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This post is the third installment of a series concerning the astonishing 1600 year backstory of Santa Claus (you should start here with part 1, if you want things in chronological order).  At the conclusion of yesterday’s post, Saint Nicholas was a beloved saint from Greek-speaking Anatolia who was the focus of miracle stories about fighting demons, helping the poor, and raising the dead.  Many lesser-known saints have similar stories (although few miracles are as impressive as the story of Saint Nicholas resurrecting the murdered boys).  So how did Saint Nicholas transition from an ascetic Mediterranean wonder-worker to de-facto god of the winter solstice?

Pagan-Yule-spirit

The answer involves the multi-century conversion of northern and central Europe to Christianity.  In order to facilitate the widespread conversion of Germanic and Scandinavian tribes into the Christian fold, churchmen drew on preexisting traditions and customs.  Many pagan deities thus became conflated with traditional saints (a cultural syncretism not dissimilar from what we wrote about in this post about Afro-Caribbean voodoo loa) and many pagan customs worked their way into Christianity.   Saint Nicholas was a stern bearded figure whose feast day occurred near Yule (winter solstice).  Additionally he had a history of giving gifts, punching people, and performing strange resurrection miracles.  Because of these traits Saint Nicholas became identified with Wotan (or Odin), the otherworldly wandering king of Germanic gods.

Wotan

Wotan

At Yuletime, Wotan would hunt through the sky on his flying eight-legged horse Sleipnir.   Many of Wotan’s old names and characteristics are those of a wizard-like winter king.  He had a long white beard and his epithet “Jólnir” meant “Yuletime god”.  He held suzerainty over tribe of magical gnomes/dwarves who acted as his smiths and crafted wonderful weapon for him.  If a youth was worthy, Wotan would bring him a shiny knife or axe (which was slipped into a shoe or under the bed).  If a youth was unworthy, then the hapless dullard was in for a round of physical punishment or was simply dragged away by trolls and demons.   Wotan knew who was worthy and who was not because he had two black ravens “Thought” and “Memory” who traveled through the world taking note of mortal proclivities.  Speaking of animal helpers, at Yuletime it was characteristic to leave apples and carrots for Sleipnir (the flying horse) just in case Wotan decided to visit.

Santa?

Santa?

Stepping into these big northern shoes was a heady transition for an orthodox Mediterranean saint.  Additionally, northern Europe was not culturally homogenous.  Saint Nicholas took on different names and characteristics in different parts of Europe.  In Germany he was known variously Weihnachtsmann, Nickel, Klaus, Boozenickel, Hans Trapp, or Pelznickel. Sometimes he was served by bestial underlings like Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus.  In other regions he worked alone or opposed these winter demons.  In the north Sant Nick’s dwarvish smiths morphed into a tribe of elves but in Switzerland they morphed into Moors.  Wotan’s ravens turned into the famous naughty/nice list.

Nikolaus & Krampus

Nikolaus & Krampus

Later, in Holland, Saint Nicholas became Sinterklaas, a magical gift-giving bishop who traveled by means of flying sled—and who kept a captured Surinamese servant to help out (you can read about the eyebrow-raising modern interpretations of Zwarte Piet in this article by my friend Jessica).  For some reason Sinterklaas was thought to live in Spain during his off-season. England (with its mix of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and French culture) had its own traditions of Father Christmas—a nature god clothed in green.  Children from France waited for Père Noël to bring them gifts on his magic donkey (and don’t even ask about Ded Moroz, the Slavic Frost King who travels around Russia with Snegurochka).

Sinterklaas & Associates (A drawing from a picture book by Rie Cramer)

Sinterklaas & Associates (A drawing from a picture book by Rie Cramer)

In other words Saint Nicholas became more interesting and diverse as he was adopted by different folklore traditions.  However he also became confusing and strange to the point of unrecognizability.  Yet by the 18th and 19th centuries, new trends of globalization and industrialization were sweeping Europe—and the globe.  Santa was ready to put on his red suit and drive his reindeer to his toy factory.  You can read up to where his story meets the present (the temporal present!) in tomorrow’s post.

