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Poles & Polarites - The Folklore of Father Christmas, the Elves & the Reindeer

Updated: Dec 1, 2022


‘Christmas with the Yule Log'. The illustration was accompanied with a verse:

"WHAT? Father Christmas! here again?

With Yule Log on your back,

And mighty store of racy things

Well stuffed within your pack"

From Illustrated London News, 23 December 1848


By Jove


At Christmas time, the focus is often on the North Pole - our Christmas traditions for the Northern Hemisphere are centred on the folklore of Father Christmas living in Lapland in the far north, but where did these stories come from? Astrologically we are now in Sagittarius, ruled by Jupiter, also known as Jove, from whom we get the word 'jovial.' Sagittarius is a fire sign and known for its 'higher mind,' with its great understanding of astrology. This wintry fire of Sagittarius allows nature to renew - it contains a natural fire of decomposition (compost) - this energy takes in and absorbs the wisdom of the previous year into a deep reflection with the stars and cosmos in preparation for a rebirth in the spring. Yet there is also a joyfulness in this energy ruled by the jovial Jupiter who can bring blessings and fortune - with this wintry Sagittarian fire, we may feel inspired to get creative indoors. We may make crafts or gifts or find some inspiration by the fire. The creation of gifts is an energy often attributed to Father Christmas and I will write about his folklore further on in the newsletter.


Saturnalia


On the 21st of December we will celebrate our Winter Solstice and the sun will move into Capricorn (ruled by Saturn.) In Roman times, Saturn was celebrated every year with the festival of Saturnalia with feasts and gift-giving on the 17th of December, and these festivities were later extended until the 23rd of December, covering the time of the Winter Solstice. We can see the similarities here regarding gift-giving. Saturn is associated with fatherly energy and this Roman god set up systems of agriculture and civilisation in Roman mythology (which also supports the Father Christmas theme.) Capricorn is often symbolised by the goat which appears throughout Yule folklore and will be discussed in more detail in the newsletter.


It could be argued that Jupiter brings out the jovial qualities of Father Christmas, but as Capricorn season begins on December 21, (with Saturn as the ruling planet,) different qualities are brought to the fore when Father Christmas gets ‘down to business.’ His focus is on his systems, lists and getting all the gifts wrapped and organised in preparation for his long flight across the globe.


South Pole - Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa


For those in the Southern Hemisphere, near the South Pole, you will soon be approaching your Summer Solstice and therefore may wish to tune into the polar opposite energies of Gemini-Sagittarius (weighted on Gemini) leading up to the Solstice and Cancer-Capricorn (weighted on Cancer) as you enter your Summer Solstice on the 22nd of December. You may also have discovered local stories which connect you to the land and seasons. Gemini, ruled by Mercury, is also a creative sign; it is quick-witted and good with communication and networking - great for social occasions. Mercury was also connected with nature spirits (his mother was a nymph and his lover was a river nymph), which is also good for this season, when nature is becoming bountiful.


Cancer, ruled by the moon, is a motherly sign (divine mother) and the polar opposite of Capricorn's fatherly energy and you may find it more 'seasonal' therefore to attune to a motherly archetype that calls to you as you enter into this Summer Solstice time on the 22nd of December, leading up to Christmas.


In astrology, there are 6 polarities forming the 12 zodiac signs - all are equally valuable and the key in astrology is unlocking your full potential by embracing your polarities which are found opposite each other on the zodiac wheel.


The 6 Polarities


Identity: Aries (Self/Presence) and Libra (Other/Relationship)

Power: Taurus (Life/Growth) and Scorpio (Death/Transformation)

Mental: Gemini ('Lower Mind'/Play/Communication) and Sagittarius ('Higher Mind'/Philosophy/Astrology)

Home & Work: Cancer (Home/Mother) and Capricorn (Work/Father)

Social & Society:

Leo (Leadership/Courage/Warmth) and Aquarius (Uniqueness/Truth/Freedom)

Health & Service:

Virgo (Analysis/Detail/Healing) and Pisces (Interconnected/Expansion/Mystical)


For those in the Southern Hemisphere who are interested in this topic and the reversal of the seasons (the poles) you may wish to read the following article which discusses the problem regarding astrology for the seasons in reverse in the Southern Hemisphere and how understanding polarities can help to attune to the correct energies.


Holly King

Father Christmas was originally a Victorian English personification of Christmas and was based on earlier English folklore from the 15th century. ‘Old Christmas’ as he was known was portrayed in Victorian times as a pagan-looking wizard in pictures with holly wreaths, mistletoe or ivy in his hair, a beard, long robes, sometimes carrying a staff and spreading ‘good cheer,’ often with a drink. Some believe that there may have been connections between Father Christmas and fertility cults or the Green Man who was often depicted with a face surrounded by leaves. Some believe that Father Christmas evolved from the tradition of the Holly King who battled with the Oak King each year reflecting the changing seasonal cycles with the Holly King in his power at the Autumn equinox and the Oak King who gained his power in the spring.


