especially orphans.
What’s In A Name?
It gets a little interesting looking into the origins and root meaning of Orbona and Orphan.
Credit is given to the Indo-European root word of “orbh-“ meaning: “to change allegiance or status.”
Okay… from here the definition continued with how the Greek “orphanos” is similar to the Czech word “robota” which means compulsory labor, drudgery, servitude and slave” Even an old Old High German word of “arabeit” meaning labor is connected to “orbh-.” How exciting and lovely.
That gives a whole new light of understanding to Victorian Era Britain and orphans getting sent to the Workhouses.
Welcome To The Dark Side
As a goddess of Orphans, Orbona is seen as having a bit of a sinister side… after all, childhood diseases that can claim and rob you of your children.
Orbona is associated with a couple of other dark goddesses, Febris and Fortuna Mala who weren’t exactly that well-received or whose attention you didn’t want to attract.
Not exactly all sunshine and roses here…
Other Names: Christmas Cat, Yule Cat
The Jólakötturinn or Yule Cat is a monstrous feline heralding from Icelandic folklore. It is a huge and fear some cat that stalks the countryside of Iceland during the month of December. Those unfortunate enough to cross paths with the Yule Cat and who have not received a new article of clothing by Christmas Eve will find themselves eaten.
The Yule Cat is a black cat who is able to grow in size in order to feed on its victims. When huge, the Yule Cat towers over the tallest homes as it prowls the Icelandic countryside during Christmas night. It will look through windows to see who has gotten new clothes or not.
The Yule Cat is infamously the ogress Grýla’s pet. Grýla herself is known for terrorizing and eating children who misbehave, especially at Christmas time. Her sons, the Yule Lads started off not being much better with their variety of mischief and pranks they cause.
Dark Ages – Autumn Wool
According to one source, a monstrous cat eating people comes from farmers using this threat to give incentive to their workers to get the autumn wool in before Christmas. Those who did so would receive new clothes, while those who didn’t would fall victim to the Yule Cat.
This belief is also likely a way to explain that those who don’t have good warm clothing to protect against the cold of Iceland’s winters weren’t likely to survive.
The Yule Cat Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem describes and makes popular the Yule Cat who eats those who don’t receive new clothing before Christmas.
The following is Kötlum’s poem in English:
You all know the Yule Cat
And that Cat was huge indeed.
People didn’t know where he came from
Or where he went.
He opened his glaring eyes wide,
The two of them glowing bright.
It took a really brave man
To look straight into them.
His whiskers, sharp as bristles,
His back arched up high.
And the claws of his hairy paws
Were a terrible sight.
He gave a wave of his strong tail,
He jumped and he clawed and he hissed.
Sometimes up in the valley,
Sometimes down by the shore.
He roamed at large, hungry and evil
In the freezing Yule snow.
In every home
People shuddered at his name.
If one heard a pitiful “meow”
Something evil would happen soon.
Everybody knew he hunted men
But didn’t care for mice.
He picked on the very poor
That no new garments got
For Yule – who toiled
And lived in dire need.
From them he took in one fell swoop
Their whole Yule dinner
Always eating it himself
If he possibly could.
Hence it was that the women
At their spinning wheels sat
Spinning a colorful thread
For a frock or a little sock.
Because you mustn’t let the Cat
Get hold of the little children.
They had to get something new to wear
From the grownups each year.
And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve
And the Cat peered in,
The little children stood rosy and proud
All dressed up in their new clothes.
Some had gotten an apron
And some had gotten shoes
Or something that was needed
– That was all it took.
For all who got something new to wear
Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp
He then gave an awful hiss
But went on his way.
Whether he still exists I do not know.
But his visit would be in vain
If next time everybody
Got something new to wear.
Now you might be thinking of helping
Where help is needed most.
Perhaps you’ll find some children
That have nothing at all.
Perhaps searching for those
That live in a lightless world
Will give you a happy day
And a Merry, Merry Yule.
It goes without saying, that in Iceland, families will be sure to give gifts of new and warm clothing for Christmas. If not, the Yule Cat is sure to catch and eat that person.
Further, children are encouraged to finish their chores before Christmas to receive new clothing or else face the Yule Cat’s hunger if they failed to do so. Though sometimes the Yule Cat will just eat a child’s diner, so they go to bed hungry or just take their gifts.
Making sure that no one gets eaten by the Yule Cat, giving clothes to the less fortunate as a means to promote generosity is done in Iceland.
So, the next time you receive socks or a sweater for Christmas from that one relative, just remember, they love you and don’t want the Yule Cat to eat you.
Jólabókaflóð – The Yule Book Flood
Alright, so it’s not related to cats, unless you’re forever dealing with one who wants to sit in your lap while reading…
Starting in WWII, comes the Icelandic tradition of buying books and then exchanging them on Christmas Eve. The night is then spent reading books with people taking their book with them to bed and eating chocolate.
Can’t argue with that tradition, especially if you’re a book lover!
