It seems that most people think of Odin as a warrior god, taking the souls of slain warriors up to Valhalla to feast and battle until Ragnarok. And yes that is an important aspect of this deity. Many of his heiti (names/aspects) relate to battle. However, that is the aspect of Odin I actually have the least amount of personal experience with. It makes sense, given that I’ve never served in the military. I’ve never been in battle myself, so I have no idea what that would be like, and I don’t pretend to.
For the next couple of posts about Odin, I am going to describe the aspects of him that I do relate to. I’m going to start with the first heiti of Odin that I met, which actually happened long before the events that I described in my last post. That was the first time I encountered Odin as Odin, but Odin is a god who likes to disguise himself. There are many stories in the Eddas where he goes out in disguise, sometimes even as a woman. He uses whatever mask he needs to suit his purposes. And it wasn’t until the past year or two that I really started to realize Odin was around in my life long before I knew it was him. In modern times he wears a disguise that you see everywhere at this time of year, and this disguise has enabled him to continue to receive offerings from millions of people around the world, or at least millions of children once a year.
They know this aspect of Odin as “Santa Claus.”
Now, sometimes when I mention that Santa is Odin to people, they have trouble believing it. I once mentioned it to a friend of mine, and he said, “But Santa is jolly! Odin isn’t jolly at all!” Even some fellow Heathens have trouble with the idea, and insist that Santa is really Thor, and his reindeer are really Thor’s goats, and both Santa and Thor like the color red. Thor is also much more “jolly”. Also, in Scandinavian countries, goats are associated with Yule, and those may very well be Thor’s goats.
But if you look at older depictions of Father Christmas, they look much more Odinic. He used to wear all sorts of colors besides red. He used to ride a horse instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer (though reindeer are still used as draft animals in certain parts of Scandinavia, so he could have reindeer too). When I was a child, I knew there was something more to Santa. I knew there was more to him than just someone who gives you toys; there was something deeper, more powerful, more ancient. The toys were nice, but there was something about leaving that offering of cookies out by the hearth on that magical night of Christmas Eve, knowing that during the night while I slept, this ancient, powerful being would come to collect his offering and leave me gifts in return. It gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart, but also made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. That a being that was powerful enough to do what Santa did still cared about little kids enough to visit use every year and bring us gifts, that was just amazing. And he cares about all little kids, not just the rich ones. He’d even give gifts to the poor kids who really needed them, and I was sure he actually cared about them more. Nobody was considered an outsider, unwanted, or unloved when it comes to Santa.
I held onto my belief in Santa long after many of my peers had given it up, though the belief that there was literally an old man bringing the gifts started to fall apart in the face of the evidence, such as how Santa had the exact same handwriting as my mom, except for the occasional year he had the handwriting of my dad, and he always used the exact same wrapping paper that we had. Finally, one year when I was still playing along with the Santa thing, my mom flat out told me, “Your mommy is Santa. All those presents you ever got were from me.” Maybe she was sick of doing the Santa thing and wanted to end it once and for all, but I was almost kind of insulted. For one thing, by now it wasn’t like I was so dumb that I didn’t know she was the one leaving the gifts. For another thing, I didn’t believe her that she was Santa, and I thought it was rather arrogant of her to make such a claim.
Yes, I got the message that we wouldn’t be doing the Santa thing anymore, and that my mother felt my sister and I were too old for it now. I was depressed for a few years after that because that magic had been taken out of Christmas. The idea that Santa is silly kids’ stuff and when you “grow up” you stop believing in it just seemed so depressing. Santa seemed like so much more than just a source of toys. I didn’t even want toys anymore. Toys were only a small part of the whole Santa ritual, and that’s why I didn’t like my mom saying she was “really Santa”. There was more to Santa than that.
