"Is Santa real?"
I looked at my 10 year old suspiciously, she stared at me intently. What had she told her little sister? My wife of course had kept up with the whole Santa, tooth-fairy, Easter Bunny thing but I was a pragmatist .......and so was my eldest daughter. Despite my wish for them to keep the sense of wonder and magic of childhood for as long as possible, I was adamant I wouldn't lie to them if they asked me outright.
My eldest never asked the same question, she didn't have to, when all said and done she would make her own mind up despite what anybody told her. On some things she had already come to her own conclusions and though discouraged from pushing her opinion on her sister, sometimes it would slip out.
The youngest had excitedly chattered away about Christmas since the decorations went up and the eldest had finally snapped.
"Don't be so stupid" she scoffed and they both looked at me, waiting for me to adjudicate, each confident of a response in their favour.
My kids had a habit of putting me on the spot, asking awkward questions at the most inopportune times. I had to tell the truth but in such a way the answer was acceptable to all. Unless you have kids of your own you will not understand how challenging that can be sometimes .....and this was one such time. I began as I do a ramble, and hoped my mind would steer a good course. This is what I told them.......
"A long, long, time ago, long before Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity, people celebrated different times of the year in different ways. The best time of year was the winter solstice in late December. It was a time of abundance, the harvest was in and the harsh months of winter were yet to bite. It was a time of feasting, building up reserves, like a bear does before hibernating. This was a special time of year. It was magical......"
I noticed the withered look my eldest gave me but ignored her.
"......magical because it seemed like people, for just this one time of year, were nice to each other. They would sit out the winter months grumbling about shortages, be busy as beavers in springtime planting crops, the toil took on a more relaxed nature in summer as they tended them. It was brief respite before the intense effort of harvest. Then with the harvest in, for a week at least, people were so happy and stress free. They were allowed to be themselves.
Unfortunately people became greedy, they wanted more than their fair share and fought each other. Instead of sharing the harvest for all, claim was laid to land, bullies forcibly taking control. The leaders with an army at their backs then took control of the harvest distribution, demanding for themselves and their sycophants more and more. Why should they go without during the harsh winter months, they are organising things - though you'll never see one out in the field with a sickle. And that is how we got governments.
Pretty soon there were rich people and poor people. Te rich had control of the nation's resources and they kept more and more for themselves. Some rich people who inherited their wealth from their parents and didn't steal it from the poor themselves, saw this was wrong. They were more concerned about the poor people but their numbers were few. These few helped keep alive the magical spirit of 'peace on Earth and goodwill to all', no matter how greedy many people had become. One such person was Odin."
"Odin, Woden, Wotan, yes, that one. Odin was the first person whom we know was a Santa"
"I knew there was more than one" my youngest said triumphantly and the eldest rolled her eyes.
I carried on before they started arguing.
"There have been lots of Santa's but Odin is the first we know about for sure. You see Odin was one of these warlords, kings, land-owners, they go by many different titles. In days of old some people thought them capable of doing magical things, but mostly they were just very strong, or very clever. Anyway Odin although regarded as fierce, was bestowed with this feeling, this magic .....this spirit. Odin would lead his warriors on horseback in the seasonal Wild Hunt when game was as abundant as the harvest crops.
From a distance the eerie autumnal mist made these riders look like ghostly apparitions, racing across the horizon. Their horns and calls to get the game running would echo for miles, amplified by the fog. After the hunt Odin would share the spoils with the townsfolk. Where Odin lived they called this time of year Yule. It has many names and many celebrate it in different ways. Some called it Hanukkah, some Malkh, or Saturnalia, most people we know call it Christmas, but it is all the same thing.
The Wild Hunt
It was many years later, but still a long time ago when another man came along and his name was Nikolaos. Nikolaos was born in Myra to a Greek family. He had wealthy parents who died when he was young. Nikolaos was called the wonder-worker and later on Saint Nicholas because of the many things he did. As with everything people exaggerate, but in 311 AD during a famine, Nikolaos fed the whole town with wheat from a ship in the harbour sheltering from a storm.
The sailors were reluctant at first as the wheat had been weighed and it was bound for the emperor in Constantinople. It is told that Nikolaos promised no weight would be lost for whatever the sailors offloaded. When they reached Constantinople this was the case. Nikolaos may have paid for wheat without telling the townsfolk so they wouldn't feel beholden to him, the weight loss balanced in gold perhaps. This was the true Christmas spirit, just as it was with Odin and many unsung heroes in between. To the people of Myra it was a Christmas miracle and Saint Nicholas was responsible.
It was a miracle in a sense and one that we all make happen over and over again. Every time someone gives something with no thought of reward, or even acknowledgement, this spirit grows stronger and the miracles more frequent. It is up to all of us to keep this alive. It wasn't the only kindness Nikolaos did, there were many fantastic tales, some of which seem too incredible to be true, others aren't disputed.
A poor man had three daughters who would be sold into slavery if he didn't provide a dowry for them to marry. Nikolaos decided to help but again didn't want the recognition, so one night he threw three bags of gold into the house, one for each of the daughters. This is where things get muddled again. Some say he threw the bags down the chimney, others through an open window. Nobody knows but the account most people think of is that the daughters had hung their stockings by the fire to dry and in the morning they were filled with gold. They thought the money had come down the chimney but suspected it was Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus.
Santa Claus may have given us the traditions of hanging up stockings or expecting our gifts to come down the chimney, Odin may have given us the man with a white beard, the reindeer, the fir trees, and the Polar base, but the true spirit of Christmas, the looking out for each other, the being nice to each other, the magic of life itself, is within all those that choose to embrace it. Yes there is a Santa Claus, it's just that some people choose not to see it."