Other Names: Jólasveinar, Yule Lads, Yuletide-Lads, Yulemen
These mischievous pranksters are the present bringers in Iceland, not Santa Claus. Not one Santa Claus, it’s thirteen! How exciting is that!
Though, the Yule Lads didn’t always start off so friendly. These lads used to work for their mother, Grýla to help her hunt down naughty children as well as wreak all sorts of havoc and mischief during the long, dark winter days. The oldest versions and stories of the Yule Lads come from East Iceland.
This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.
Reykjavik – This is another place that the Yule Lads can be spotted around in December. This place serves more a tourist destination where there’s a game to find all the Yule Lads and visit the local Troll Garden to sit in Grýla’s cauldron.
The descriptions of the Yule Lads have varied over time. In their pre-Christmas descriptions, they are troll-like beings who have no torsos.
Later, when they became more associated with Christmas, the Yule Lads would dress much like the American and European Santa in all red garments. Another push was made to have the Yule Lads dress in a more traditional medieval Icelandic garments in an effort to push away from the often overly commercialized versions of Santa and Christmas that are seen.
Grýla – The infamous Icelandic Christmas Ogress or Trolless is the mother of the Yule Lads, it would explain so much of their behavior. Grýla is known for eating misbehaving children and goes out in search of them at Christmas time.
Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.
Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder then, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.
The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young, still needing a crib.
Dark Winter Spirits
This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. As it concerns the Yule Lads, in the beginning their number varied wildly. The Yule Lads and their mother, Grýla in their pre-Christmas traditions, represented the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.
Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.
The Yule Lads at this time were portrayed as being trolls with no torso who would come down to the various villages and towns to cause havoc and chaos with their pranks or to outright carry off naughty children to their mother to feast on. The Yule Lads were just some of the many dangerous, unpredictable spirits and supernatural entities that wandered the countryside during winter.
Christianity – This religion was introduced to Iceland around 1000 C.E. after the King of Norway made a decree that everyone should convert to Christianity and sent out missionaries to the island nation. As with many ancient customs and traditions, the people weren’t that ready and willing to give up all their beliefs. As the Icelandic traditions and those of the introduced Christianity began to merge, one of the many points of note was a change to the calendar that shifted from the old Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar.
Sometime during the 1500’s and up to the 1700’s, the Julian Calendar was beginning to fall out of step and the celebration of the Winter Solstice was occurring on December 13th. As more European countries made the shift to the Gregorian Calendar, it placed the Winter Solstice back to the 21st. The change of calendars also so some 13 to 14 days getting removed.
For Iceland, many people didn’t like this and still wanted to celebrate December 13th as the Winter Solstice or Jól. To have the two traditions Iceland and Christianity merge more easily, the thirteen days of Christmas with the Yule Lads coming to visit began to form, starting from the eve of December 12th and stretching out all the way to the 25th and beyond to January 6th with Epiphany as the Yule Lads come visiting and then depart, back up to the mountains.
In the 16th century, a law was put into place that: “All disorderly and scandalous entertainment at Christmas and other times and Shrovetide revels are strongly forbidden on pain of serious punishment.” Parents still used the stories of Grýla and the Yule Lads coming to carry away naughty children during Wintertime and at Christmas. Things got so bad that in 1746, parents were forbidden and banned from using these stories to scare their children. It’s shortly after this, that the imagery of the Yule Lads would begin to further change.
Huldufólk – According to folklorist, Skarphéðinsson, the Yule Lads are the Huldufólk or the hidden people who live in Iceland right along humans, just another dimension that can’t be seen.
If you go for the Christian connection to religion and folktales, the Huldufólk were the dirty, strange and unusual children of Eve that she hid from God. When they were discovered, these children were sent to another world or dimension. Other ideas are that the Huldufólk are actually Fallen Angels.
Once the Yule Lads began to be associated with the celebration of Christmas, their image softened so that instead of being more malicious troll spirits that cause havoc and chaos, they became more benevolent. They’re still pranksters and the imagery saw them become more humanized to be half-troll figures.
The Thirteen Days Of Christmas – Yes, instead of one day of presents, children in Iceland get eight thirteen crazy nights!
The Yule Lads arrive during the thirteen days of Christmas, coming one at a time. Once December 25th comes, the Yule Lads depart back to their mountain home in the order that they arrived until the last day of January 6th, Epiphany.
Borrowing from Dutch tradition, children place a shoe out on their window sills during the thirteen nights of Christmas leading up to Christmas Day. In the hopes of receiving a gift or treat, children leave out small snacks for the Yule Lads such as laufabrauð (“leaf bread”), this is a thin, crisp flatbread. If a child has been good, they will receive a present or treat in their shoe. If a child has been particularly naughty, they will receive a rotten potato in their shoe.
If you ask me, that’s much better than getting carted away to their mother, Grýla to be eaten.
The Thirteen Yule Lads
The number of Yule Lads has varied over the years with as many as 82 and in more recent times with the 20th century, that number settled on there being thirteen. As the stories go, the Yule Lads live up in the mountains and come down in December during the Thirteen Days of Christmas. As there are thirteen of these lads, the various names they possess also speak of their particular quirk, feature or talent they have.
