Traditions in Europe: Odin and the celebration of Yule
Have you ever wondered about the historical origins that morphed into the story of Santa and his reindeer? How did we come to celebrate the arrival of Santa Claus and why at the end of December?
There are many legends throughout history that celebrate a benevolent being who traveled furtively by the winter’s night bearing gifts for those in need. This is the story of one of those legends whose tales became part of the fabric of the Santa Claus we celebrate today.
Long before Christianity spread throughout the world, Pagan rituals and customs were prevalent. There was another whose arrival was long awaited by the inhabitants of northern Germany and Scandinavia – Odin the Wanderer or Wodan, the father of all the gods.
Also known as the warrior god, the legends that became part of the mythology of the North were mostly of the benevolent kind. It was Odin who traveled the skies by night on his sled with his eight-legged horse Sleipner bringing gifts of bread for those in need.
According to Viking lore, the northern Germans and Scandinavians celebrated Yule, a pagan religious festival heralding the arrival of the winter solstice from mid-December to early January.
During this time, many believed that Odin, disguised in a long blue-hooded cloak, would travel to earth on his eight-legged horse, to observe homesteaders gathered around the campfires to see how content the people were. For those in need of food, he left his gifts of bread and disappeared.
As traditions grew over time, the children of these lands would anticipate the arrival of gift-bearing Odin and would fill their boots with straw, carrots or sugar and place them near the fireplace so that Sleipnir could come down to eat during his midnight rides. Odin would then reward these children by replacing the food with gifts and candy treats inside the boots.
By now, you can see that many of those traditions transcended time, with slight changes: the eight-legged horse became reindeer; the boots by the fireplaces would eventually become stockings “hung by the chimney with care;” and the food and candy, well those became to toys from the chief toymakers - Santa and his elves!
Although Odin and Santa share many characteristics in that they both are older men with white beards and donning cloaks, there is one striking difference between the two - Odin is missing his left eye.
According to legend, Odin ventured to Mimir's Well, near Jotunheimen, the land of the giants, not as Odin himself, but as Vegtam the Wanderer.
To gain knowledge of the past, present and future, Odin had to drink from the Well of Wisdom but for a price. Ultimately, he had to sacrifice his left eye and today, it lies at the bottom of this Well of Wisdom as a symbol of the price he paid.
Upon the advent of Christianity, Odin eventually evolved into Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus and today, the children await the arrival of Santa Claus.
Did you know?
Yuletide has its origins with Odin as well. According to legend, Odin, the father of all the gods, portrayed one of twelve characters each month of the year. In December, he became Jul and the season of his arrival was known as Jultid or Yuletide.