Category Archives: Hearth
Pronounced: BRIJ-id or BREE-id
Etymology: “Exalted” (Old Irish), “High”
Also Spelled: Brigit, Brid, Brig
Also Called: Brigantia, Brid, Bride, Briginda, Brigdu, Brigit, Brighid-Muirghin-na-tuinne, Brighid Conception of the Waves, Brighid-Sluagh (or Sloigh), Brighid of the Immortal Host, Brighid-nan-sitheachseang, Brighid of the Slim Fairy Folk, Brighid-Binne-Bheule-lhuchd-nan-trusganan-uaine, Song-sweet (melodious mouthed), Brighid of the Tribe of the Green Mantles, Brighid of the Harp, Brighid of the Sorrowful, Brighid of Prophecy, Brighid of Pure Love, St. Bride of the Isles, Bride of Joy
Titles & Epitaphs: The Bright One, Fiery Arrow, Fire of the Forge, Fire of the Hearth, Fire of Inspiration, The Powerful One, The High One, Great Mother Goddess of Ireland, Lady of the Sacred Flame, Eternal Flame of Life, Flame of Inspiration, The Mistress of the Mantle
The goddess Brigid is an ancient Irish goddess who pre-dates the arrival of Christianity to Ireland. A member of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the daughter of the Dagda, Brigid’s influence was such that after Christianity’s arrival, she would be adopted as a Saint when Catholicism couldn’t wipe out the old beliefs.
It has to be noted that a lot of early Celtic, Irish history has been lost and what we do have that survives about Brigid is through the filter of Christianity.
Animal: Oxen, Boars, Serpents, Sheep, Domestic Animals
Colors: Black, Blue, Green, Red, White, Yellow
Element: Fire, Water
Gem Stone: Agate, Amethyst, Carnelian, Fire Agate, Jasper
Metal: Brass, Copper, Gold, Iron, Silver
Month: February (“Mí na Féile Bride” or “The Month of the Festival of Brigit”)
Patron of: Arts & Crafts, Cattle, Domestic Animals, Smithing, Poetry, Healing, Medicine, Sacred Wells, Spring
Planet: Sun, Venus
Plant: Bay, Broom, Chamomile, Corn, Crocus, Dandelion, Heather, Oak, Oat, Pumpkin, Rosemary, Rushes, Sage, Shamrock, Snowdrop, Straw, Thyme, Trillium
Sphere of Influence: Agriculture, Divination, Domesticated Animals, all Feminine Arts, Fertility, Healing, the Hearth, Inspiration, Knowledge, Love, Martial Arts, Poetry, Prophecy, Protection, Smithing, Wisdom
Symbols: Brigid’s Cross, Corn Dolly
There are several aspects attributed to Brigid. Some of these are easily figured out from the myths and stories surrounding Brigid. Others do not appear to be so cut and dry as they vary based on individual Wiccan and modern Pagan traditions.
What’s In A Name
I’m sure there are more than a few who saw the title and immediately popped off how there are other spellings to the name Brigid. And they are correct. The spellings of Brigid, Brighid, and Brigit are all variations of the same name. Notably, the spelling of Brigit is the old Irish spelling with the others representing more modern spellings. A spelling reform in 1948 sees the name changed to a spelling of Brid.
It’s of interest and note the Proto Indo-European word “brgentih” (and I’ve likely got that spelling wrong still) that’s the feminine form of “bergonts” meaning “high.” This is similar to the Proto-Celtic word Briganti meaning “The High One.” This is taken to be a cognate of the ancient British goddess Brigantia. In Sanskrit, there is the word Brhati that also means “high” and is the epithet of the Hindi dawn goddess Ushas. This has caused the suggestion by the scholar Xavier Delamarre that Brigid could be a continuation of an Indo-European dawn goddess.
From there, you can see the potential of how this word has continued in various European languages, the first bit of evidence is pointed towards the Medieval Latin spelling of Brigit for its written form. This connection continues with all the modern English spellings of Bridget and Bridgit, the Austrian Bregenz, the Finnish Piritta, the French Brigitte, the Gallacian Braga and Bragança, the Gaulish Brigindu, the Great Britain Brigantia and Brigantis, the Italian Brigida, the Old High German Burgunt, the Scottish Brighde and Bride, the Swedish Birgitta, and the Welsh Ffraid, Braint or Breint.
