Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years: A long title for a short-ish book; one not trapped in the pale of academia, yet lacking in the vibrant writing of a popular creative non-fiction; a book that won’t please your Christian Grandmother, but might get smirked at by the hardcore folkies as well. But the late Phyllis Siefker’s tract on the origins of Santa Claus – tracing this folk figure from, she posits, his initial existence as the “Wild Man” of pan-European paganism – is a wonderful excursion into our own mythologies, regardless of its faults. And, in fact, Last of the Wild Men has become one of the prime movers in getting my personal interest in Christmas back in gear.
Siefker’s book essentially puts forward the idea that one of the most general tenets of European paganism – the Wild Man, the animal-like man referred to under myriad guises (from “the Bear” to Robin Goodfellow and Robin Hood, to incarnations, in the medieval period, of our now-ubiquitous conceptualization of the “Devil”) – transformed, over the centuries, into the jolly red-nosed and fur-clad character that brings presents to the kiddos each December 25. To do so, Siefker examines a broad cross-section of Christmas traditions and folk rituals, from Greece to Germany to America and, at the very end (in a big stretch), the Ainu of northern Japan.
In her chapter “Merrie Olde England: From Pagan to Puck,” Siefker takes a look at midwinter traditions from the Albion that comprised the background against which our Western Santa began to be conceptualized.
Once the central figure of holiday festivities – not just midwinter, but May Day and harvest and other season-cycle touch points – the Wild Man was banished to a peripheral role over the centuries by Christianity’s increasing hold on England. What remained, however, at midwinter, was a general idea of the “world turned upside down”: A carnivalesque atmosphere that made peasant into priest and left the gentry to fear wassailers as they threatened their curses in exchange for firkins of ale. And the chief troublemaker of this atmosphere was to become Robin Goodfellow – known to Shakespeare readers as Puck.
In The Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, a book existent from 1628 that probably predates that by quite some time, in a section entitled “How Robin Good-Fellow Was Wont To Walke In The Night,” Robin is described as a chimney-sweep whose practical jokes would be followed by his traditional cry of, “Ho, Ho, Ho.”
As one can guess from the, umm, less than modest portrayal in this portrait, Robin hangs onto many of the Wild Man’s jobs as fertility symbol and cloven-hoofed central figure of the circular merriment of May Day. But as Siefker might point out, that beard and mustache look familiar – slap a red hat over those horns and put the feet on a reindeer before him, and we’re starting to see something…
Simultaneously, Robin Goodfellow’s Wild Man role becomes illuminated, to Siefker, in the Robin Hood legends also sprouting from Renaissance-era England. Hood or Wood or Woode are familiar names for the Wild Man – his name “Woodwose” or simply “Wose” becomes a Wild Man carved into the architecture of a building, much like the ubiquitous Green Man of English churches. (Woodwoses are visible here in Canterbury Cathedral, and to the left you can see a carving of one that’s certainly headed towards Santa-dom, with his flowing beard and white hair, furry body and his preceding reindeer-to-be.) Robin Hood, Siefker argues, was related to Saint Nicholas in some ceremonies by the 16th-century, and represented a rebellious fertility spirit that continued to fight against the coming of Christianity in the form of his May Day games and ceremonies.
Perhaps more obviously related to the Wild Man’s introduction as the master of ceremonies of the Christmas festivities, a position eventually handed over to “Father Christmas” and, in America in the 19th century, to Santa Claus, are Siefker’s examinations of mummer’s plays – folk resurrection performances tied to midwinter that historically involve a master-of-ceremonies or primary ‘fool’ character representing the Wild Man. Siefker discusses at length the Plough Monday plays, taking place the Monday after 12th Night and representing an agricultural fertility ceremony. In these, the ‘fool’ – a Bear or Wild Man character – mates with a woman, a fight breaks out over her between the fool and the hero, the fool is killed and then resurrected by a ‘Doctor.’
In Whittlesey, near Peterborough in East Anglia, the traditions of the Bear, the mummers plays, wassailing, and general midwinter tomfoolery combine into the Whittlesey Strawbear Festival. A man is costumed all in the very best straw from the local farms and touted around from house to house demanding money and booze before leading the circle-dance festivities and, eventually, being burned (just the costume, sans person, we hope) to make way for the following year’s crop.
Siefker argues that this primary character, which began as a Wild Man or ‘Bear’, in the mumming tradition eventually transformed – thanks to the likes of Ben Jonson – into Father Christmas, a master of ceremonies for the midwinter festivities. Still jolly, still nature- and fertility-related, with his holly, ivy, and mistletoe, Father Christmas was older and meeker after the Cromwellian period when puritanical zest for boredom smashed Christmas ceremony under its hobnailed boot. Father Christmas, combined with the traditional Germanic Pelznichol, became the Santa Claus we know of today.
More interestingly, in Germany and Switzerland, where other Wild Man ceremonies survive today, there are Bear-like characters – wassailing beggars who dress not unlike Woodwoses – whose name, Chlaus, draws a rather direct comparison to our jolly pal.
There are a lot of troubles in Siefker’s book, primarily that her timelines are bizarre and often contradictory, though never considered as such. Obviously when dealing with folk tradition, timelines can’t be trusted: What happens in one community in the 19th century can easily be the analog to another community’s 17th-century tradition. But when discussing these kinds of transformations, it seems that a little explanation is due to the reader.
But it’s exciting to imagine the millennia-old transformation that has led to the traditions our Christmas envelopes today – as far away from the mall cash register as it could be.