In 1897, 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote the New York Sun a letter, asking simply, “Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”
Almost a hundred years after Virginia’s letter, I had the privilege as a journalist to travel around the Arctic Circle as part of a circumpolar outreach. We visited 14 Arctic cities in seven nations in the course of a week. And what I discovered is that each region claimed to be the home of Santa Claus.
Most Santa-philes trace the origins of Santa Claus to Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop, famous for giving generously to the poor. He’s the basis for the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas.
The pagan rituals of Germanic Europe got rolled in, along with the midwinter celebration of Yule, marked by the appearance of the Norse God Odin, who along with being the father of Thor, was also recognized by his long white beard. He in turn came to be known to the Anglo Saxons as Father Christmas.
The name Santa Claus first appeared in the American press in 1773.
Santa himself has a much documented history, but what of the other Christmas characters and rituals, like Reindeer and Santa bringing gifts down the chimney? And why do we associate him with the North Pole?
The first mention of Santa’s reindeer-powered sleigh came in Clement Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or as most people know it, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
But — as I learned on my round the world journey — that may not be the whole story.
The people of northern and eastern Russia were, and are, reindeer herders. Life revolves around the reindeer, providing both food and transportation; harnessed together to pull sleds. It’s a culture based in shamanism. As tradition has it, the shamans would visit Siberian families, where the people lived not in igloos but in yurts made of reindeer hides with an opening at the top, much like a chimney. After a heavy winter snow storm sometimes the only opening in the yurt was the chimney itself, through which the shamans would drop gifts to the family below.
So Santa, it would seem borrows a little something from Christianity to Shamanism. From Greece to Siberia.
So as the New York Sun wrote more than 100 years ago: Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And he’s been around a very, very long time.
From my home to yours — Merry Christmas, everyone.
John’s opinions are his own, and not necessarily those of Denali Media or its employees.