In 17th century Britain after the revolution, when Cromwell and the puritans came to power, Christmas and all its festivities were banned as Pagan and Heathen and nothing to do with christianity.
And he was so right.
Just about all the stories and traditions associated with Christmas and the birth of Christ are pinched from older religions, traditions and beliefs - or are downright fiction (lies).
For a start no one knows when and where Jesus was born. The story of the Roman census and the Holy Family having to travel to Bethlehem is a complete fiction. It was devised simply to make it appear that the birth of Jesus fulfilled a prophesy by Isiah.
The date of Christmas, the 25th of December, and many of the details surrounding the birth, such as being born in a stable (cave) between the ox and the ass, and the cry 'The bridegroom cometh!' were all lifted straight from the myths of Mithras, the chief rival religion to christianity in early Rome. Some scholars argue that it was sheer fluke that christianity was chosen as the state religion of Rome rather than Mithraism.
Decorating the home with evergreens around the Winter Solstice was another tradition that goes back to ancient Rome and the fun and games of Saturnalia. As does the tradition of masters and servants swapping positions - still seen to a lesser extent in the modern office christmas party.
So let us have a look at the character and attributes of the mysterious Gift Bringer.
For a start - why mysterious?
Part of the magic of the Gift Bringer is that they are not seen to be giving the gifts. They give anonymously, the only sign that they have been are the gifts they leave.
St Nicholas hid outside the house and threw money either through an open window, or down the chimney. By good luck (or magic) these coin bags fell either into the shoes or stockings of the young women they were intended for. Father Christmas also enters the house down the chimney and leaves gifts in socks and stockings.
I remember as a child asking how Father Christmas could get into houses which had no chimney. But his magical nature means that despite his apparent size he can enter homes even through the smallest keyhole.
St Nicholas travels on his white horse, while Father Christmas and Santa Claus have a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Many of the ancient gods have chariots or mounts which fly across the sky, from Ra in his boat to Apollo, Athene and of course Freya in her chariot drawn by cats, and Odin on his eight legged horse Sleipnir.
Another of the attributes of the Gift Bringer is that magically they know exactly what gifts to bring. Almost as if they know the receiver intimately.
Over the last 100 years or so, it has become popular for children to write letters to Father Christmas telling him exactly what they would like to receive (letters read with great interest by their parents). These letters are merely a modern manifestation of an ancient tradition: petitioning a deity, saint or spirit for special help or wishes.
So why call the Gift Bringer 'the Winter Shaman'?
Because many of the attributes of the Gift Bringer are also attributes of a tribal or divine shaman - and the supreme shaman in the Northern Tradition is Odin or Woden.
The Shaman is one who can pass between the worlds of men and spirits carrying messages and bringing back gifts. Odin hung as dead for three days on the world tree and returned to life bringing the gift of the knowledge of the runes. He was known also to journey vast distances in the spirit world in the blink of an eye, while appearing to sleep as if dead.
The reindeer are a creature of the cold northern lands used for transport and to pull sleighs for thousands of years. Why should Father Christmas use reindeer, a creature which has been extinct in the British Isles since before the Romans came? The roots of this attribute certainly go back into the mists of our Pagan ancestors beliefs.
The white horse of St Nicholas echoes the mount of Odin, his grey Sleipnir, swifter than any other mount and able to ride through thick and thin, between the worlds and through the Winter sky, calling the Wild Hunt to follow (the Wild Hunt also rides the night sky around the Solstice).
The green of his coat is the colour of evergreen plants, reminding the world that life continues and the world will bloom again. He wears fur because it is practical in the cold north and he is a hunter and shaman who has respect for the spirits of the animals killed.
He brings gifts which appear magically, and is never seen because he is in spirit form.
He is the servant of the community, doing their work as he passes between the worlds, through matter and spirit, down chimneys and through key holes.
Bringing fun and merriment:
And a Merry Solstice to all !