I was entranced and delighted to hear chunks of a programme on Radio 4 one day, (link at end) which confirmed what I’d been telling folk for years – particularly those who traveled with me on camping trips in Scandinavia. I’ve since found that my mishmash of ideas is far from novel, but at the time I got a lot of strange looks from m’learned punters who clearly thought I’d lost the plot a bit (Okay, okay, evidence-based).
I hope you’ll enjoy this exploration of the people from whom significant chunks of the Santa Claus story derive.
We invariably encountered different aspects of the life of indigenous people, the Sami, during our trips, particularly in the Àjtte museum in Jokkmokk, Sweden, but also scattered throughout the northern landscape. I had also worked awhile in Kautokeino in Finnmark, a centre of Sami culture. I had read in various places, and heard, what sort of seemed a bit outlandish, or flights of fancy regarding the Father Christmas story, and its possible association with northern cultural traditions.
Of course, we all know now about the jolly, sturdy chappie in red and white coming down the chimney with gifts; while we may know that greetings cards and Christmas trees are relatively recent commercial adjuncts to the story; some more diligent researchers may also be aware that St Nicholas, the personification of Santa only came on the scene in the 4th Century from the Eastern Mediterranean, probably Turkey. (No, the North American turkey is definitely a separate thing).
But the tradition perhaps dates back, it is thought, certainly 7,000, maybe over 10,000 years, at the end of the last ice ages in Europe, though Northern Norway remained largely ice-free and in parts settled. We can see this in the rock carvings on the coast at Alta in Finnmark, where we can see depictions of reindeer, bear, shamanistic and everyday activities like casting fishing nets.
The Sami live in an environment where many resources are limited, where climatic extremes present real dangers to life, and where small communities were very strong and connected for mutual benefit. As throughout human history, people faced with uncertainty in everyday life turned to the spiritual world for succor and inspiration. Ghouls, odd things in the forest, tricks of the light, the aurora borealis, the seasonal gluts and shortages of essential resources were all real to people isolated by climate, terrain, language and culture. There may even have been some effects of sensory deprivation, especially in a hard, unchanging world in wintertime.
Interpreters of the spirit world, Shamans, some perhaps scammers, some perhaps people with strange gifts, brought news from distant areas, unfamiliar ideas and ways of doing things, like any strangers to a community. They were seen and believed to be able to commune with the unseen in some way; they went into trances, often using repetitive drumming and chanting and very often assisted by the influence of hallucinogens found in the environment. The drums were among the first items confiscated and burned when the northern crusades gradually destroyed, then supplanted older beliefs.
Chief among these hallucinogens was the fungus, Amanita Muscara, usually described as being toxic, but smaller doses seemed to have distinct effects on perception. As a scarce resource with a degree of entertainment value, of course those with good command of their local area’s resources might have more leisure time, more things to trade, etc, and the use of recreational and ritualistic drugs was not at all uncommon over the northern societies.
Something we often misapprehend is the movement of people through the arctic landscape; those of us from temperate regions would usually imagine traveling in summer, perhaps, certainly in daylight. In fact a frozen landscape is far easier to move around on, as all surfaces are solid, all the hazards of rivers and bogs are avoided in low temperatures. Snowfall is limited in inland areas, with the early covering constantly being recirculated, particles smashed together until they become a fine dusting. Nearer the coasts, falls of 5 meters or more are not uncommon, but the frozen crust is easily traversed with snowshoes. The depth of snow also means that you would be walking on top of the dwarf trees that would impede you in summertime.
Parties were held, I expect, to demonstrate influence and wealth, and I have even heard anecdotally that poorer or less elevated members of the community would gather and consume the yellow snow from where the partygoers had peed, as the hallucinogens pass through in diluted form in urine and still had an effect. (That’s why you get blood or urine samples asked for by the police).
The Sami lived in dwellings uniquely well adapted to the resources available. In summertime, in the open, the reindeer skin tents – katas – with a hearth at the centre would be used – easy to erect and carry around traveling around, following, then herding the reindeer on migrations, fishing and collecting berries etc as they went. When the animals were safely back inland for the winter, perhaps in the shelter of forests, sometimes on the open plateau known as the Vidda, but in any case in locations where the snow cover was thin enough to allow the herds to find forage, or less icy so they could break through the crusty surface for food.
For their own comfort and survival, many Sami used to cut back into a slope to form a dwelling protected from winds and harsh temperatures by the insulating earth. Logs and earth would be stacked all around and a roof made of the materials to hand. There would only be one entrance, via a log with step notches to the roof, reducing draughts, and allowing the necessary escape of smoke and fumes from the ever-smouldering fire.
Apparel for all people was found in the environment, no textiles were available at all, except perhaps woven grasses to a limited level; the principal resources were derived from the animals which thrived round about, themselves good examples of adaptation and survival. Antler and bone was used to make weapons and utensils, leather was tanned using urine, then soaked in fish oil to make weatherproof containers. The tough skin on a reindeer’s shin resisted abrasion – an adaptation to continuous walking through dwarf shrubs. Hollow hairs of reindeer’s coats make excellent insulation for wearing, sitting and sleeping in or on; similarly the fine furs of a variety of animals was utilized, many of which developed their most lustrous coats in wintertime, when they also turned white, though clearly they were in shorter supply than reindeer skins.
Decoration was a simple affair, although tooling leather and wood would be straightforward, only a few colouring agents were available, the most common being birch bark which would be widely used in constructing waterproof roofs and containers and fire-lighting material. The signature red dye from beneath the outer bark was and is found everywhere in the northern climes, from Canada all the way around the Arctic and even including the Ainu tribal people of Japan. It would hardly be unusual to see a shaman wandering along the migration and game-trapping trails, calling in from time to time on benighted communities and families to practise their art and receive the usual welcome from a stranger with news. Families moving from place to place, recent reports of hidden resources becoming available, new ways of doing things, what events happened to notable figures in the wider community – all this was news avidly consumed.
It should hardly come as a surprise, then, that a popular legend would grow up around a happy (stoned) person clad in red and white who turns up. They come into the dwelling via the only entrance, which also served as the chimney, and invariably brought useful and entertaining things with them. If you put yourself in their shoes for a moment, barely subsisting on dried meat and fish, shrivelled berries and endlessly recycling their own stories through the dark and very cold wintertime. We can only imagine what a welcome sight this individual presented to a family !
We had to make our own fun in those days !
Natural Histories by Brett Westwood on BBC Radio 4 explores these myths on this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b082hg39#play
Seasonal greetings from Bob Cranwell
For a podcast version of this post, please click on this link.