The Sanas Cormaic or Cormac’s Glossary gives the name Breo Saighead that’s supposed to mean “fiery arrow.” This etymology is considered suspect by scholars today.
Epitaph Versus Proper Name
Further, one thing I found, focuses on the etymology of the root word or syllable “brig.” The name has been noted to appear in a lot of places with numerous, regional variations. When going back to the ancient Celts, this word “brig” is said evoke a sense of power with just the meaning of “Exalted” or “High.”
Noted too is that there are at least three goddesses with the variation of brig in their names. Brigindo in Gaul, Brigantia in Northern England, Brig of Ireland, and Bricta. This has caused some to come to the conclusion that all of these goddesses are the same one.
Parentage and Family
Father – The Dagda, an All-Father figure, King or Chief and Druid of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Mother – Danu, the Mother goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Other sources will list the Morrigan as Brigid’s mother.
Cermait, Aengus, Aed, Bodb Derg, Brigid the healer, and Brigid the smith, Midir
Bres – A Fomorian, appointed King by Nuada in order to bring peace.
Tuireann – Another story places Brigid having married him.
Ruadán – Brigid’s son with Bres, he would later be killed by Goibniu.
Brian, Iuchar, and Irchaba – Brigid’s sons with Tuireann. These three sons slew Cian, the father of Lugh of the Long-Arm while transformed into a pig.
Tuatha Dé Danann
Or the people of Danu, they are considered the original inhabitants and gods of Ireland. It should be of little surprise that Brigid is from this lineage of deities. In some sources, Brigid is identified as being Danu herself.
Birth Of A Goddess
Brigid is an ancient goddess worshipped throughout much of Ireland. The few legends that survive, hold that Brigid was born at the exact moment of dawn. That Brigid rose up into the sky with the rising sun with rays of fire or light coming from her head. Wherever Brigid walked, flowers and shamrocks would grow. As an infant, Brigid was fed milk from a sacred cow of the Otherworld.
Otherworld – Liminal Boundaries
As a goddess of the dawn as that is the time of day that Brigid was born, she has a connection to the Otherworld. In the Celtic world, that is the land of Faery. Brigid also owned an apple orchard in the Otherworld and bees would bring her their nectar to the earth.
As a goddess and guardian of domesticated animals, the most common are cattle or oxen. The animals belonging to Brigid are said to cry out warnings. As a goddess of the land, when the land was in turmoil, Brigid’s sacred animals would keen for it.
Cirb – the “king of wethers,” one of the rams that belong to Brigid. The plain of Cirb is named after this ram.
Fea & Femen – These are two of the ox that Brigid is said to have. The Mag Fea, the plain of the River Barrow, and Mag Femin, the plain of the River Suir are both named after them. Other sources will name these oxen as being from Dil and are “radiant of beauty.”
Torc Triath – the “king of boars” also belongs to Brigid. The plain of Treithirne is named after this boar.
Goddess of Blacksmithing
The art of blacksmithing and forging metal has been held as a mystical art in many older cultures and religions. By today’s standards that doesn’t seem so mystical. It does still require a lot of strength, skill, and knowledge to shape and bend molten metal into various forms.
As a goddess of blacksmithing, this aspect of creation also extends itself to other crafts and arts.
Goddess & Protector Of The Hearth
Some have seen in the perpetual fires kept at Kildare, that this also connects Brigid as a goddess of the hearth. Much like the Roman Vestia and Greek Hestia who kept the hearth. The women of the household would keep the home fires going, going over it at night to seek out Brigid’s protection of the home.
With Brigid’s connection to her celebration at Imbolc, she is seen as a fertility goddess as this spring celebration held in February saw many livestock having given birth for the coming year. As a fertility goddess, Brigid is also a mother goddess who would protect mothers and babies.
It is also interesting to note, with Brigid’s name, we see one shortening of the name to Brid or Bride from which the English word for a bride, for marriage comes from. Certain stories out of Celtic lore strongly show the tie that a King has with the land. That there would need to be a marriage to the goddess of the land to ensure the strength and welfare of the kingdom.
The snake enters here as a symbol of regeneration and renewal, connecting her to Spring.
Goddess Of Healing
As a goddess of the arts and crafts and see in Saint Brigid of Kildare, the goddess Brigid is also a goddess of healing, who knows all the herbs and arts needed for healing.