Jólasveinarnir – The Yule Lads Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem is still a popular piece recited each year in many homes and schools during December. This poem is where the Thirteen Yule Lads were made cannon for Iceland’s Christmas Tradition. The English translation of the poem is done by Hallberg Hallmundsson.
The sections below in italics are Kötlum’s poem in English.
Stekkjastaur – Sheep-Cote Clod (Or Stiff Legs)
Arrives: 12 December
Leaves: 25 December
The first of them was Sheep-Cote Clod.
He came stiff as wood,
to prey upon the farmer’s sheep
as far as he could.
He wished to suck the ewes,
but it was no accident
he couldn’t; he had stiff knees
– not too convenient.
Giljagaur – Gully Gawk
Arrives: 13 December
Leaves: 26 December
The second was Gully Gawk,
gray his head and mien.
He snuck into the cow barn
from his craggy ravine.
Hiding in the stalls,
he would steal the milk, while
the milkmaid gave the cowherd
a meaningful smile.
Stúfur – Stubby
Arrives: 14 December
Leaves: 27 December
Stubby was the third called,
a stunted little man,
who watched for every chance
to whisk off a pan.
And scurrying away with it,
he scraped off the bits
that stuck to the bottom
and brims – his favorites.
Þvörusleikir – Spoon-Licker
Arrives: 15 December
Leaves: 28 December
The fourth was Spoon Licker;
like spindle he was thin.
He felt himself in clover
when the cook wasn’t in.
Then stepping up, he grappled
the stirring spoon with glee,
holding it with both hands
for it was slippery.
Pottaskefill – Pot-Scraper
Arrives: 16 December
Leaves: 29 December
Pot Scraper, the fifth one,
was a funny sort of chap.
When kids were given scrapings,
he’d come to the door and tap.
And they would rush to see
if there really was a guest.
Then he hurried to the pot
and had a scraping fest.
Askasleikir – Bowl-Licker
Arrives: 17 December
Leaves: 30 December
Bowl Licker, the sixth one,
was shockingly ill bred.
From underneath the bedsteads
he stuck his ugly head.
And when the bowls were left
to be licked by dog or cat,
he snatched them for himself
– he was sure good at that!
As a side note, askur is a type of dish that Icelanders would eat from and keep under the bed as a means of storing it.
Hurðaskellir – Door-Slammer
Arrives: 18 December
Leaves: 31 December
The seventh was Door Slammer,
a sorry, vulgar chap:
When people in the twilight
would take a little nap,
he was happy as a lark
with the havoc he could wreak,
slamming doors and hearing
the hinges on them squeak.
Skyrgámur – Skyr-Gobbler
Arrives: 19 December
Leaves: 1 January
Skyr Gobbler, the eighth,
was an awful stupid bloke.
He lambasted the skyr tub
till the lid on it broke.
Then he stood there gobbling
– his greed was well known –
until, about to burst,
he would bleat, howl and groan.
Skyr is a type of yogurt found in Iceland.
Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Swiper
Arrives: 20 December
Leaves: 2 January
The ninth was Sausage Swiper,
a shifty pilferer.
He climbed up to the rafters
and raided food from there.
Sitting on a crossbeam
in soot and in smoke,
he fed himself on sausage
fit for gentlefolk.
Gluggagægir – Window-Peeper
Arrives: 21 December
Leaves: 3 January
The tenth was Window Peeper,
a weird little twit,
who stepped up to the window
and stole a peek through it.
And whatever was inside
to which his eye was drawn,
he most likely attempted
to take later on.
Gáttaþefur – Doorway Sniffer
Arrives: 22 December
Leaves: 4 January
Eleventh was Door Sniffer,
a doltish lad and gross.
He never got a cold, yet had
a huge, sensitive nose.
He caught the scent of lace bread
while leagues away still
and ran toward it weightless
as wind over dale and hill.
Ketkrókur – Meat-Hook
Arrives: 23 December
Leaves: 5 January
Meat Hook, the twelfth one,
his talent would display
as soon as he arrived
on Saint Thorlak’s Day.
He snagged himself a morsel
of meat of any sort,
although his hook at times was
a tiny bit short.
I’m a told a favorite meat is lamb. The 23rd is also St. Thorlak’s Day, the patron saint of Iceland.
Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar (Or Candle Stealer)
Arrives: 24 December
Leaves: 6 January
The thirteenth was Candle Beggar
– ‘twas cold, I believe,
if he was not the last
of the lot on Christmas Eve.
He trailed after the little ones
who, like happy sprites,
ran about the farm with
their fine tallow lights.
Candles at this time, were once made of tallow and thus edible. It is little wonder that Candle Beggar is often the most favorite of the Yule Lads and seen as being the most generous as he comes on the last day just before Christmas. Some children will leave a candle out for Kertasnikir next to their shoe.
