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Santa with pipe and the knowing smile of ancient wisdom.

Santa the Shaman Comes to the New World: The Shapeshifting Magic-Man from the Ancient Past


In 1626, a ship filled with folks from the Netherlands put into what would later be called New York Harbor and went about building a Dutch colony called New Amsterdam. The figurehead on the prow of their ship was none other than the patron saint of sailors, Saint Nicholas. The Dutch called him "Sinter Claes."  Thus, "Santa Claus" came to the new world.

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas (Public Domain)

But he almost disappeared as quickly as he settled in. He remained a part of American holiday traditions for only thirty-eight years. Then the new colony was ceded to England, changed its name to New York, and became inundated with an English population who knew nothing of "Sinter Claes" and despised what they considered to be pagan traditions surrounding the winter solstice.

Raising Santa From the Dead

It took more than a hundred and fifty years to raise the figure of Santa Claus from the dead here in America, and it required a historian, a poet, a cartoonist, and a marketing department to do it.  To greatly simplify a convoluted story, it happened like this:

Washington Irving was an American essayist/historian who briefly mentioned the Dutch customs surrounding Saint Nicholas in his Knickerbocker History of New York. Few people read the book and that might have been the end of our whole Santa story were it not for Clement C. Moore. In 1823, while reading Irving's Knickerbocker History, Moore was inspired to write a poem called A Visit From Saint Nicholas. In it (largely to make his lines scan correctly), he labeled Santa a "right jolly old elf."

A right jolly old elf.

A right jolly old elf. (Elena Chochkova/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Yes, Virginia

Forty years later the poem was scheduled to be included in a holiday issue of Harper's Magazine. The editor felt an illustration would be helpful so he called on the cartoonist Thomas Nast, who hadn't the foggiest idea what a Dutch "jolly old elf" should look like.  Remembering his own holiday traditions, however, Nast drew up a Bavarian-based gnome who dressed in animal skins and frightened naughty children with a broom stick. The poem was a hit, if not the cartoon, and over the years illustrations of Santa were cleaned up a little so as to appear more child-friendly.

The whole Santa tradition evolved to the point where, in 1897, Francis Church, writing for The New York Sun newspaper, felt moved to respond to a question from a young reader named Virginia O'Hanlon.  "Please tell me the truth," Miss O'Hanlon asked.  "Is there a Santa Claus?"  Church's answer was the now famous article, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."     

Santa Gets into Sales

It wasn't until 1931, however, that Santa got his big publicity break. The Coca-Cola company wanted to increase sales to children but were boxed in by a law that forbade any public displays of children drinking their product. At that time Coca-Cola was based on coca, thought to be a narcotic plant. (They have since changed their recipe!) Because the company's marketing department couldn't show children drinking coke, they featured a child-friendly Santa with a red suit, smile, ruddy cheeks, and a winning demeanor. He was pictured taking a well-deserved break from his Christmas duties, drinking a bottle of coke that a friendly child had left for him. Coke sales went through the roof and the rest, as they say, is history. Santa and Coca-Cola went on to conquer the world together.

Santa has a part-time stint in marketing.

Santa has a part-time stint in marketing. (Source)

Santa the Shaman

The earliest traditions of the many components of the Santa myth, however, go back in time much further than the Dutch holiday customs. Indeed, long before he came to America—Santa was a Shaman.

Father Christmas riding a goat

Father Christmas riding a goat (Public Domain)

Consider just a few of the motifs of the "Christ-Mass" that have nothing to do with Christian mythology:

Holly was burned in ritual sacrifice. (Photo: Liz Leafloor)

Holly was burned in ritual sacrifice. (Photo: Liz Leafloor)

  • The Fire Tree:  The gift of fire was probably the most important discovery in the history of the human race.  Long ago the tribal Shaman, or holy man, would lead ceremonies in which gifts would be placed on an evergreen tree or bush such as holly, ivy, or mistletoe, and then burned in ritual sacrifice, returning to the gods a portion of what the people had received. These trees and plants featured their colorful berries in the winter, so they were deemed holy at this time of year. The ceremony took place on the night of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, in order to insure that the sun would soon return and bring its welcoming warmth with it.  When the custom of actually bringing the tree inside the house began, candles were substituted for fire.  Nowadays, electric lights are much safer.

