Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Holiday fairy visitors and Santa Mythology

This article is a shortened version of a topic in my book "A Worldbuilder's Guide to Fairies and Fairy Tales" 

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;

The Night Before Christmas, as it is most commonly known now, is an important part of the most successful and intriguing piece of worldbuilding ever performed. By using ideas from multiple cultures and legends, the anonymous writer of this short poetic story was able to help reinvent a holiday to focus on family and children, while creating one of the few fairy figures still commonly believed in (if only by those of a younger age) and change our entire view of the world. 

The ultimate creators of the modern Santa were likely unaware of most of the history of fairy visitors, nor did this legend evolve the same in all places. Nor can we say that all winter visitors contributed to the idea of the modern Santa, but they are all interesting and can help us better understand fairylore.

Winter was a mixed time in the medieval and earlier periods of time. It was a hard time when cold, disease, and hunger became all the more threatening. Yet in agrarian and pastoral societies, the winter could offer some break from hard toil as work moved inside.

No one could do all the work alone; they needed the gods and fairies to help and bless them. Thus, people would invite these supernatural beings to their homes and villages to receive their blessings. 

 When the culture changed, the nature of the winter visitor changed. After all, these visitors serve a purpose within the culture. 

Although there have been hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of magical visitors, most of them fit within one of eight primary categories which include:  the gods of alcohol production, the gods of animal husbandry, trooping fairies seeking a place to rest, wild men of the mountains and forests, gods of household work, hunters of evil spirits, gods of children, and the dying god and carnival king.

Obviously, any one being could fit within many of these categories, and there are many more beings that visited to bring blessings to the house and village in other ways because people needed the deities for a number of reasons. This, of course, confuses people who want there to be some straight line between a single god or divine idea and the later Santa figure. Such a line doesn’t exist, however, for places like England and later America where the Santa myth was finalized, included a synchronization of Celts, Germans, and Romans from multiple regions who herded animals, farmed fields, and performed cottage industry. Thus, there were numerous concerns and ideas that would get merged together to eventually create the Santa we know.

Regardless of the form the winter visitor took, it’s important to keep in mind that a large part of the holidays were designed not only to celebrate these visitors but to lure them to people’s homes. Thus, people might leave donuts for Perchta and the spirits of children she travels with, or hold wild, inverted celebrations with a lot of cross-dressing dances for a carnival king. 

The Deity of Alcohol Production

One of the many tasks that commonly occurred in winter was the production of wine, cider, or similar beverages. What’s more, in many places the casks of alcohol were first opened in the winter. A large part of most winter was celebrating the fact that there was fresh meat from slaughtered animals, and just as important, the fact that people began making alcohol after the harvest and opened the previous year’s barrels. This tended to make these winter celebrations very ruckus and wild affairs. Among the Greeks and the Kalasha the gods of alcohol, Dionysus and Balimain respectively would visit the villages in the winter. People in Britain would sing to the spirits of the apple orchards or ask gods for a good bounty on apple and cider. It wasn’t unheard of for the Apple Tree Man to leave gifts for some people in the winter as well. 

Divinity of Household Chores

Just as winter was a time for opening the alcohol and slaughtering the animals for meat, it was also a time when people performed numerous household chores. They would spin thread, sew, weave, clean, and more. Fairies were a big part of these activities. In Scandinavian nations, tomte and nisse, household fairies give presents on Christmas. From Scotland to Northern Italy, the goddesses of spinning tended to visit around Christmas time


Animal Husbandry and Pastoralism

In pastoralist societies, people who would take their animals to eat in the summer, often in mountains, forest meadows, or fields, the places where the gods and fairies dwelt. In the winter, their animals would still need blessings from these gods, so it would make sense for people to pray for the gods and fairies to visit them. We see such traditions in the Yule goat of Scandinavia. Although, it is interesting that Scandinavia also had the tomte and nisse, spirits of the household who would also dwell in barns and bless animals and receive gifts of oatmeal with butter in return for this.


Wild Men

There were a multitude of wild mountain spirits that lived in the places where people would hunt and or herd animals. Some of these, such as Bellschniggle [also known as Pelznichol Bellsnickle and more], were likely connected with such Alpine spirits. In this tradition, people would dress in rough furs, and often masks, and go house to house delivering candy to and scaring children. In others, he would visit like Santa, flitting from house to house, unseen, he would slip down the chimney to leave presents in stockings.

Another wild man from Basque country is Olentzero. Legends about his origins vary, but in some he is the last or one of the last of the jentillak, the giants of the mountains. He, too, lived in the mountains, coming down during Christmas to give presents to children.



Children and Generosity

Children would likely struggle to survive the winter with hunger and cold (although at one time summer was also a time for disease thanks to the danger of bacteria). This would explain why so many spirits of the winter seemed eager to take the spirits of children, but it could also explain why people were eager for deities who would bless and protect children as well. 

Befana, from Italy, was a woman, said to have given Jesus the toys her dead child had played with, and so in return she became mother on Christmas to all the children of Italy. She flies around on a broom, bringing gifts to children. It has been suggested that she is connected with the goddess Strenia, the Roman goddess of the New Year and wellbeing, with the Christian element thrown in later to explain her.


Trooping Fairies

There were numerous fairies who would enter people’s homes to search for fresh water to bathe their children, a warm place to rest by the fire, a place to hold weddings, or get a little food. Others would come in to check up on the people of the village. In any case, these fairies often blessed the good and punished the bad. They helped shoemakers and others down on their luck by making shoes or performing similar tasks. Although not specifically winter related, an awful lot of the stories with them happen around that time. A widow in Italy encountered the Buffardello during this time. 


The Evil Spirit Hunter

Vampires, trolls, cruel fairies, and more were more active during the wintertime. On Christmas, at the cross-roads, vampires could often be found fighting, celebrating, and generally causing trouble. It makes sense, then, for the gods and fairies who hunt these beings and protect humanity from them to come out at Christmas. Perchta and Holda led the wild hunt to hunt down evil spirits, as did Odin.