Santa is a Wildman! 

Jeffrey Vallance in The Land of Hoarfrost

Illustration by Jeffrey Vallance

IN 1961, WHEN I WAS 6 YEARS old, my parents took me to Santa's Village, a rundown alpine-theme amusement park near Lake Arrowhead. We also took special trips to the "town" of Santa Claus, near Santa Barbara, to have the family Christmas cards stamped with the special Santa Claus postmark. I remember the wonderfully kitsch giant Santa statue sitting atop the roof there — lately destroyed thanks to a battle waged by uptight Santa Barbara residents. My memories of those days are as faded as the family snapshots, but nevertheless they had a great impact on my life.

Like most children, I took for granted the traditional Santa trappings: the jolly round elf in the furry red suit with the long white beard; the festive sleigh pulled by unearthly reindeer; the elves in weirdly colorful costumes who worked in Santa's workshop far away at the North Pole. But because of my grandfather, who hailed from Trondheim, Norway, and who painted and sculpted nisse (gnomes) that looked like mini Santas, the Christmas arcana held a special value.

Never would I have dreamed that one day I would live in Lapland, the only portion of Europe that extends above the Arctic Circle, and the traditional home of Santa Claus. But in 1999, I was offered a three-year job as professor in international contemporary art at Umeå University in northern Sweden. Lapland (or Sàpmi) extends across northern Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Kola Peninsula in Russia, and is the homeland of the Lapps, more political correctly called the Saami. In Lapland, I regularly wore a fur-trimmed coat while traveling through the snow in the Arctic wilderness by way of a reindeer sleigh. I frequently dined on huge reindeer steaks, and, like Santa, I became rounder and jollier while my beard turned hoarier.

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When I first arrived in the Land of Hoarfrost, I was puzzled by the enigmatic heraldic symbol of Lapland, the wildman — a hairy, reddish, bestial character dressed in leaves, wielding a gnarled club. To me he looked like a typical prehistoric caveman or the Jolly Green Giant. I collected vague reports of an actual Swedish wildman (Snömannen), a yeti-like creature believed to inhabit the remote areas of the forest. One day when wandering through the wilds of Lapland, I beheld an astonishing thing: a colossal statue of the wildman painted bright red with a snowy white beard. From a distance it looked like Santa Claus. As I stood at the base, staring up at the Herculean statue, it hit me like a hunk of red-hot ejecta from Mount Hekla: Santa Claus, the wildman and Snömannen must spring from the same ancient source. I determined to find the connections between these enigmatic characters.

The Wildman

THE WILDMAN OF THE MIDDLE AGES WAS described as a grotesque, bestial, ape-like creature, dark, filthy and bearded. Its body was covered in thick, matted hair and gave off a foul odor. (In later depictions of the wildman, his fur was often replaced by leaves.) Sometimes horned, with a prominent sex organ or wielding a club, he was considered frenzied and insane, and was the personification of lust and debauchery. He was known to mate with humans. The habitat of the wildman was the northern woods where he lived in a cave or den. His traditional beast of burden was the reindeer. The wildman shares all these traits with the yeti as well as the devil. (Satan would often appear to Martin Luther as an ape-like entity with filthy, matted hair exuding a heinous odor.) In the 17th century, Pope Gregory I set the specifications of Satan, describing him as dark in color, with horns, hooves and a terrible stench. The devil is also known as Nikolas, or Old Nick for short, while nickel is a term for a demon. In various regions, the wildman is known as Chläus, Div, Djadek, Jass, Kinderfresser (child eater), Klapperbok, Old Scratch, Thomasniklo and Schrat. Over the ages, the brutal wildman figure evolved into a character more like a clown or holiday fool. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss follows a classic wildman scenario: The Grinch is a hairy, Bigfoot-like creature that lives in an alpine cave in a mountain similar to the Matterhorn.

St. Nicholas

ACCORDING TO ECCLESIASTICAL LEGENDS, Santa Claus or St. Nicholas (A.D. 280­343) was born in Patara, Lycia (Turkey today). Nicholas became Bishop of Myra and was known for performing many miracles. One story tells how Nicholas preserved the chastity of three young girls. The saint discovered that a poverty-stricken man was about to sell his three virgin daughters into child prostitution. In the night, Nicholas threw three orbs of gold down the man's chimney, thus saving the girls from their unspeakable plight. From this source we now have Santa going down the chimney as well as the gleaming, orb-like Christmas-tree ornament.

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