Before Santa Claus, traditional holiday gift givers used horses, not reindeer. Prior to Christianity, people celebrated a midwinter event called Yule (the Winter Solstice). During this period, supernatural and ghostly occurrences were increased, such the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky. The leader of the wild hunt is usually the god Odin, usually seen with a long white beard. He is also known by the Old Norse names Jólnir, meaning “yule figure” and the name Langbarðr, meaning “long-beard.” Odin rode his gray “horse” (the eight-footed steed called Sleipnir) on nightly rides and visiting people with gifts. Years later, Odin’s white beard became part of the new Santa Claus, his blue robe was changed to red, and his eight-footed grey horse became eight reindeer!In the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, Santa Claus is called “Sinterklaas” and the holiday for giving gifts is December 6th. He traditionally rides the rooftops on a white horse, known by various names. Sinterklass is an elderly, stately and serious man (unlike our jolly Santa Claus) but he does have the traditional white hair and a long, full beard. Sinterklass wears a long red cape and a red hat while holding a long, gold-colored ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top. To keep track of who receives presents, Sinterklass keeps notes on all the children in a book – the start of the legend of Santa’s list of who was naughty or nice.
After going into hiding for a few centuries during the Reformation when public celebrations were banned, Sinterklass returned to ride over rooftops and deliver presents through chimneys to deserving children – but now his horse was noticeably grey. Either people realized that white horses often turned grey as they age or it was believed that riding over all those chimneys eventually turned the horse darker. Either way you will hear that Sinterklass rides either a white or grey horse. Instead of cookies and milk, children leave a carrot, apple and/or hay as a treat for Sinterklaas’ horse.
Whatever traditions you celebrate, enjoy a wonderful holiday!