Lost Yule Lads & Lasses
More recent times sees the Yule Lads numbering as thirteen in all. This wasn’t always so and there were a few others, that were once part of their number.
Flórsleikir – His name translates as “dung channel licker.” Luckily this has something to do with the channel in the cowshed.
Flotsokka – One of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!
Flotnös – The second of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!
Lampshadow – He would go and put out all of the lights.
Litlipungur – His name translates to mean “small balls”. What he did, I’m not sure I want to know.
Lungnaslettir – Or Lung Flapper, he gets his name from his penchant for walking around with a set of still wet sheep lungs and hitting anyone who gets in his way.
Smoke Gulper – He would sit on the roof and swallow the smoke coming from the chimney.
Bunch of weirdos.
Etymology – “Growler,” “Threat” or “Threatening,” possibly “Bugbear”
Grýla is the name of a popular and famous Christmas Witch, Ogress or Troll found in Icelandic traditions. Stories and imagery for Grýla can also be found in the Faroe Islands. She is used by parents to scare naughty children into behaving.
The earliest translation for Grýla’s name, likely comes from the Sverris saga in the late 1100’s where the author has a section titled Grýla and goes on to explain that it means: “Bugbear.”
This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla, Leppalúði and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.
This ogress lives up in the mountains of Iceland. She is said to have hooves for feet and thirteen tails. Always in a foul temper with an insatiable hunger, especially for children, Grýla will descend from her mountain in search of bad children. She will put the children into a large sack to carry back up to her mountain cave to boil alive in a stew.
The descriptions for Grýla vary widely as some accounts saying she is half troll, half animal, that she has 300 heads with three eyes on each head. Other accounts will say she has bad nails, fangs, eyes in the back of her head and horns like a goat, that her ears hang down to her shoulders and are tied to her nose. Further accounts will say her chin is bearded and that her teeth are black like charcoal.
Grýla is described as having the ability to detect naughty children all year-round. It is during Christmas time that she will come down from her mountain home to find naughty children in local towns to take back and boil alive in her cauldron. Those children who have behaved or who have repented of their misdeeds, Grýla is unable to take or must release.
Snorri Edda – Written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, Grýla is among the names of female trolls listed in his saga. Grýla is a cannibalistic mountain ogre or troll. Even in this early writing, Grýla is used to scare bad children into behaving lest she come down from her mountain cave to devour them. Sturluson’s Sage, Grýla has fifteen tails and on each tail, there are a hundred ballons and each balloon holds twenty children.
Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar – “The Folklore of Jón Árnason” gives a description of both Grýla and her husband, Leppalúði. Both of these fiends are cannibalistic trolls who mostly prey on children. Found within the Folklore of Jón Árnason, is a poem that mentions both Grýla and Leppalúði having nineteen children.
Grýla has had three different husbands. Out of boredom or spite, she killed her first two husbands.
Gustur – This is the name of Grýla’s first husband whom she killed and ate out of boredom.
Boli – This is the name of Grýla’s second husband with whom she bore many children with. Boli is noted as having been a cannibal and died of old age. Sometimes Grýla kills and eats him too.
Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current and third husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.
Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder than, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.
The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young and still needing a crib.
Having been married a few times, Grýla has some 72 children who are responsible for a variety of mischief and trouble. All ranging from harmless pranks to outright murder.
Jólasveinarnir – The Yule Lads, in the 17th century, when Grýla became associated with Christmas, she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. There are 13 Yule Lads who started off causing all sorts of mischief and trouble. Overtime and influenced by the American Santa Claus tradition, the Yule Lads became associated with gift giving and will leave either a gift of sweets ore a rotten potato in a shoe left on the window sill depending on a child’s behavior.
Jólakötturinn – The Yule Cat, as if children aren’t enough, Grýla also has a monstrous giant black cat for a pet. The Yule Cat will prey upon children and adults alike who have not received the gift of a new article of clothing. The Yule Cat will swell to a monstrous size before tearing apart its victim. So make sure your Nana or favorite Aunt has sent you a new article of clothing for Christmas. Even if it’s a pink bunny outfit, it will keep the Yule Cat from eating you!
Dark Winter Spirits
This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. With Grýla’s pre-Christmas traditions, she and all her numerous children are the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.
Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.
The character of Grýla was certainly one of these dark, spooky spirits who would come down from the mountains as a personification of Winter and the danger that comes with it. Another point of note, given Grýla’s insatiable appetite, is that she is closely related to the fear of hunger that the long, dark winter months can bring.
Grýla became associated with the Icelandic celebrations for Christmas in the 17th century. At this time, she was given the role of being the mother of the Yule Lads who bring either a gift or a rotten potato. When children get so frightened of going out for fear of being eaten that the government has to step in and ban parents from using Grýla as a fear tactic, you know you have a really scary badass that you just don’t mess with.
It has been suggested by Terry Gunnell that the tradition of Grýla may come from that of the Julebukk or Yule Goat and that her name may mean “threat” or “threatening.”