"Scrooge's third Visitor" by John Leech, 1843. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham at Victorian Web.

A Christmas Carol

In the novel ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens, three spirits visited Scrooge including the ghost of Christmas past, the ghost of Christmas Present and the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. In the following passage from the book, Scrooge was commanded to look at the spirit of the ghost of Christmas present and this is what he saw:


“It was clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.”


'Julbocken' by John Bauer

Yule

Father Christmas was also depicted with symbols of Yule such as the Yule goat of Scandinavia and Northern Europe - it is thought that its popularity came from the Norse God Thor who was drawn by two goats in his chariot. Significantly, Capricorn is symbolised by the goat and this astrological sign begins on the 21st of December which is also the day of Yule and the Winter Solstice. Yule was a festival celebrated by Germanic people and had customs including the Yule log, Yule singing and feasting. In his writings J.R.R. Tolkien described a Log-drawing festival of the elves which occurred in mid-winter, most likely on the Solstice, known as Turuhalmë and Tolkien wrote the following about this celebration which involved storytelling and a crackling fire at the Cottage of Lost Play:

‘The Arrival of the Yule Log.’ Drawing by Mary Evans


"Twill be a fitting day,' saith Lindo, 'for the sports of the morning in the snow and the gathering of the logs from the woods and the songs and drinking of Turuhalmë will leave us of right mood to listen to old tales beside this fire.'...and the company from Mar Vanwa Tyaliéva went into the snowy woods to bring back firewood on sleighs. Never was the Tale-fire allowed to go out or to die into grey ash, but on the eve of Turuhalmë it sank always to a smaller blaze until Turuhalmë itself, when great logs were brought into the Room of the Tale-fire and being blessed by Lindo with ancient magic roared and flared anew upon the hearth.’

Tolkien and the Elves of Lapland

I recently discovered that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote letters to his children signed by Father Christmas talking about his adventures in Lapland with his reindeer, the elves and a polar bear. Tolkien’s letters were posthumously published in a book, Letters from Father Christmas in 1976 and feature all the letters and paintings he sent to his four children from Father Christmas beginning in 1920. The letters included characters such as his chief assistant, the Polar Bear, snow-elves, gnomes, snow-men, cave-bears and goblins. According to these delightful letters, in 1936, Father Christmas was joined by many elves to live at his house and help with the packing and an elf, Ilbereth, became his secretary who could write in several alphabets including Russian, Greek, Runes, Artic, Latin and Elvish.

Narnia & Father Christmas

In ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ written by C.S. Lewis and published in 1950, the appearance of Father Christmas was seen as a good omen and sign that the dark spell of Jadis, (the White Witch,) was fading – a spell that had cast Narnia into an endless winter with no Christmas. When Father Christmas finally managed to break on through into Narnia, he gave the children magical gifts which helped them in the battle against the witch – two gifts per child were given and they were well-crafted and magical tools. C.S. Lewis wrote the following in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

“Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn't find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn. “I've come at last,” said he. “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch's magic is weakening.” And Lucy felt that deep shiver of gladness that you only get if you are being solemn and still.”

'Old Christmas' riding a yule goat. The original illustration was accompanied by a verse: "In furry pall yclad, / His brows enwreathed with holly never sere, / Old Christmas comes to close the wained year: Bampfylde". From the "The Book of Christmas" by Thomas Kibble Hervey, 1836.

Wassail

Images of Father Christmas also featured symbols from the tradition of wassailing - this was the ancient practise of visiting orchards in cider-producing areas of England where incantations and songs were offered to the trees in the hopes for a good harvest. This was traditionally performed on the 12th night of Christmas and usually the ceremony involved a wassail king and queen who would lead the songs and the queen would be lifted up into a bough of a tree where she would place offerings of toast dipped in wassail cider from a cup as a gift to the tree spirits followed by an incantation.


"Old Christmas, by Crowquill." From 'Illustrated London News,' 23 December 1843


Christmas Mummers Plays

Mummers plays were an old tradition for Christmas in the UK and often performed out on the street - they were usually based on the legend of St George and the dragon and the character of Father Christmas often appeared. Evidence of mummers or performers in disguise has been traced back to 1296 where the marriage of Edward I's daughter at Christmas included mummers in the court.

