In this holiday season, I received a cri de coeur from the mother of a young boy named James:
James just found out that his parents stuff his stockings each year instead of Santa Claus. He is crestfallen. I asked him if he remembered a story you told him about a real live, animal-loving "Santa" that lived long ago, and he did, but neither of us could conjure enough details to make a suitable retelling. Could you please give me a reference to find the story of this previous, real-life "Santa"? It just might save Christmas for a certain 5-year old boy who yearns to believe.
I remembered a conversation in which I suggested that the original Santa was a shaman of the Sami, a reindeer-herding people of Lapland, reputed to have the power to call up the winds and fly through the air, and that the reason his coat is red is that it was the flayed skin of a reindeer. I have seen Sami drums with images of a shaman flying through the three tiers of the shamanic cosmos on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. But while there is a rich ethnography on Sami shamanism, I could think of no source that would be suitable for a young boy. So I took on the assignment of writing my own version of the first Santa, addressed to a boy in danger of losing his belief in Christmas magic.
I heard you found out that it wasn’t Santa who put the presents in your stocking, but people who live with you every day.
I know this is a shocking discovery, and it would not be surprising if you felt cheated and confused.This is also a very big moment on your journey of growing up. Actually, it’s not big, it’s ENORMOUS.You have come to a fork in your road. If you let your feelings of disappointment and betrayal take you down the wrong path, you could very easily end up in the world of the Meanies who don’t believe in any kind of magic at all, and therefore never have any. Go the other way and you’ll come to know that, even if Mommy and Daddy filled the stocking, Santa is REAL. Not only is he real; he is MORE real than you could understand before you found out about the presents.
Let me explain.
When a story is as important as Santa’s, lots of people will try to tell it their own way. So you’ll hear that Santa was a saint who traveled the world producing marvels and good works many centuries ago. Or that he was a winter king in a great northern forest. Meanies might tell you he was dreamed up by slick advertising men so they can sell more stuff. It’s often said that Santa lives at the North Pole with his elves. Most children I know, and some grown-ups, picture him flying through the sky with a team of reindeer. They are more right than all the rest.
I am going to tell you the true and original story of Santa. Accept no substitutes.
Long ago and far away, where the sun shines all night on Midsummer’s Eve and never shows its face at Midwinter, a boy they called Dreamer lived with his family among the Reindeer People. They were a simple folk who lived on fish and the fruits of the earth, on reindeer milk and sometimes, in the hungry depths of winter, on reindeer meat. They followed the reindeer through the cycle of the seasons, forever in search of something to eat. They made tools and toys and holy statues out of reindeer bone, and when they danced around their fires, men and women both wore crowns of reindeer antlers.
Dreamer was an awkward boy. He couldn’t run or move as fast on snow shoes as the others. He wasn’t very lucky at fishing, and he couldn’t lift the great tree-trunks they used for their winter games of log-tossing. They called him Dreamer because his mind always seemed to be wandering somewhere else. He loved the reindeer, and sometimes his mother would find him dreaming among them, arms wrapped in sleep around the belly of a reindeer cow.
Even the wild reindeer approached him without fear. That was why, one hungry winter, his father made him go out with the hunters, to call the wild reindeer from the shadows of the evergreens. As a magnificent bull reindeer trotted towards him, the boy's father muttered, “Take him. He’s yours.” The boy trembled, with his father’s long bow in his hands, looking into the deep steady eyes of the reindeer.
Impatient, his father threw his spear. Blood spurted from the great heart of the stag over the boy's chest. He dropped to his knees by the body of the reindeer, asking forgiveness. “We do this so our people may live.”
That night, while the boy’s father and mother were snoring under their sleeping skins, he woke and looked up through the smoke hole into a field of stars. Through the field, a reindeer was racing on flying hooves. It swooped down through the smoke hole and stood over the boy, so close the steam from its nostrils entered him. He understood, without human words, what he was to do. He was to make a drum, using the hide he had carried back from the woods, binding it to the frame he would carve from an evergreen. He would use a piece of antler as a beater. An old one who lived alone in the woods would show him things he needed to know to make the drum right.
I don’t know how much you know about drums. This was not the kind of drum you see at a concert, or in a marching band, or in a toy shop. It was the kind of drum you can ride. The boy did not know that until he made it, and learned to tap-tap-tap with his bone hammer until the winds changed and the air was filled with the sound of drumming hooves.Another night came, at the darkest time of the year, when the reindeer looked down through the smoke hole and the wind whispered, Tomorrow. The boy walked alone in the gray absence of dawn to the tree that had provided the frame of his drum. He made himself a nest among soft needles the reindeer had not touched.
