(I wanted to keep this short, but failed. So please bear with me, especially if you’re interested in folklore, history and the mighty figure of Odin. Also, Sinterklaas and Black Pete.)
Whether you’re in an English or Dutch speaking area, around this time of year you may see articles popping up about how Santa Claus or Sinterklaas really is Odin/Wodan. Basically, Sinterklaas (I’ll go with the Dutch name, since that’s where I’m from – there’s a lot to find about the similar origins of these two figures) is a christianized version of Odin. But is this true?
Here is a very short history of Sinterklaas: he is a populair Saint who originally was called Saint Nicholas of Myra (Turkey) and lived from 270 to 6 December 342 CE. Nicholas was a Saint for many groups of people, children among them, and he was known as a miracle worker and a giver of gifts (he often gave these gifts secretly). Sounds familiar, right? The cult of Saint Nicholas spread throughout Europe. In the Netherlands, he transformed into Sinterklaas.
So how did Odin come into this? I can’t help thinking that this has to do with folklorists who were eager to turn anything that has even a hint of indigenous, or at least non-christian, tradition into ‘this is what our pagan ancestors did’. Despite Sinterklaas being a christian saint, he does have some strange habits. He rides his horse on rooftops, for example. And he has helpers who are named ‘Black Pete’. Let’s look at some characteristics and traditions:
- Odin and Sinterklaas are both depicted as old, white bearded men. This is true, at least in popular culture. The way Odin looks is actually his disguise when he wanders the World. Saint Nicholas of Myra seems to have been depicted both as a man with a white beard and clean shaven. I think that what happened here is that the bearded Nicholas became Sinterklaas. May this have been under the influence of Odin? Who knows. Then again, old men with white beards aren’t exactly rare, so the fact that they look alike may mean nothing at all.
- Sinterklaas secretly brings gifts to children who have been good and punishes children who have been bad. Odin…doesn’t? To be more preciset: the children give little gifts to Sinterklaas in the weeks before the actual feast on 6 December, such as poems or drawings, or a carrot for Sinterklaas’s horse. They would often place these gifts in one of there shoes (your guess as to why they did and still this is as good as mine). They receive a gift in return if they’ve been good. Finally, on the eve of 6 December, children get their ‘actual’ gifts. I’ve seen this interpreted as an ancient habit of bringing offerings to receive gifts. Thing is, there is as far as I know not one tradition involving Odin that comes even close to what;s happening during the feast of Sinterklaas. Even if it is an ancient heathen tradition (which it may well be), the tradition of giving and receiving offerings to and from the gods is so common that I don’t see how this is specific to Odin.
- So what about Sinterklaas’s horse? It is well known that Odin had an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Sinterkaas rides his horse (who in the Netherlands is called Amerigo), which has the usual four legs. Are they comparable? Two men (granted one a saint and one a god) riding a horse is really too generic. People ride horses all the time, especially in older times when there weren’t many other means of transport. Then again, Sinerklaas rides on rooftops, Odin even rides through the sky…I really don’t know what to make of this. Also, both Sinterklaas and Odin ride a grey. So there may be something going on here, but then again we have to keep in mind that horses, and from what I’ve understood especially greys, were considered ‘elite animals’. So this may also simply be a sign of these men being regarded as elite figures. Still, the flying and walking on rooftops is interesting…
- Black Pete is a controversial figure. Apart from the blackface (which is a discussion I’m not willing to go into in this post, but if you’re interested in discussing it please send me a PM) his origin and meaning is a point of discussion. It is known that the first time we meet Black Pete in the Netherlands is in a 19th century chlldren’s book. Before Pete came into the story, Sinterklaas (mostly?) acted alone, at least in the Netherlands. Looking throughout Europe, we find Sint Nicholas accompanied by other, almost demon-like creatures, who seem to have largely the same functions as Black Pete: assisting the Saint, rewarding good children and punishing naughty children (or people in general). But who’s missing from all of this? Oh yeah, Odin. I’ve read texts trying to turn Pete into dark riders of the Wild Hunt (see below) and even into Odin’s ravens (because black, apparently), but non of these convince me. Black Pete may be many things, but he is not a sign of Sinterklaas really being Odin.
- When Sinterklaas moved to America, he sort of became Santa Claus, and his feast day was not on 6 December, but during Christmas. Christmas = Yule, so therefore Santa Claus (or his ancestor Sinterklaas) must be Odin, right? No, not really. It’s true that around the same time Odin/Wodan rides around with his Wild Army. Throughout Europe, including in the Netherlands on the Wadden islands, there are traditions that seem to re-enact these wild hunts in one way or another. But it’s not certain how old this tradition is (it may not be pre-christian at all). Yes, there are old acounts (the oldest being by Tacitus) of a Germanic army who disguise themselves so they appear as the dead but that’s not the same as a Wild Hunt and Odin isn’t named in this account. What’s more, it seems that the idea of the Wild Hunt was already established when Odin became associated with it. There is a lot of conflation going on, but still no evidence that one is the origin of the other.
So, is Sinterklaas Odin? I think not. It’s obvious that there is a lot of local folklore that has been latched onto the figure of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and his feast. But it’s way to simplistic to say that therefore this is another pagan tradition stolen by christians. It’s not a clear cut discussion – hence this article being longer than I initially expected. Which is exactly why I think we should be really critical with just throwing around all sorts of assumptions. That said, I wish everyone who celebrates it a happy Sinterklaas feast, and don’t eat too many peppernuts!