What is even going on here?

What is even going on here?

Dueling was a major conundrum for gentlemen of the nineteenth century.  Since dueling was against the law, engaging in contests of honor could endanger one’s career and prospects.  To refuse a duel however was inconceivable: it meant forfeiting one’s honor and manhood–it meant being a coward, in an era where that was the most despicable thing one could be.

The field of honor, was therefore a great crucible for true character. Some men were indeed revealed to be cowards or cheats.  Some people did not deign to fight but fired their bullets in the air and waited to see if their opponent would shoot them in cold blood. Other men fought it out and wound up as killers or as corpses.  The man who solved the problem with the greatest panache was Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, who found a completely satisfactory way out of the terrible conundrum (although it was a close thing).

The oldest-known photograph of Lincoln, about 1847

In 1842, Lincoln, then an Illinois state legislator, allegedly wrote a series of anonymous letters criticizing a hot-headed Democrat named James Shields, the state auditor.  The national financial crisis of the preceding years had left the state coffers in disarray and had infuriated the electorate–circumstances which left the auditor ripe for mockery.  It is unclear how many of the letters, Lincoln authored himself—his future wife Mary Todd probably was much more culpable (although Lincoln was courting her at the time and was trying to both impress her with his wit and gallantry as well as shield her from any scandal).  Unfortunately the anonymous letters acquired a life of their own as other writers added to the canon. Ultimately the letters hinted tauntingly at Shield’s cowardice and…inadequacy as a man.  The irate Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel.

Lincoln realized that he had gone too far and tried to apologize to Shields, however the latter was not appeased by any words. Since he had been challenged, Lincoln was allowed to choose the location and the weapons.  A cunning lawyer, Lincoln chose Bloody Island as the battleground:  this spit of land on the Missouri side of the Mississippi was disputed between the states (and by the flooding river).  The island’s actual legal location was therefore unclear (a useful subterfuge for possible legal tangles).  James Shield had a reputation as a crack shot and a fearless fighter, but he was small, whereas, at 6’4” Lincoln towered above his compatriots and was known for immense physical strength.  Lincoln also excelled at championship submission wrestling–as a younger man he had frequently grappled against all challengers on the frontier and he was only thrown twice.

Lincoln Wrestling (by Harold von Schmidt)

For the dueling weapons, Lincoln chose the heaviest & longest cavalry swords, which gave maximum advantage to his height and strength (and possessed the added advantage of being terrifying).  The future president showed up at Bloody Island early and dug a fighting pit which, in the event of a sword fight, would prevent Shields from escaping or circling away.  When Shields and his entourage arrived they were dismayed by these provisions and preparations, however the bold Shields continued to demand satisfaction.  It was only when he witnessed Lincoln hack off a large willow branch far above the ground, that Shields finally was swayed by Lincoln’s apologies.   The two men settled their differences and remained friends and political allies for the rest of their careers. During the civil war Lincoln appointed James Shields as a Brigadier General.

What Shields and Lincoln both saw in their nightmares

Lincoln was personally ashamed of the whole incident and did not refer to it often.  ‘I did not want to kill Shields and felt sure I could disarm him…,’ he later wrote, adding, ‘I didn’t want the d—-d fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols.’  According to one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s letters an officer once asked President Lincoln if it was true that he had nearly fought a swordfight for his wife’s honor.  Lincoln responded, “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.” Perhaps the near disaster taught him to keep his sarcastic humor more in check (although his letters and quips reveal this always remained difficult for him). It also taught him to create allies through self-deprecation, sincerity, and–failing that–intimidation. I think Lincoln may have been embarrassed because the whole affair revealed that, if everything else failed, he maintained a cunning ability to win at any cost—a steely strength which lay within the genteel and amiable man.

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