In her role as a Christmas Ogre, Grýla still hunts out misbehaving children to kidnap and eat. Later stories will sometimes have Grýla and Leppalúði die from starvation as they’re unable to find any naughty children. Though occasionally the two aren’t averse to eating adults either.
A more modern convention of the twentieth century, Grýla’s sons, the Yule Lads image softened and became more friendlier, adopting some of the Dutch tradition of leaving a shoe out so that the Lads could leave a gift if a child was good and a rotten potato if a child was bad in the thirteen days leading up to Christmas.
A satirical news site, The Onion blamed the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Grýla.
Also Known As: Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Santa (Santy in Hiberno-English), Mikulás (Hungary), Weihnachtsmann “Christmas man” (German)
That’s right, the jolly, big man in red who brings presents to all of the good boys & girls around the world on Christmas Eve or December 24th for Christmas Day.
The American Santa Claus that many have come to know and love, is often shown as a jolly, stout or portly man with a white beard who wears a red coat and pants with white trim, black boots and belt with a large sack of gifts ready to pass out for children. This imagery of Santa Claus became ingrained in the American psyche with Clement Clark Moore’s poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
But how did we get here to this beloved holiday figure?
A Santa By Any Other Name….
The mythos of Santa that we have all come to know and love is ultimately a composite and influenced by many numerous cultures, especially those found throughout Europe.
Amu Nowruz – This was the most interesting one to learn about. The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of the New Year that coincides with the official start of Spring. In Iranian tradition, Amu Nowruz appears every year at the start of Spring along with his companion Haji Firuz. Their appearance marks the beginning of Nowruz, the New Year. Amu Nowruz is often depicted as an elderly, silver or white-haired man wearing a felt hat, long blue clock, sash, pants, sandals, and carrying a walking stick. Amu Nowruz’s role is to pass on the story of Nowruz to the young.
I mention bring up Amu Nowruz because of the timing for the Christmas celebrations and how close it is to the European celebrations of the New Year. Anyone who looks at Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, knows that shepherds guard their flocks in the springtime, when its lambing season. If you study the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, you know that the date for the start of the New Year was altered.
Father Christmas – The British Santa who dates to 16th century England during King Henry VIII’s reign. Father Christmas is depicted as a large man dressed in green or scarlet robes lined with fur and is seen as the spirit of good cheer during Christmas, bringing joy, food, drink and revelry much like the Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickenson’s “A Christmas Carol.” By this time, England no longer observed Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. The Victorian revival of Christmas, has Father Christmas as a symbol of “good cheer.” Along with the Dutch Sinterklaas, Father Christmas is a major influence on the imagery of the American Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas – The historical Santa Claus that many love to point out. Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop from Myra, Turkey. Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, archers, pawnbrokers, sailors and the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas. Saint Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the 6th of December by many instead of having him come on the 24th and 25th. Martin Luther suggested the Christ kind or Christ Child is who brings presents on Christmas Day.
Sinterklaas – A figure from the Netherlands and Belgium who is a tall, stern figure known for handing out gifts to good children and switches to the naughty ones. Sinterklass rides a horse named Amerigo or Slecht Weer Vandaag. Next to Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass is another prominent figure whom many point to as the most likely progenitor to Santa Claus. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman, “the Christmas man.” In French, Santa Claus is known as Père Noël or “Father Christmas.” Sinterklass is most noted too for his assistant(s) known as Zwarte Pieten or Pères Fouettard in French. Sinterklaas has a strong connection and influence with Saint Nicholas and his festival in Myra, Turkey. Santa Claus’ name has been pointed out as an easy phonetic spelling from the Dutch into English when Dutch immigrants in the 17th & 18th century brought their Christmas traditions and thus Sinterklaas with them to America.
Woden – Or Odin, is a Germanic god. Before the Christianization of Europe, the Germanic peoples celebrated a midwinter holiday known as Yule. Many of the Yule traditions have easily found themselves incorporated into the modern celebrations of Christmas. Yule was also a time for when the Wild Hunt would ride throughout the land. Other supernatural and ghostly happenings were to occur as well. The leader of this hunt would be Woden. Additionally, it has been pointed out, that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. It has been theorized by many that Woden has influenced the imagery associated with Saint Nicholas as seen with the white beard and the horse he rides.
Other Pagan Figures – There are a number of other pagan deities such as the Roman god Saturn and his celebration of Saturnalia, the Greek god Cronos, the Holly King of Celtic mythology who signifies the dying year, the Norse god Frey, even Thor who all have some influence into the modern portrayal of Santa Claus and Christmas time celebrations.
Codifying A Legend
It’s generally agreed by many that the figures of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass and Father Christmas all play a part in merging together to create the American Santa Claus, with a few remembering Woden’s part in it too. After all, the name Santa Claus can be pointed out as a variant spelling and pronunciation to Sinterklass. The first real mention of “Santa Claus” is in 1773 in any American publications.
History of New York – A book by Washington Irving, writing in 1809, intended as a satire of the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, he is pictured as being a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe wearing a green winter coat.