As soon as he touched the drum, the stag appeared, different from before. Now his back was covered by a scarlet saddlecloth. The boy understood what he was meant to do. He swung himself up, as someone else might get up on a horse. There was no bit or bridle; he just held on to the reindeer’s neck as he took off at a terrific pace, heading ever north across frozen marshes and ice floes, into a world of white. Ahead, he saw a huge glowing disk very low on the horizon. It seemed he was flying into the face of the moon.
The boy found himself in the presence of an immense being that blazed with light. It was like looking at the moon, caught in the bare branches of a giant oak. The boy’s vision changed and he saw a woman more beautiful than anything he had ever imagined, a White Lady crowned with great glowing antlers. He knelt before the Reindeer Queen. She smiled a moon-bright smile and raised him up and held him to her breast like a mother.
She told him, “Darker times are coming. You will need to become a man quickly, and more than a man, to help bring back the light. When the time comes, I will call you and show you what to do.”
When the ice broke up, monsters appeared in the inlets where the Reindeer People went to fish. The monsters reared from the waters with the heads of leering dragons, then disgorged terrible iron-clad men bent on killing and plunder.The Iron Men stormed over the land. The boy's father, now headman of his village, gathered the herders and the older boys to defend their women and their tame reindeer. Fearing for his son’s life and contemptuous of his fighting skills, he ordered Dreamer to stay with the herd.
When the din of battle sounded across the hill, and the boy's mother armed herself with a bone knife, the boy took his drum and sat among the reindeer, in the long grass. He tapped with the bone hammer until he felt himself stretch and stretch. Then he was flying with the reindeer, through the arctic rainbow to the palace of the Reindeer Queen.
Bright as the full moon, she told him, it was time to meet Brother Bear. The great bear rose up before him like a shaggy mountain. Dreamer wasn’t afraid, well, not as much as he might have been if the Reindeer Queen had not made the introductions.When Brother Bear opened his arms, the boy stepped forward and hugged him hard, though his arms could cover only a tiny part of the bear’s tremendous girth. When Brother Bear hugged him back, closing his mighty arms, Dreamer fell through the heart of the mountain, into the world of battle.
The Iron Men were baying victory. What landed before them, making thunder in the earth, silenced their cries. Sword-arms and spear-arms ceased hacking and cutting, frozen in mid-thrust. Brother Bear towered between the Iron Men and the herders. He reached down and plucked the invaders from the field like toy soldiers. He tossed them back towards their dragon boats. The remnants of the Iron Men broke and fled, throwing down weapons and plates of armor to speed their escape. Rejoicing, Dreamer's father ran to bring his wife and son the good news. He found the boy sleeping under his drum, among the reindeer. He poked the boy with the toe of his boot. “Dreaming again, eh? Rouse yourself, boy! Come and see how we won the good fight.”
As the boy struggled to his feet, very wobbly, the form of the great bear began to wobble too, fading to a thin mist, then gone.
When she called him again, the Reindeer Queen told the boy, “When you are grown, you will be wide and strong and big-bellied, like Brother Bear. And all who see you will smile and be jolly, except men of evil hearts, who will flee before you.”
So the boy grew to be a man, wide-bellied and jolly, fond of stuffing himself with summer berries and tracking the bees to the best honeypots in the trees. When he tapped on his drum and the reindeer came to take him flying now, they came as a whole team and he road in a sleigh that they pulled through the sky, since he was now too broad to ride on the back of a single animal. Whistling for favorable winds, he traveled far beyond the lands of the Reindeer People.His biggest journey began when he was old, in the eyes of men, and the Reindeer Queen called him to tell him that there was new star in the sky, and its light was coming to the Northlands.
He flew to a place where the wisest of the wise were waiting for this star. He stood with them on top of a mountain, He saw the night sky open like a smoke hole to reveal the new star. Light came down from it like a pillar, and inside the pillar he saw the face of a radiant child that melted his heart.
He wanted to lay gifts before the child, but he had nothing except his beating heart.
“Drum for me from your heart,” the star-child told him. “Drum for the hearts of men, to help them open to give and share in peace on this night of the turning year.”
Santa has been doing that ever since. When he drums, hearts open like the roofs of houses, and shining gifts come pouring down.Whoever gives in a spirit of love and joy on this special night has Santa inside him, or her.
When Mommy and Daddy were stuffing your stocking, Santa was there with them.Now, I know that when you have seen something with your eyes it can be hard to believe a different thing unless you can see that with your eyes too.
So I want you to know this.
In a great museum in Europe there is a drum made of reindeer skin. On it is an old, old painting of a man flying through the sky on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. I’m not saying this is Santa’s drum. I think his drum is too lively to ever get caught and stuck in a museum. I am saying that whoever painted and used that drum knew how you make flying reindeer, and how you get down chimneys.
Bear lights photo (c) Robert Moss
Etching of Sami shaman with magic drum by O.H. von Rode (1767).
(c) Robert Moss. All rights reserved.
I first published this in 2008. Reposting by popular request.
I first published this in 2008. Reposting by popular request.