Christmas Folklore

Okay, so maybe all of Fawnskin doesn’t ponder where the elves came from but I find my child-self wondering about all the different holiday lore that has formed this nice weave– combining many traditions and many cultures.

So, I spent some time wandering around reading different folklore concerning Christmas. Here is a page about the Christmas elves (with names).

Just a note, all images in this post are public domain unless specified.

The Yule Goat is known as the Julbukk or Julbocken, and is a tradition that has very old roots and still does in Scandinavia. You can see how the above image has a jolly old guy riding on a goat. (Looks pretty pagan to me!)

If you look around, you can find other images with Santa on a horse or in a sleigh with reindeer. If you want to read more about Yule, I enjoyed this Yule summary.

The origin of the Yule Goat is thought to have roots in a few traditions including the animals slaughtered around Yule. It was a time of feasting.

Today the Yule Goat is known as a goat figure made out of straw. These days the goat carries the Yule elf on the rounds to deliver presents.

Guess it gives new meaning to the term, getting your goat….(sorry, I just had to say it) as you can see from the above photo, the goat is a big deal in other countries.

You might be amused to learn that the Gävle Goat has made the news regularly since vandals have made a habit of torching it annually.

The older stories about the goat tie the animal back to the Norse god Thor, who rode across the sky in a wagon drawn by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr.

Above: A Yule deer? A holiday toy for particular parrots–reminds me of the Yule Goat…

What do you think?

Anyway traditional winter solstice celebrations featured the the Yule Goat and soon a person disguised as a goat went from house to house entertaining families with songs and dances, and receiving drink and food in exchange. This may be to be tied to a darker character called the Krampus.

Santa illustration by Thomas Nast

One story about the popularity of the jolly old elf, by the name of Santa, is connected to the 1880s story that became known as, Twas the Night Before Christmas. The story was penned by Clement Clarke Moore, a minister who didn’t own up to penning the story until some time later. One copy of the work from 1869 remains in the collection of the Huntington Library.

Santa illustration by Thomas Nast circa 1881

Some of the holiday traditions come from mixing things up with Odin, a god of the German and pagan tradition, popular prior to Christianization.

In case you are so inclined, the evolution of Santa has been studied and can be found in Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years by Phyllis Siefker.


One of the legends of Odin, that stems from the 13th Century, explains that during the holiday of Yule, he led a hunting party through the sky.

Also of note, is that Odin rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances, which is thought to be connected with the legendary reindeer.

Get it, flying through the sky, eight legs…eight reindeer?

According to Phyllis Siefker, children would place their boots, filled with snacks for Odin’s flying horse and Odin would reward those children by replacing Sleipnir’s food with gifts or candy.

Sinterklaas photo courtesy of Daniel

Now I can’t leave out the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas but I am going to let you read about it yourself at this great blog post about the legend of Sinterklaas here or check out this odd web commentary about Sinterklaas, and if you still crave more, view some Sint photos here.

Okay so if you are into trivia here are some of the other countries and their holiday icons:

  • France: Pare Noel
  • England: Father Christmas
  • Germany: Weihnachtsmann (Christmas man)
  • Russia: Grandfather Frost (who wore blue)
  • Dutch: Sinterklaas

Then in Italy there is La Befana, who rides a broomstick down the chimney to deliver toys into stockings. Girl power!

So, then I was thinking about the religious fervor that comes up around this holiday and found the following estimates of religious beliefs–because they form part of the weave. I’ll post Christmas Unwrapped if you are interested in connecting the dots.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey conducted by the City of New York University in 2001, Neopaganism in the United States is estimated to comprise a third of all neopagans worldwide, and is the sixth largest non-Christian denomination in the US, after Judaism , Islam , Buddhism , Hinduism, and Unitarian Universalism.

Which led me on a tangent (that had nothing to do with this–but you know how the web gets) to find this religous statistics website and this resource for statistics.

There is a Saint Nick behind the scenes. Saint Nicholas is the popular name for Nicholas of Myra, a saint and Bishop who was born during the third century. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, but is now commonly identified with Santa Claus. (BTW: Nicholas was never officially canonised.)

Now, you would think everyone would love the season and the message of good will, gift giving, and taking care of the poor, but the Puritans of 17th-century England and America banned the holiday because it was tied to paganism.

Guess they never heard of religious tolerance…

Now for those who chant the mantra, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” you’ll be happy to know that there is Ježíšek (the Child Jesus) who is a Christmas gift-giving figure in the Czech Republic.

Decorations in that part of the world include glass blown ornaments, garlands, and candles, and lights that are to be lit right when Ježíšek puts presents under the tree.

So, the parents send the kids up to their rooms to keep watch for Ježíšek and they stick the presents under the tree and ring a bell to let the kids know they can come down–after Ježíšek slipped in under their very noses!

Now, if you are anti-Santa there is a website just for you and a game you won’t want to miss, Rudolph’s Kick n’ fly.

Yes, I know the nativity story but scholars don’t believe the real birthday of Jesus is Christmas and this breaking news about the pagan shrine unearthed last month, Contantine, and the council of Nicaea might be of interest.

If you hate the commericalism, you might ask for this book, Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus, where author Jeremy Seal describes how the commercialization of the Santa Claus legend began in the 1800s.

On last thing…did you know that since the 19th century, the Christmas tree tradition was to have it is set up on the morning of Christmas Eve and taken down on the Epiphany (January 6)?

Me, neither.

Here is some other holiday related amusement for you and links to buy those books I mentioned:

Need and excuse to party? Join the Running of the Santas
Take this quiz on holiday stuff
Need more fun? Take this holiday quiz!

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This entry was posted on Sunday, December 23rd, 2007 and is filed under Mountain Lake Resort.

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One Response to “Christmas Folklore

  • 1
    Karen (Karooch from Scraps of Mind)
    December 24th, 2007 18:17

    Great cosmopolitan Christmas article Dianna. Let’s face it. Christians only chose 25 December to celebrate Christmas because the pagans were already celebrating around that time and it was a good opportunity to get converts.