Some of us believe in him, and some of us don’t. Some of us allow him to just casually enter our homes in the dead of night, somehow disabling our house alarms and silencing protective pets.
As children, we sat upon his knee and told him about all those toys and presents we had been dreaming about, hoping that he’d remember when Christmas Eve came. We sing songs, watch films and celebrate him entirely, along with all of the joy and love that he stands for – but how much exactly, do we really know about jolly old Saint Nick? Well, if legends are to be believed, then that man rummaging around your house in the wee hours may have once upon a time been one of the most powerful and terrifying beings mankind has ever devised.
The story begins many centuries ago. Before plastic trees, fairy lights and the Coca-Cola advert, Pagans across Europe celebrated the festival of Yule. Most familiar to us modern humans in the form of a poop-like chocolate treat, Yule took place in the deepest, darkest days of winter. Yule was a time of cold and darkness, when the spirits of the dead tugged at the boundaries between our worlds, walking freely among the living. Venturing out into the depths of a Yuletide night was both dangerous, and unheard of. One might encounter evil spirits, dark entities or worse – a rapacious cavalcade of ghostly horsemen riding across the sky, their hounds baying and horns blaring in the night. None other than the Wild Hunt.
From Finland to Germany, and from Saxon England to the remote Isles of Orkney, the Wild Hunt raced across the frozen European skies, stealing the souls of any unfortunates who might find themselves in its path, dooming them to ride with the hunt for all eternity. The riders were the apparitions of dead men and women, known to invade villages to freely take food, money and souls at their leisure. If one was to allow their consciousness to ride with the hunt, or join in with their chaos willingly, the Hunt would offer rewards in the form of gold, treasure or even human flesh. That’s right – that stocking hung over your fireplace could have still had someone’s foot in it. But if someone was to find themselves obstructing the hunt, they could expect their very soul to be torn from their body, which would then be deposited somewhere far away, lifeless. Festive, right?
More devilish even than this procession of the damned was its leader. Mortals would speculate as to who, or what; the being leading the Wild Hunt was, but most Germanic peoples knew him to be ‘Wodan’, better known to us as ‘Odin’. When not taking Thor and Loki to Asgardian McDonalds, Odin would lead the spectral riders on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir; bestowing gifts upon those he favoured, and doom upon those he did not. Over the years, as Christianity came to reform Europe, Yuletide was re-shaped and combined with the stories and imagery of Christmas, but the traditions surrounding Odin’s Wild Hunt still survive to this day.
Where children would once leave bushels of hay and vegetables to feed Sleipnir, the flying eight-legged horse; they now leave carrots for the eight reindeer in its place. Where Odin would sometimes deposit strange, ethereal valuables at the foot of pine trees, there are now brightly-wrapped gift boxes containing battery-operated creatures or a Nintendo 3DS. Odin himself, the giant, bearded master of the Hunt; became a pudgy, lovable fellow with a charming smile and an army of elven slaves. Even the Wild Hunt has now moved on, featuring in popular Role-Playing Video Games and Metal albums.
So when you hear that thumping on your roof this Christmas Eve, listen carefully. Instead of the bleating of reindeer, you may hear the neigh of a great horse. The tinkling jingle bells gone, replaced with the crunching of rusty armour plates. The bright and cheerful ‘Ho Ho Ho’ might now be only the malevolent barking of a hundred spectral hunting hounds. For Father Christmas wasn’t always the legend we adore today. Perhaps someday he will return to the Wild Hunt, and soar across the Yuletide sky not with a sack of gifts at his back, but a legion of ghosts, phantoms and dogs. Perhaps he will come in the night not to leave a gifts, but to take them. At Yuletide, beware Santa’s dark past. Beware the Wild Hunt.
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