‘Mummers’ from "The Book of Christmas" by Thomas Kibble Hervey, 1836


Saint Nicholas

The mythology of Father Christmas began to merge with the ‘Santa Claus’ of America who grew out of the legends of Saint Nicholas who was a real Christian bishop of the ancient Greek city of Myra. After the death of his parents, he distributed their wealth to the poor – in one story it was said that he threw three bags of gold into a poor man’s house to enable his daughters to have a dowry for marriage and avoid a life of prostitution.

Portrait of Saint Nicholas of Myra from the 13th century at Saint Catherine's Monastery in Egypt.

‘Odin in the guise of a wanderer’ from the 1893 Swedish translation of the ‘Poetic Edda.’


Santa Claus

It is also thought that the images of Santa were inspired by the Germanic god Odin or Wodan who was associated with the pagan midwinter celebration of Yule and led the Wild Hunt through the sky – he was a sorcerer often depicted with a spear, a long beard and his animal familiars. Santa Claus became popular in the USA and Canada and his image was cemented by a civil war cartoonist, Thomas Nast, who first drew Santa Claus in January 1863 in a Union Army camp, distributing presents.


Thomas Nast's famous drawing, "Merry Old Santa Claus", from Harper's Weekly, 1st January, 1881

Illustration by Thomas Nast on the cover of Harper’s Weekly, January 1863


The Reindeer

Santa eventually became depicted as living at the North Pole where he made gifts for children with the help of his elves and delivered them across the world with his sleigh and flying reindeer. It is believed that this image was largely inspired by an anonymous poem from 1823 in which Saint Nicholas was described as a jolly elf who was pulled in a sleigh by eight tiny flying reindeer. Clement Clarke Moore later claimed authorship of this poem called "A Visit from St. Nicholas" which I will share at the end of these writings. Although the first publication to mention Santa’s sleigh and reindeer was an anonymous children’s poem "Old Santeclaus with Much Delight" published two years before in 1821 in New York which included illustrations by an unknown artist and these depictions predate the images of Thomas Nast.

Illustration to verse 1 of the anonymous children's poem 'Old Santeclaus with Much Delight.'

Illustration to verse 2 of the anonymous children's poem 'Old Santeclaus with Much Delight.'


These poems of flying reindeer may have been inspired by a deeper memory in the collective of the Sámi reindeer herders of North Scandinavia who gave their reindeer Psilocybin mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) and then drank their urine in shamanistic ceremonies in which they may have experienced a sense of flight.

By Wilhelm List


The Sámi People and Reindeer Herding

In 1894 to 1898, hundreds of Sámi people travelled to Alaska in the United States to teach the indigenous people there how to herd reindeer with sleds. The ensuing reindeer ‘industry’ boomed with some companies organising parades of reindeer pulling Santa Claus on a sleigh in order to sell reindeer meat and fur in the early 20th century. Eventually Walt Disney and Coca Cola adopted these images, gluing the relationship between Santa Claus, reindeer and the North Pole.

‘The Workshop of Santa Claus’ – front cover of 'Godey’s Lady’s Book,' 1873.


The Christmas Elves

The image of elves in the workshop became popular after a publication of the American magazine, 'Godey's Lady's Book,' featured Santa surrounded by elves making toys on its front cover in 1873. It is thought that the earliest accounts of elves appeared in Norse mythology and in literature they first appeared as Christmas elves in 1850 in Louisa May Alcott’s unpublished book. Elves have appeared as helpers in other folktales such as ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ by the Brothers Grimm, yet it is not entirely known how they came about as Santa’s helpers.


‘Meadow Elves’ by Nils Blommér, 1850

Yet the types of elves described in mythology differ considerably – in Norse mythology they were associated with the Gods and had supernatural powers and beauty whereas towards the early modern period they were portrayed as smaller and impish until finally they returned as human-sized beings in the Romantic period and in later literature such as Tolkien’s stories. I personally feel that there are many different types of elves which all fulfil different roles in this universe. Terence Mckenna spoke about interacting with intelligent "self-transforming machine elves" while on DMT, a chemical which is naturally occurring in plants and animals and consumed in a brew as plant medicine by some indigenous communities, inducing deeply mystical experiences.

An elf in a Christmas shop display, Totnes, 2020.


Vintage cards


As Santa grew popular in the UK, Father Christmas began to adopt his attributes and by the late Victorian period his costume had changed and was invariably red. Eventually their roles began to blur until in the 20th century there seemed to be no longer any significant distinctions made between them and modern dictionaries categorised the two terms as synonymous.


I would like to finish here with the anonymous poem written in 1823, later claimed by Clement Clarke Moore:


'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds;

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,

Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,

But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,

With a little old driver so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to the housetop the coursers they flew

With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.

His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face and a little round belly

That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”


Thank you for reading and please watch my film on YouTube if you would like to hear these words narrated:



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