Goddess Of Poetry & Wisdom
As a goddess who oversaw many numerous aspects of early Irish life, it’s little wonder that many people feel an affinity for Brigid. Even in Cormac’s Glossary, written in the 9th century C.E., Christian monks wrote how Brigid is “the goddess whom poets adored.” Lady Augusta Gregory also describes Brigit as a woman of poetry and whom poets worshiped.
There isn’t much known about how the ancient Celts and their beliefs. As a goddess of poetry, Brigid could easily be a goddess who oversaw the passing on of oral traditions and stories. Brigid could also be the goddess who inspires creativity much like the Greek muses.
Filid – This is a class of poets who are known and said to have worshiped Brigid.
Brigid – Deific Title
Back to Cormac’s Glossary, this source explains how Brigid has two sisters, Brigid the Healer and Brigid the Smith. The book further explains that the name Brigid is a title that all Irish goddesses hold. It would explain the proliferation of the name Brigid and the numerous spelling variations as a personal name.
The Lebor Gabála Érenn
Also known as The Book of Invasions, this text chronicles the origins of the Tuatha Dé Danann and their battles against the Fomorians and Firbolgs.
Cath Maige Tuired – During the First Battle of Magh Tuiredh, King Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann lost his hand the battle against the Fomorians. As a result, by the Tuatha Dé Danann customs, Nuada wasn’t seen as a whole and could no longer lead.
As a final act with abdicating the throne and hoping to bring peace between the Tuatha Dé Danann and Fomorians, Nuada appointed Bres of the Fomorians king and Brigid of the Tuatha Dé Danann married Bres to seal the alliance.
Side note: During this era of Irish history, lineages were matrilineal, so it really is not as much of surrendering to the Fomorians as it appears.
Second Battle of Moytura – Brigid and Bres’ union would result in a son, Ruadan who later on is killed by Goibniu. When Ruadán died, Brigid began keening, a combination of singing and wailing as she mourned her son’s death. Keening is the Irish custom among women to wail and mourn the loss of their relatives.
Brigid is also noted for the invention of a whistle used for traveling at night.
Either as a goddess or as a saint, many holy wells throughout Ireland were held sacred by Brigid. A practice is known as Well dressing, where rags would be tied off on trees next to trees were the means by which to petition Brigid for healing from her sacred wells or to honor her.
Places, where the water came up from the earth, were seen as portals to the Otherworld and the source of Brigid’s power of divining and prophecy.
Wishing Wells – Water is symbolic of wisdom and healing. There was a custom born from the belief that Brigid would reward any offering to her. Offerings of coins would be tossed into her wells. This custom would become the custom of wishing wells and tossing a penny into a fountain of water.
Brigid’s Well in County Clare – Located near the Cliffs of Moher, this well is located at a church and is near the church’s cemetery.
Brigid’s Well in Kildare – Perhaps the most well-known of Brigid’s wells, the waters of this well were believed to heal any ailments or wounds.
Also called a triskele, this is a three or four-armed cross that is made from rushes or straw. It is an ancient symbol that would be set over doors and windows to protect the home from harm. One tradition says this cross will protect the home from fire.
Also known as Candlemas and called Latha Fheill in Gaelic, this is Brigid’s feast day that is held either February 1st or 2nd, it is a festival that celebrates the first day of Spring within Irish tradition and marked the beginning of the year. Brigid’s connection to the element of fire and as a Sun goddess shows her connection with this celebration. In the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Communion, and Eastern Orthodox Church, this day is known as Saint Brigid’s Day.
Modern Observances of this day outside of modern Paganism and Wicca often know February 2nd to coincide with Groundhog’s Day, the day when the groundhog comes out and sees its shadow or not will predict a longer or shorter winter. In the Carmina Gadelica, a snake coming out of a mound on Latha Fheill to predict a longer or shorter winter.
On this day, people are known to create the Brigid’s Cross for the protection of the home. A dolly made out of straw or corn that represents Brigid is invited into the house by the matriarchy of the family. This dolly is dressed in white and placed in a basket to bless the house. Offerings of loaves of bread, milk, and a candle are left out. A cake known as a bairin or breac would be baked by farmer’s wives as they invited the neighbors over to enjoy the festivities of a long winter over and the arrival of Spring.
Farmers were known to give gifts of butter and buttermilk to their less fortunate neighbors. Other farmers will kill some of their sheep livestock to send the meat to those in need. Brigid herself, either as a goddess or Saint was known to travel around the countryside on the eve of Imbolc, blessing the people and their livestock.