When I was in my early 20’s I got a job at Barnes and Noble. It turned out to be the one retail job I hated the least out of all the ones I had, and I ended up working for them off and on for several years as I worked my way through college. Every Christmas they had this thing similar to the Salvation Army Angel Tree, except it was just for books. You’d get a tag for a needy child, and it would say what books the child would like. You’d buy one for the child, attach the tag to it, and leave it under the tree. I started doing that every year with one boy and one girl. I loved doing it. I felt that warm feeling in my heart and that prickle up my spine. When I lived in an apartment complex that had a toy drive for needy children, I always bought some things for it. I’ve always loved the whole gift-giving tradition, and even bought gifts for all my college friends at Yule, even if they didn’t think to give me anything. I figured out how to “believe in Santa” as an adult. Now I was one of Santa’s helpers. Santa’s helpers aren’t just elves; they’re anyone who gives a gift with no strings attached, just to add a little bit more warmth and brightness to the world. Santa’s helpers are the ones who actually buy, wrap, and give the gifts, but they do it under the direction of Santa, in Santa’s name, as his priests and priestesses, doing his work in the world.
I’ve seen modern paganism described as an effort to “re-enchant the world”. Since I was raised an atheist, Santa was my first source of enchantment. Atheists sometimes compare God to Santa Claus, implying belief in God is just as silly as belief in Santa Claus, but is it really that silly to believe in generosity, hospitality, and kindness? When I became a Wiccan, I accepted Santa as an aspect of “The God”, and maybe that was one of the reasons why the Wiccan God was easier for me to relate to. When I became Heathen, for a long time I didn’t believe the Odin-Santa connection because of the reasons I mentioned before, that Santa was too “nice” to be Odin. I understood that they had a historical connection, which is discussed in Santa’s Wikipedia article and also this funny cartoon “Irrefutable Proof that Santa is Odin”, which makes Santa seem rather scary. (Interestingly enough, my little sister was always terrified of Santa. Hmm. Maybe she sensed it too.)
But last Yule the last bit of doubt left my mind. At least for me, it turns out Santa was Odin all along. This means that Odin has been involved in my life from the very beginning, the implications of which I’m still figuring out. I remember an article I read once about whether it’s OK to “lie” to your children about Santa, and what kind of psychological effects that might have. I wish I could remember where it was from. I think it was from Psychology Today or something like that, because it was surprisingly well-written. The part that stood out to me was where it talked about how modern Western society’s view of these things is backwards from how things are viewed in traditional tribal societies. In Western society it’s OK for children to have “fantasies” like Santa Claus, and then when you “grow up” you stop believing in that nonsense and take on a more materialistic worldview. In more animistic or shamanic cultures, it’s the exact opposite. As a child, you’re focused on learning how the physical world works, and as you become older you gain more and more knowledge of the spiritual world.
I think this makes a lot of sense, especially given the choice you have once you get old enough to realize that your parents are the ones who buy those toys, wrap them, and leave them under the tree. In modern society, once one realizes that Santa is not an actual physical human being bringing you these physical toys and eating the physical cookies you left out for him, well, then that means he’s not real, right?
That makes sense if you believe that only physical things are real. Instead, that could be the point when you learn what Santa really is, and that your childhood understanding of Santa was too simplistic, but age-appropriate until you old enough to have a more nuanced understanding.
I plan on having a child someday, and I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to handle the issue of religion, since I wasn’t brought up with religion myself. I’ve been wondering how I’d teach a child about the gods (which is especially difficult because I’m not totally sure what a god is myself), and I realized that my atheist mom actually unintentionally introduced me to the concept by participating in the Santa tradition.
If you are not a Heathen, I think the Santa tradition can still be a vehicle for introducing children to the gods of your tradition. He could be Saturn, if you follow a more Greco-Roman tradition and celebrate Saturnalia at this time of year. He could be the Holly King aspect of the Wiccan God. He’s already Saint Nicholas for the Catholics, and I’m fine with that. Lots of pagan gods became saints to help people continue to worship them after the coming of Christianity.
But if you still think that Odin isn’t nice enough to be Santa, John T. Mainer wrote a really good blog post about it a few days ago. That post actually came up while I was still working on this one, so I had to completely rewrite mine. Another instance of another writer beating me to something and explaining it better than I could! That post perfectly describes Jolnir, the Yule Father, the Odin I’ve known since I was a child. May he bring you peace, joy, inspiration, and wonder this holiday season.