A New-Year’s Present – A book published in 1821 for children, it has the poem: “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” written by an anonymous author. Here, Santeclaus is described as riding a reindeer pulled sleigh as he brings gifts for children.
A Visit From St. Nicholas – Better known as “The Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823. There’s a bit of dispute, that a Henry Livingston, Jr. who passed away nine years earlier is the actual author. This book really codified and made much of Santa’s appearance lore surrounding him cannon. Here, Santa or St. Nick is described as: “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with a round belly. He is also assumed to be small in stature given the description of his sleigh as miniature and being pulled by tiny reindeer. This story also gives us the names for the eight reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Additionally, their names had been the Dutch variations of Dunder and Blixem before getting changed.
William Gilley – A friend and neighbor to Clement Clark Moore. Gilley wrote a poem in 1821 titled Sancte Claus that also describes a Santa Claus who drives a reindeer pulled sleigh and delivers gifts by going down a chimney.
Kris Kringle – By 1845, Santa was also known by the name of Kris Kringle. Some places in the U.S. such as Pennsylvania, Santa was known as Krishkinkle.
Thomas Nast – An American cartoonist who defined the image of the American Santa as being large and heavy set. Nast did an illustration for Harper’s Weekly on January 3rd of 1863 where Santa is dressed in an American flag and a puppet by the name of “Jeff.” This was a reflection of that publication’s Civil War articles. Nast is likely the source for the part of Christmas lore that Santa lives at the North Pole with his illustration on December 29th, 1866 captioned Santa Clausville along with several other illustrations showing Santa in his workshop. Nast’s influence is been so great, that later songs, children’s books, movies, T.V. specials and even advertising continue to use it.
George P. Webster – In the same 1869 Harper Weekly publication, Webster had a poem appearing alongside some of Nast’s illustrations where Santa is described living near the North Pole, to the point, that this bit of lore has become well established in the Holiday Mythos surrounding Christmas time.
Coca-Cola Santa! – Another change to Santa’s image came in the 1930’s with Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of Santa. This of course, has led many to jump a band wagon conspiracy theory that the Coca-Cola Company invented Santa as the colors of red & white that Santa wears are the same colors as the Coca-Cola brand.
To put this conspiracy to rest, Coca-Cola is not the first soft drink company to use Santa in his familiar red & white get up to promote their products. White Rock Beverages did so in 1915 for their mineral water and then later in 1923 for ginger ale. In addition, Puck magazines used a red & white garbed Santa on their covers for the first few years of the 20th century.
He’s Making A List!
One of the things Santa is known for is maintaining a list of who all the good children are and who the naughty ones are. The good children of course get presents and the naughty ones get coal.
Letters To Santa
This is one of many traditions done by children at Christmas time. Frequently this letter is a wish list of what they hope that Santa will bring them. Wise children will know to keep the list short and not to get too greedy with their wants. Many children will also assure Santa that they’ve been doing their best to be good. Many different post offices and services will accept the letters that children have written for Santa.
The Spirit Of Giving
The very image of Santa as a gift giver has been strongly tied to many charity organizations such as Salvation Army and the number of people who seek during the holiday season to help out others. Department Store Santas and just about anyone dressed as Santa to bring gifts or to aid in fundraising efforts for those in need. In this respect, Santa Claus keeps strong connections to Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas with promoting goodwill and people being more giving and caring during this time of the year.
Whether it’s Yule or Christmas, it goes without saying, we should always be showing goodwill, giving and caring about others all year long. Since the Christmas celebrations take place in Winter, it’s especially important to remember those in need. Which is where Santa’s role as a patron Saint of Children comes into play: giving to those in need and helping to keep the magic of wonder, belief, innocence, giving and love. Life gets rough and it can get hard during the dark, cold winter months.
Coming Down The Chimney – The idea of Santa coming down the chimney to deliver his gifts, clearly connects him to his older European roots with those like Odin who would come down the chimneys on the winter solstice or the stories of Saint Nicholas where he tosses down bags of coins through a window or down a chimney to pay for a daughter’s dowry if she came from a poor family. In much of ancient European folklore, the hearth or fire place is a sacred place where the guardian spirit or fairies of a household would bring their gifts.
Stockings Hung By The Chimney With Care
Many families who celebrate Christmas have some sort of tradition with leaving stockings hung up by the fire place or laid out. This naturally references back to Saint Nicholas who was known for leaving gifts in children’s socks or shoes.
Lumps Of Coal – If a child has been particularly naughty, he or she may receive lumps of coal or a switch instead. Granted that doesn’t usually happen and is more of a warning for children to always do their best to be good.
Cookies For Santa
An offering of cookies and milk Santa Claus when he visits is fairly standard among many American families. Some will leave a carrot or two for the reindeer too.
Just what is left or offered can vary too by country.
Australia & Britain – Sherry or Beer along with mince pies are left out.
Canada & United States – Milk and Cookies are the norm.
