Odin And Santa: The Norse God Delivered Gifts With An Eight-Legged, Flying Horse
The Santa Claus that we know today is a fusion of myths, legends, and folklore from several different cultures, from the Turkish bishop Saint Nicholas and the German folktales of Sinterklaas. You know all of those guys, but you might be surprised to learn that the Norse god Odin and Santa are also very similar.
Christmas Drew From The Scandinavian Jul Celebration
Before Christianity, Scandinavian people celebrated a 12-day winter holiday called jul, from which we get the modern word "yule." Many jul festivities---such as hanging wreaths made of evergreen boughs, singing carols, decorating pine trees, burning a yule log, and hanging sprigs of mistletoe in doorways---were adopted by Christians to make Christmas more palatable to newly converted pagans.
Thanks to modern-day retellings of Viking tales, many people envision Odin as a lanky, craggy-faced, spear-carrying god of war who gave one of his eyes in exchange for wisdom and walked around with a raven perched on his shoulder. That description couldn't be any different from the jolly old elf who bounds down our chimneys every year, right?
Maybe not. The modern image of Santa is based on drawings by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the mid-1800s, which were based on the descriptions in Clarence Clement Moore's 1823 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," more commonly known as "'Twas The Night Before Christmas." Prior to this, Santa Claus was described as a tall, gaunt old man with a long, white beard wearing a fur coat and wide-brimmed hat, which just happens to match the description of one of Odin's favorite disguises. (As a god, Odin naturally had the ability to change his appearance, and he liked to mingle with humans undetected.)
Elves And A North Pole Workshop
Everyone knows that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, where his workshop is headquartered. All year long, his crew of elves work hard to produce the gifts that Santa brings to all the children who made it to his "nice" list. Well, according to Norse mythology, Odin also had a crew of industrious elves known as "Odin's men" who made small gifts for Odin to deliver. The manufacturing did not take place at the North Pole, but many parts of Scandinavia are situated above the Arctic Circle. Odin himself was said to live in a frozen world to the north called Asgard, where he often clashed with icy giants.
Flying Reindeer ... Or Was It A Horse?
Thanks to "'Twas The Night Before Christmas," we know that Santa flies through the sky in a magical sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer. Similarly, Odin flies across the sky on an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. In most stories, Odin sat on the back of the horse, but in many other Norse myths, common animals with the uncommon ability to fly pulled sleighs or chariots for the gods and goddesses. Even the names of Santa's reindeer, as given by Moore, evoke Odin. "Donner" and "Blitzen" are similar to the Germanic words for "thunder" and "lightning," both of which were commanded by Odin.
Both Benevolent And A Disciplinarian
Odin and Santa are both all-knowing, but they have help. Santa has his legion of elves who spy on children and take notes on their behavior, while Odin has two companion ravens named Huginn and Muninn who he sends out to survey the people and note those who are especially good or bad. For the good people, Odin leaves small trinkets, bread, and good fortune, while those on Odin's naughty list receive a heavy dose of bad luck.
The Father Christmas Connection
Santa Claus has many names, and so does Odin. One of them was Jolfaor, or "Jul Father," meaning something very close to Father Christmas, which is how Santa is still primarily known in many countries.
In summation, Santa and Odin are both old men with long, white beards and furry suits who fly through the night with an eight-pronged crew of magical animal helpers delivering gifts to the good and punishment to the wicked with the assistance of their all-seeing, gift-producing friends, and they also have the exact same name. Eh, it's probably a coincidence.