Scottish Story – In this story, Brigid as Bride is kidnapped by Beira, the Queen of Winter. Bride was held prisoner on the mountain Ben Nevis. In order to free Bride, a spell would need to be cast, a spell that would take three days from the month of August. Freed, Bride the goddess of the sun is now able to bring back the sun and light and thus Spring.
It has been noted that Brigid has two sisters, Brigid the Healer and Brigid the Smith. There’s a strong suggestion that Brigid may have been revered as a triple goddess. Even in modern Wicca and Neo-Paganism, she is a goddess often identified with the Maiden aspect of the Goddess. In this aspect, Brigid is worshiped alongside Cernunnos in many traditions. It has also been commented that as a triple goddess, it could account for there being so many local goddesses who may have happened to share the same name.
Darlughdacha – Dr. Mary Condren has suggested that Darlughdacha may have been the original name for the goddess Brigid, that Brigid as the “Exalted One” is a title.
The name Darlughdacha appears again when Brigid is Christianized as Saint Brigid. Here Darlughdacha is a very close friend and companion of Saint Brigid, even so far as to share the same bed.
Hmm… very interesting. This Darlughdacha becomes the abbess of Kildare after the first Saint Brigid’s death. For it was custom that the abbess of Kildare would take the name Brigid when taking up that role.
Saint Brigid – Catholic Saint
If you can’t beat them, join them! Plus, you can’t discuss the goddess Brigid without talking about her survival as a Saint. Given the name Brigid and its many variations, there may indeed have been a real person who would become the Catholic saint. Though given all of the similar attributes that this ancient Irish goddess and Saint have, Saint Brigid is easily an adaptation by the Catholic Church, where if they couldn’t get people to stop worshiping Brigid. There is even a feast day held on February 1st that corresponds with a pagan festival of Imbolc. In the end, one and the same being.
Mortal Origins – When held as separate from her divine origins, Saint Brigid is said to be the daughter of the druid, Dubthach. Her father brought Brigid from the Isle of Iona, the “Druid’s Isle” to Ireland.
Saint Patrick – Most people know of Saint Patrick as the patron saint of Ireland and the story of his driving out the snakes. What most may not be familiar with, is that Saint Brigid is considered a contemporary to him, sharing equal status with him as Ireland’s Patron Saint.
Saint Brigid of Kildare – This is the title that Saint Brigid is often known by. She is associated with the eternal sacred flames attended to by nineteen nuns in her sanctuary of Kildare, Ireland. These nineteen nuns would tend the sacred fires of Kildare for nineteen days with Brigid herself, being the one who kept the fire going on the twentieth day. The site for Kildare was chosen due to its elevation above a grove of oaks. Oaks were held to be so sacred that no weapons were permitted near them. Kildare was reported by Giraldus Cambrensis and others to be surrounded by a hedge that could drive men insane who tried to cross it or to become crippled or die. This tending to a sacred flame is not unlike the Greek goddess Hestia or the Roman Vesta who also tended the hearth and sacred flames.
With what appears to be a strong survival of a Celtic tradition of vestal priestesses, these women were trained and then would go throughout the land to attend various sacred wells, groves, hills, and caves. This was originally thirty years of service where they would then be allowed to leave and marry. This thirty-year period was divided into the first ten years in training, the next ten years practicing their duties and responsibilities. The last ten years would be spent training and teaching others. This wasn’t just keeping a sacred fire going, this was a study of the sciences and healing arts and possibly the laws of the state.
An interesting note is that Kildare comes from the words “Cill Dara,” meaning the Church of the Oak. The area around it was known as Civitas Brigitae or “The City of Brigid.” The abbess of Kildare was seen as the reincarnation of Saint Brigid and would take her name on investiture. The sacred flames of Kildare would burn continually until 1132 C.E. when Dermot MacMurrough decided to have a relative invested as the abbess. Due to politics, Dermot’s army overran the convent to rape the current abbess and discredit them. Kildare wouldn’t be the same after that, losing much of the power it held and King Henry VIII finally had the sacred flames put out during the Reformation.
Law Giver – During Kildare’s heyday, when the saint Herself reigned, Brigid went from being a Mother Goddess to a Lawgiver, much like the Roman Minerva. During this time, when laws were written and then codified by Christianity, it is Brigid herself who made sure that the rights of women were upheld. Before, these laws had been committed to memory by oral traditions.