Denmark, Norway & Sweden – Rice porridge with cinnamon sugar is left out.
Ireland – Guinness or Milk along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
“Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas” is perhaps the most iconic saying associated with Santa Claus. No just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus be rather rotund is seen as an important attribute of his and immortalized in Clement’s iconic poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for the classic lines:
“. . . a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly”
The North Pole
The north pole is where Santa is said to reside, far away from much of the world so he and especially his elves can craft toys to be delivered. The idea of Santa living at the North Pole likely originated with the artist Thomas Nast and author George P. Webster. This locality has grown up from a simple House and Workshop to a full-blown village where Santa and his helpers live.
Canada – According to the Canadian Post, Santa Claus’ postal code is H0H 0H0, as in his traditional “Ho, Ho, Ho” laugh that Santa is well known for. In 2008, Santa Claus was awarded Canadian citizenship by the Canadian minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney. This way, after Santa Claus finishes his annual, nightly rounds, he can return straight home to Canada and the North Pole without hassle.
Kyrgyzstan – There is a mountain peak named for Santa Claus. A Swedish company suggested that this mountain was more likely to be a better place for Santa to launch is gift-giving campaign from to all over the world. In 2007, a Santa Claus Festival was held in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. 2008 was declared the Year of Santa Claus.
Lapland – A region in Finland. It was pointed out in 1925 that Santa couldn’t possibly live at the North Pole as his reindeer would nowhere to graze. Radio Host “Uncle Markus” Rautio for the Finnish radio show the “Children’s Hour” revealed that Santa lives in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, meaning “Ear Fell.” It makes sense as the whole of Lapland has been pointed out to be shaped like a rabbit’s ear and it would enable to Santa to be able to hear the Christmas wishes of children the world over.
Nordic Claims – Several Nordic countries claim that Santa lives within their borders. Norway for example says that Santa lives in Drøbak. Meanwhile, Denmark claims that Santa lives in Greenland. In Finland, Korvatunturi is claimed as Santa’s home.
At first, early depictions of Santa show him making his gifts by hand in a workshop. Later, Santa is shown with a number of helpers in his annual, nightly task. After all, Santa can’t be everywhere, though he’ll do his best.
Babouschka – In Russia, Babouschka is an elderly woman who misled the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem. Later, she regretted the decision and unable to find the Wise Men, Babouschka has since then, visited the homes of Russian children, hoping that one of them is the baby Jesus when she leaves her gifts.
Belsnickel – A figure who follows Santa Claus in some regions of Europe such as Germany and Austria, he is similar to Krampus in that he will punish naughty children.
Christkind – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children to Switzerland and Germany. Christkind, meaning “Christ child” is an angelic being who helps Santa.
Ded Moroz and the Snow Maiden – Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost is accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden in the Slavic countries. Ded Moroz was once an evil wizard who kidnapped children. Ded Moroz and his granddaughter arrive on the New Year’s Eve or Day bringing gifts as he tries to atone for his one evil ways.
Elves – To make all of the toys that Santa gives out on Christmas Eve, he has the aid of a number of elves who work in his workshop. As time went on and moved into the industrial era, the means by which the elves craft and then manufacture the toys has changed.
Fake Santas! – No! That can’t be! Yet, inevitably, some bright and clever child will point out that the Mall Santa isn’t really Santa Claus. As a wise adult will point out and counter, that is because Santa Claus can’t be everywhere and that the adult dressed as Santa is just one of many, numerous helpers throughout a busy and chaotic holiday season. Many young children will generally except this explanation without question. Though older children do seem more prone to skepticism.
Father Christmas – Father Christmas, however similar to Santa he is, it is Father Christmas who comes filling stockings in Britain.
Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten is who brings gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats.
Krampus – German for “claw,” the figure of Krampus hails from the Alpine countries in Austria and Germany. Krampus has seen a revival in more recent years as a dark figure and companion to Santa Claus where he scares or beats naughty children into behaving.
La Befana – The Italian Christmas Witch, La Befana is very similar to Babouschka as she too searches for the baby Jesus and delivers gifts to children on January 6th, the Epiphany.
La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.
Pere Noel – Or Papa Noel, is a figure like Father Christmas and Santa, he is who comes bringing gifts to children in France. Instead of reindeer, Pere Noel rides a donkey named Gui, meaning “mistletoe.”
Reindeer – And not just any reindeer, eight of them that help pull Santa’s sleigh and fly through the night delivering gifts. The eight reindeer are as follows: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Further, only female reindeer keep their antlers in winter.
Rudolph – The ninth reindeer who has a glowing nose. Rudolph entered the Santa Claus mythos in 1939 when Robert L. May wrote the story for the Montgomery Ward department store to help drive up holiday traffic and sales. May used a similar rhyme like Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to tell Rudolph’s story. Later, one of May’s friends, Johnny Marks turns Rudolph’s story into a well familiar song. The rest is history as there are television specials and books featuring Rudolph and his adventures.
