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.
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 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.
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.
In A.D. 540, an ornate basilica was constructed over St. Nicholas' humble tomb in Myra. In A.D. 800, the saint's legend was brought to Scandinavia by the Vikings, where it merged with much older pagan myths of trolls and elves. In 1087, Italian merchants broke into Santa's crypt in Myra, stole his remains and spirited them off to Italy. The relics of St. Nicholas were then preserved in the Basilica of St. Nicola in Bari, Italy. In 1823, Clement Moore published A Visit From Saint Nicholas, which was to become the holy scriptures of Santa Claus: “He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,/And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.” In the 1940s the Coca-Cola Company adopted Santa as their mascot in a popular ad campaign for their drink made from the kola nut. Santa in a cleaned-up and stylized costume (in red and white — the company's colors) was used in the promotional graphics and became the standard Santa look.
A TYPE OF WILDMAN, THE SNÄMANNEN (snowman) purportedly inhabits northern Scandinavia in Lapland, including the Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden and Finland as well as Russian Lapland (the Kola Peninsula) and Siberia. The Lapp Snowman is not to be confused with the Christmas character Frosty the Snowman, a huge snowball with coal (soot) for eyes and mouth, a carrot for a nose, holding a broom like a chimney sweep. The Snömannen is described as a dark, ape-like creature covered in thick, dirty, stinky hair — more like the abominable snowman. His face is broad with prominent brow ridges, nose pressed flat, and a mouth that juts out from a huge jaw. His arms are larger than a man's, and his feet are enormous, with hairless soles. In mountainous regions, the Snömannen's coat turns silver or snow-white in winter. Snömannen's favorite food is cranberries.
CHRISTMAS IS A FESTIVE HOLIDAY in Sàpmi, the Saami homeland. The Saami await a Yuletide visit from a giant, horned and hairy wildman named Stallo. In Lappish, stallo means “metal man.” Sometimes Stallo is dressed in stylish, all-black clothes like an MIB (man in black) or in a metallic suit (as conspiracy theorists conjecture, a robot or ancient astronaut in a space suit). Most likely the metal suit was the chain-mail armor of the berserker Vikings. The amoral Stallo delights in macabre acts of genital mutilation of his innocent victims. (Stallo pokes his staff up the skirts of young girls.) On Christmas Eve, Stallo rides around in his sleigh looking for something to drink. Traditionally, the Saami drive a stake into the ground near a fresh-water supply so Stallo can tie up his sled while having a refreshing gulp of water. If Stallo cannot find anything to drink, he will bash in a child's skull, sucking out the brains and blood to satiate his thirst. The most dangerous night for Lapp children is Christmas Eve, when Stallo lurks about looking for naughty victims to cram into his sack.
IN SWEDEN, SANTA (JULTOMTEN) lives in Tomteland, also known as Santa World. Three hundred sixty million years ago, a gigantic meteor struck central Sweden with the impact of a thousand atomic detonations, blasting out a crater that eventually filled with water, becoming Lake Siljan. The high mountains around the lake are actually sides of the crater, and here at the base of Mount Gesunda, Swedish Santa built his workshop. Jultomten is akin to the King of the Foresttype wildman: stout, bearded, dressed in furs. He cares for animals and has shamanistic powers over the elements. According to legend, Jultomten lived deep in the forest long before he showed himself to humans. It is said that Santa used to roam around the Swedes' farms during the night. He would creepy-crawl into children's rooms, touching them to bestow prophetic dreams. To this day, on Christmas Eve Swedes still leave porridge, milk or tobacco to appease the mischievous little elf, similar to Americans leaving milk and cookies for Santa.
AT FIRST I WAS PUZZLED BY THE LINE in Clement Moore's poem concerning the miniature sleigh and tiny reindeer. Then, as I was researching the Saami shaman drum, it became crystal clear. The shaman beats his drum until he reaches the specific rhythm and tone that sends him into a trancelike state of ecstasy. In this altered state called gievvot, his soul travels to the spirit world to converse with the dead. But first, the drum must be granted “life” by means of a particular ritual, and possessed by a guardian spirit — most commonly a reindeer. The shaman, with the help of his reindeer guide (or basseváresarves), can take his spiritual journey. On the drum skin are painted (in alder bark mixed with spit) various blood-red symbols that help guide the shaman on his “reindeer vision” across the cosmic road (the Milky Way) to Jábmeájmoo, the Land of the Dead.
One symbol is a miniature sleigh pulled by a tiny reindeer. This image is used by the shaman to “ride into the sky,” calling to mind Santa's Christmas Eve flight. On the other hand, Siberian shamans feed psychedelic mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) to their reindeer. The animals' metabolism removes the toxins from the mushrooms but leaves the hallucinogenic properties intact in the urine. The shamans then drink the reindeer pee to “fly high.” In the American drug subculture, the slang term “sleigh riding” refers to a drugged-out state, while “reindeer dust” is another word for cocaine.
HOW DID SANTA GET THE POWER TO fly like the wind? In A Visit From Saint Nicholas, the saint's aerial acrobatics are described thus: “He sprang to his sleigh, to the team gave a whistle,/And away they all flew like the down from a thistle.” In Lapland, the Saami shaman (called the Magi of the North) is believed to have the power to raise the wind and storms. In olden times, Lapp sorcerers sold “wind knots” to sailors in the form of three knots tied in a handkerchief. As the knots are untied, the winds would increase. Sailors beware — the loosening of the third knot can cause a maelstrom.
The power of the air (including miraculous flight) is either controlled by evil (Satan) or good (Santa). In A.D. 1087, by sacred decree of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, Nicholas achieved sainthood and was granted power over the air and ordained Supreme Controller of the Winds. Often, relics of St. Nick are carried aboard ships to appease stormy seas. (Alternatively, when it was believed that a Lapp shaman was bewitching a ship off its course, a virgin's shit smeared on the inner seams of the vessel would annul the curse.) In Finland, Santa Claus rides a flying goat named Ukko. In Finnish mythology, Ukko is the supreme god and king of the air. In the West, Santa takes wing by way of a team of enchanted reindeer. An age-old Lapp poem, Haste My Rain-Deer, reads: “Fly my Rain-Deer, fly swifter than the Wind.”
WHY DOES SANTA LIVE IN THE FROZEN hell of the North? Traditionally, the North was considered to be the abode of devils, shamans, sorcerers, witches, fairies, trolls and wildmen. Dante envisioned Satan in a frigid hell frozen up to his asshole in ice. In Inferno, the flapping of Satan's wings produces the polar winds. In Norse mythology, Niflheim is a place of eternal cold, darkness and fog ruled over by the goddess Hel. One of the Earth's portals of hell (located in Västerbotten County, Sweden) is called Devil's Crater (Djävulskratern), a bottomless pit similar to Devil's Hole near Las Vegas.
The Saami shaman, or noid (also spelled nojd, noyde and noajdde), was believed to have the gift of second sight, invisibility, shape-shifting, weird visions and the capability to create false apparitions. Because of this power, Martin Luther called Lapland the home of the devil. Missionaries to Lapland believed that the noid were literally possessed by demons, and the shaman's drum was a powerful “instrument and tool of the devil.” The regions and peoples of the extreme North have always held a special fascination for peoples in the temperate zones. The excessive cold, the winter darkness and the reputed mystical powers of the Hyperborean people have long attracted the imagination of writers, adventurers and seekers of mystic powers. Surely, Santa Claus lives in the North because, like a holy Magi, he holds the great supernatural power of the noid.