Many of the symbols and icons we associate with Christmas celebrations are derived from shamanistic and pagan traditions of tribal peoples of pre-Christian Northern Europe. The family tree of Santa Claus begins 10,000 BCE with the horned shaman called Herne, the Spirit of the Great Hunt. From there he evolved to Pan for the Indo-European culture (8000-4500 BCE) and Greek Era (2000 BCE); into Cernunnos for the Celtic culture (1000-750 BCE); through the Roman and Germanic/Nordic cultures; and finally to Saint Nicholas in the 20th century.
Like Santa, shamans from the far North (Lapland to Siberia) wear bells on their ritual costumes to announce their presence as they enter the spirit world and to frighten off any unfriendly spirits who might be lying in wait. The red of Santa’s robe signifies the sacred blood that links all human beings. Red is also a symbol of fire, a gift that shamans brought to the tribal people they served. The ancient peoples of Finland and the Russian steppes believed in the World Tree. The roots of the World Tree stretch down into the underworld, the trunk of the tree is the middle earth of everyday existence, and its branches reach upwards into the heavenly realm of the upper world. The top of the World Tree touched the North Star and the shaman would climb this metaphorical tree to visit the Spirits. This is the true meaning of the star on top of the modern Christmas tree and also the reason that Santa makes his home at the North Pole.
The Christmas tree is linked to the tree of fire or the tree of knowledge. Mistletoe is linked to the symbol of lightning, fire and sex.
The roots of Santa originate with the gods Herne and Pan 10,000 years ago. This Herne/Pan god went by many names but was always portrayed as dark, furry, or wearing animal skins, with antlers or horns and, up to the 17th century, with an erect penis. Pan was a fur-covered, horned, benevolent yet mischievous figure. Shamans of this time would lead Winter Solstice rituals, initiate the New Year, reward the good, punish the bad, officiate at sacrifices, and head fertility rites. They sang, danced, and jumped over fires in sexually symbolic fertility rites.
Modern day Sinter Klaus is a conglomeration of Germanic/Norse gods such as Thor, Donner, and Odin or Wotan. Thor or Donner wore red and road in a Golden Flying Chariot pulled by two goats (Cracker and Gnasher). Many of the customs of Sinter Klaas such as checking up on naughty children, riding a white horse, and leaving food out at night, can be traced back to Woden or Odin. Wotan rode an 8-legged white horse through the night skies, his long white beard blowing in the wind. Prior to this time, Saint Nicholas was depicted as having a dark beard. Perhaps the eight reindeer echo Wotan’s eight-legged horse. In Finland, St. Nicholas assumed human form, adopting the older name of Joulupukki, which literally means Yule Goat. St. Nicholas often had helpers who were easily traced to pagan roots.
Saint Nicholas is the most revered saint in Russia and the counterpart to the native peoples highly respected local shaman. He is best known as the patron saint of children, to whom he brings presents on the eve of his feast day, 6th December. Most religious historians now agree that St Nicholas never actually existed, but was instead a Christianized synthesis of the historical bishops, Nicholas of Myra (4th Century) and Nicholas of Sion (d. 564) together with a number of pagan gods including the Teutonic god, Hold Nickar, corresponding to the Greek god, Poseidon.
Here are some various names for Santa Claus in different countries:
Australia & United States - Santa Claus
British Isles - Father Christmas
China - Dun Che Lao Ren (dwyn-chuh-lau-oh-run)
Czechoslovakia - Svaty Mikalas
Denmark - Julemanden
France - Pere Noel or le petit Jsus
Germany - Saint Nicholas or Weihnachtsmann
Greece - Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus
Iceland - Jolasveinar, Stekkjarstaur, Giljagaur, Stufur, Thvorusleikir, Pottaskefill, Askasleikir, Hurdarskellir, Skyrgamur, Bjugnakraekir, Gluggagaegir, Gattathefur, Ketkrokur, Kertasnikir
Italy - La Befana Japan - Hoteiosho
Netherlands - Sinterklaas
Norway - Julebukk
Russia - Saint Nicholas
Scandinavia - Julenisse
Spain - Balthazar
Sweden - Tomte
Wales - Mari Ilwyd
Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years - Phyllis Siefker
When Santa Was A Shaman: Ancient Origins of Santa Claus & the Christmas Tree - Tony van Renterghem
The Winter Solstice - John Matthews
Pagan Christmas - Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller-Ebeling
Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth – Dorothy Morrison
Santa Was a Shaman