Tomte – Hailing from the Scandinavian countries, the Tomte or Nisse as small gnome-like characters who bring gifts.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
What About Mrs. Claus?
As this seems to have been a thing that weighs on some people’s minds, many authors have written, saying that yes, Santa Claus is married.
Just what does she do? Besides stay home and take care of the house and all of the elves? I personally imagine her being La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. Hey, not everyone believes in Santa and there’s other Christmas time figures who all likely deliver gifts to their respective areas and those who believe in them.
Tracking Santa On His Nightly Runs
With the arrival of the internet age, there have come many websites and even a few T.V. programs that will track Santa Claus on his nightly run during Christmas. Many of these sites have come and gone over the years. The most amusing origin of one such site, NORAD came about when in 1955, a Sears ad misprinted the phone number that had children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead on Christmas Eve. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the then Director of Operations received the first phone call, he told children that there were indeed signs of Santa heading south. This kicked off a whole tradition of tracking Santa with NORAD when later in 1958, Canada and the United States created the North American Air Defense Command.
Many parents will use the websites as a means of enforcing a bedtime. That Santa can’t come if you’re still awake.
The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus
Written by L. Frank Baum who also wrote the Wizard of Oz series, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” was written in 1902 before much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus became cannon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would latter take on the role of Santa Claus after Ak, the Master Woodsman shows Neclaus the misery and poverty that other humans know.
There has been a Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion animation adaptation of this story as well as a traditionally animated adaptation of this story. Since so much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus seems pretty well set and known, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” often provides an alternative spin and take on the Santa legend. To me, it’s rather satisfactory in answering how Santa got his start and became the well-known, beloved Holiday figure he is today.
With the strong connections to Wodin/Odin in the mythology behind Santa Claus, many have pointed out the more pagan origins of Christmas, of which there are indeed a lot. With Santa Claus, they will point that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.
It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North American during the 17th century and first founded the American Colonies; that would later become the United States, that Santa Claus wasn’t welcomed and even banned. For the Puritans, the image of Santa Claus was too pagan, too much a part of the Roman Catholic Church and took away from the celebration of Christmas, focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ. Hell, Christmas celebrations were even banned at first. The celebrations at this time involved a lot of riotous, drunkenness and public displays of disorder. Christmas as it would be known today didn’t exist.
At this time, with the harvest season clearly over, many of the lower class laborers coming in from the fields now had plenty of leisure time. Workers and Servants alike sought to take the upper hand with the higher-ups, demanding largess in the way of money and food. Industrialists in America were all too willing to increase the work hours and fewer holidays than in Europe.
I get it, Christmas got started in the first place with the Roman Catholic Church trying to appease and convert Pagans to Christianity. Many pagan holidays got replaced with those of Christian ones, the imagery from Pagan ones replaced with Christian ones. So you clearly get a Pagan and Christian side to the celebration of Christmas. One that can get some strongly devout followers trying to denounce the more pagan overtones, of which, Santa Claus is just one of may holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, its easy to see why early devout Puritans and Calvinists didn’t want to observe Christmas.
Not until after the Revolutionary War did Christmas start being celebrated, this time they included Santa Claus. We can thank all the later immigrants who brought their Christmas traditions and brought Father Christmas and Sinterklaas who would blend together to become the familiar, beloved Santa Claus. Otherwise, Christmas as many in the U.S. would come to know it, wouldn’t exist.
The 19th century saw a cultural change. There was getting to be more focus on family home life and seeing childhood as a precious time to be protected. Part of this saw Christmas become “tamed” and the image of Santa Claus as a friend and protector of children became prominent.
Even today, the controversy continues, you still have those who feel that Santa Claus’ presence takes away from the focus of the season, that he’s too pagan. It didn’t stop some like Reverend Nedergaard, from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1958 calling Santa a “pagan goblin.” Really?
You have those, rightfully so, who feel the holiday has gotten far too commercialized and materialistic. You can’t blame them as many retailers do take advantage of the holiday as a time to boost and market sales. So yes, you can reclaim the holiday by making sure to give others and charity, spending time with family and spend less on pricey gifts so that they are more meaningful.
Then you get into those clergies and parents who feel you shouldn’t lie to children about Santa Claus being real. Which is hard, because, you can certainly point towards the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. He was real and lived. If you’re Christian, he became a Saint for his actions, a patron saint of children.
In a twist of irony, while some Churches still try to stamp out Santa Claus, others have found that having Santa there along with a Christmas tree and gifts actually gets people coming in. Go figure.
Childhood should be a time of wonder and hope. Yes, this is the time when many beliefs and conceptions about the world will be formed. Many children will figure out the reality of Santa Claus on their own. It should be a parent who decides to inform their child or not. Not some random stranger with a grudge who must go out of their way to destroy someone else’s fun, festivities and celebrations by enforcing their views.
In theater, we have the “Suspension of Disbelief.” You can at least do that before destroying someone else’s holiday good cheer. Go take over and live in the Grinch’s cave if you’re going to have to bah humbug the holiday season.