The Gift of Fire

The Gift of Fire (Public Domain)

  • The Yule Log:  In Northern European tradition, a Yule log was dragged into the village square during the short days of December. No one really knows where the word "Yule" comes from. There are lots of theories, of course, but the Shamanic practice of burning a huge log or tree during the darkest night of the year is a wide-spread tradition.
  • The Chimney Entrance:  Eastern European stories often took advantage of the chimney to have a Santa figure enter an otherwise barricaded house. It was a good way to deliver presents to good little boys and girls. Of course, the tradition of smoke carrying the prayers of the faithful to God helped the illusion. 
  • Defying Time:  A good Shaman was able to step out of time and be in many places at once. How else could Santa keep up his hectic pace, covering the whole world in a single night? As for his mode of transportation, the word "Shaman" itself is a Siberian word, derived from the language of the Tungusic people who lived in the far north. They, of course, herded reindeer.

Canadian Santa and reindeer, Xmas 1875.

Canadian Santa and reindeer, Xmas 1875. (Public Domain)

  • Feasting and Gift Giving:  At the time of the long winter's darkest nights, Shamanic cultures often gathered to feast and sing the night away. The Shaman, being the carrier of knowledge, "knew when you were sleeping and knew when you were awake. He knew when you were bad or good, so be good for goodness' sake!"

Santa Gets Religion

By the time Christianity spread throughout Europe, the whole Santa tradition, although it varied greatly from place to place, was firmly entrenched. People were not about to give it up. But it was pagan to the core. What was a poor Parish priest to do when his congregation gathered around the village Yule fire to celebrate with song and dance?

The answer was simple and obvious. "If you can't beat 'em, Baptize 'em!" Although the Bible never claims a December birth for Christ, it made perfect sense to have the Savior born at the time of the December solstice. After all, that was when Mithras, the Shamanic "Soldier God" of Rome was born.  His worship featured a virgin birth, a last meal of bread and wine shared with his disciples, and a promise to return.

Archeological museum, Aquileia. Medaillon (second century) with relief of Mithras.

Archeological museum, Aquileia. Medaillon (second century) with relief of Mithras. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Myths, Symbols and Traditions Blend

The symbols were easily transferable. Thus the two traditions of Shamanism and Christianity became intertwined and today exist in harmony. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" are, for the most part, interchangeable on the holiday radio playlists.  "We Three Kings" travel in the same lane as "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."  Gene Autry made sure to keep things in their proper place by picturing Santa kneeling at the cradle of Jesus—but to separate the two traditions is now almost impossible.

The ancient Shamanic tradition lives on; its symbols have simply moved indoors. The holiday is just too much fun to resist! Besides, gift giving and feasting in the Shamanic tradition offset the more austere religious Christmas scene and is a big boost to the economy.  Shop on my friends - and Merry Christmas!

Jim Willis is author of nine books on religion and spirituality, he has been an ordained minister for over forty years while working part-time as a carpenter, the host of his own drive-time radio show, an arts council director and adjunct college professor in the fields of World Religions and Instrumental Music. He is author of Supernatural Gods: Spiritual Mysteries, Psychic Experiences, and Scientific Truths |


Top Image: Santa with pipe and the knowing smile of ancient wisdom. (Public Domain)

By Jim Willis


Tony van Renterghem: When Santa Was a Shaman.  St. Paul, MN: Llwellyn Publications, 1995.

Matt Toussaint. Shaman Claus: The Shamanic Origins of Christmas. [Online] Available at:



"By the time Christianity spread throughout Europe, the whole Santa tradition, although it varied greatly from place to place, was firmly entrenched"

This sentence makes no sense. Santa is a recent invention, meaning a POST-christian one. How should an invention from, say, the 1930'es ever become PRE-christian? It's simply impossible.

jim willis's picture


After graduating from the Eastman School of Music, Jim Willis became a high school band and orchestra teacher during the week, a symphony trombonist on the weekends, a jazz musician at night and a choral conductor on Sunday mornings. ... Read More

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