The character of the modern Father Christmas is a composite of many depictions but several theories now suggest that our jolly Santa may just be a shaman in disguise.
I have my annual marker for when Christmas is truly upon us. It’s not when people are discussing the John Lewis ad, or when the first surreal perfume ad appears.
For me it’s when I first squash that urban legend chestnut that Santa Claus as we know him in his red suit was an invention of the Coca Cola Company. If you think this is a treasonable offence with one of our own clients, then you can rest assured that they even dismiss it themselves on their own website.
They do however claim that their depictions in advertising campaigns helped to cement a universal image of Santa. The commercial Christmas as we know it was probably born in the US along with the modern advertising industry on Madison Avenue. Coca Cola ran Christmas ads from the 1930’s featuring the classic Santa. Illustrators like Haddon Sundblom and Norman Rockwell famous for their depictions of American life epitomised a golden age of American illustrations. But the image of Santa Claus had been steadily evolving for many years until there was a readily accepted ‘norm’.
Take other iconic character depictions… such as Brittannia, or Uncle Sam. Out of the myriad of variations a classic archetypal image eventually emerges. The images here range from the 1880’s and you can see our modern Santa beginning to take shape well before the 1930’s.
The traditions of Santa Claus were heavily influenced by the famous poem ‘A visit from St. Nicholas‘ written by Clement Clarke Moore and first published in 1823. The poem is better known by its first line..’Twas the night before Christmas..’ and the illustrations that accompanied the classic text also helped establish the iconic Santa Claus. Truth is that the image of Santa has been established over many, many generations that all contributed to shape the ‘definitive ‘ Santa.
The origins of the red and white suit, and other aspects of the Santa cCaus legend I would like to think go back far, far earlier. When I was a psychology student at Reading University I was sidetracked from revision for a whole afternoon reading a book I found that discussed a cult centred on the Amanita Muscaria iMushroom in Northern Europe. Amanaita Muscaria is the red and white ‘toadstool’ found in many illustrations of fairy tales.
It is the one of the earllest substances ingested for shamanic visions and rituals and its use dates back for over 10,000 years all over Eurasia but particularly in Siberia and Northern Sweden. The revelation in the book for me was the link it made between the red and white of the mushroom and the colour of Santa’s costume. It described shamanic rituals involving the ingestion of the psychotropic mushroom and red and white costumes. More interestingly reindeer are drawn to the effects of Amanita Muscaria and Siberians are known to have slaughtered intoxicated reindeer for the subsequent effects of the meat. (Contrary to many reports they didn’t drink reindeer urine. That would be disgusting. They drank the Shaman’s urine!) In midwinter festivals a shaman would climb into a yurt or tepee via a smokehole carrying a bag of fly agaric to be dried over the fire.
So a gentleman dressed in the red and white colours of a mushroom coming down a ‘smoke hole ’ bearing gifts in a sock who lives in the North and is down with the reindeer …ring any sleigh bells?