The Lives of the Saints – In this text, Saint Brigid is placed as the midwife to Mary and was thus present at Jesus’ birth. Saint Brigid places three drops of water on the infant Jesus’ head. It comes across pretty clear that this is a Christian adaptation of Celtic myth with the birth of the Sun and the three drops representing wisdom.
The stories continue with Saint Brigid being a foster mother to Jesus. Fostering was a common practice among the Celts. When Herod comes to kill all the male infants, Saint Brigid is there to save Jesus from death. From this story, Saint Brigid wears a headdress of candles to light their way to safety.
These stories have earned Saint Brigid the titles of “The Mary of Ireland” and Muime Chriosd, “Foster Mother of Christ.” This is interesting to note as in Celtic society were held in high regard, much like the Italian custom of godparents.
The Two Lepers – There are many stories of Brigid’s miracles and healing. This popular story involves two lepers who arrived at Kildare seeking healing. Brigid informed them that they should bathe each until their skin healed.
When the first leper was healed, they felt revulsion towards the other and refused to touch them or bathe them. Angry, Brigid caused the first leper’s disease to return. Then she took her cloak and placed it over the second leper, instantly healing them.
Apocryphal Gospel of Thomas – An excluded book from the “standard” Bibles, Thomas claims that a web was woven to protect an infant Jesus from harm. Something that is in keeping with Saint Brigid’s deific connections to domestic arts such as weaving wool from her lambs.
Athena – Greek Goddess
A Greek goddess of war, wisdom and women’s crafts such as weaving, Brigid is frequently seen as a Celtic counterpart to this goddess.
Brigindo – Gaulish Goddess
A Gaulish goddess of healing, crafts, and fertility, Brigindo has been equated as a continental cognate to Brigid.
Brigantia – British Goddess
A British goddess during the Roman occupation of Britain, she is a personification of the Brigantes in Northern England and Wexford Ireland. While there are plenty of attempts to link the two as the same goddess, there’s just enough evidence to show that Brigid and Brigantia are two separate and distinct goddesses.
Brigantia is seen as the patroness of warfare or Briga. Her soldiers were called Brigands. This connection sees some scholars linking Brigantia to the Roman Minerva and Greek Athena.
Bricta – Gaulish Goddess
A Gaulish goddess; it has been suggested this name is more a title and belongs to Sirona, a goddess of healing. The name or title of Bricta has been connected to Brig and thus Brigid.
Maman Brigitte – Haitian Goddess
Saint Brigid has been connected to Maman Brigitte as a syno-deity. Maman Brigitte is a Voodoo goddess or Loa who protects those graves within a cemetery marked with a cross. She is the wife to Ghede or Baron Samedi.
Minerva – Roman Goddess
A Roman goddess of war, wisdom, and women’s crafts such as weaving, Brigid is frequently seen as a Celtic counterpart to this goddess.
Oya – Yoruban Goddess
A mother goddess who is a patroness of many aspects such as winds, lightnings, violent storms, death, cemeteries, rebirth and the market place. It is Oya’s role as a Warrior Queen as a protector of women and justice that there connects her to Brigid and Saint Brigid the strongest.
Sulis – Romano-British
A local Celtic Solar goddess of Bath or Somerset. She is a goddess of the healing spring found there. Sulis has been equated with Brigid.
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. Not just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus as 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”
I also found where the Oxford English Dictionary says that a double or triple is used to indicate “derision or derisive laughter” and that this likely goes back to the late 12th century and was certainly in usage during the 16th century. Plus it’s noted that a single “ho” or “ha” would mean surprise as in success or taunting someone.
I kind of find the “ho, ho, ho!” as derisive difficult to label Santa Claus with. However, if we’re looking at his antics to break into houses and leave presents and his merry, jolly outlook as he delights in bringing holiday cheer to everyone or avoids getting shot off of someone’s trailer because all they can see is a venison locker filled up with eight tiny reindeer; then I can see the mischievous side of Santa with narrowly escaping children trying to stay up for Santa, trying to catch him or any other holiday shenanigans.
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.
Christkindel – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children in 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.
Hans Trapp – A terrifying scarecrow who accompanies Saint Nicholas in the French regions of Alsace.
Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten is who brings gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats.
Knecht Ruprecht – A figure similar to Belsnickel in Germany known for giving gifts or doling out punishments.
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 canon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would later 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 out that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.
It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North America 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, and the imagery from Pagan ones were 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 many holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia-old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, it’s 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 also 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 to others and charity, spending time with family, and spending 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 has 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.