When Santa Was A Shaman by Tony van Renterghem – 4/5 – You should be reading this
WARNINGS: None? Olde Religion conflations (but not really?)
The word “Gypsie” is used but refers to the Romani people specifically, supports them as a people, and mentions the oppression they suffer. “Shaman” as a word and concept discussed heavily. Racism and cultural appropriation are discussed heavily throughout the entire review but it’s subject material more than criticism. This book is good for soft polytheists. Hard polytheists like me probably will have a tough time with it.
When I picked up this book at the library, I expected a book describing various myths and stories about Santa and then disassembling and examining them. That’s not what this book is. This book is, without a doubt, a text presenting a singular theory. While written for a larger audience, this book is an academic at heart so plan accordingly. There’s a lot of stuff packed in these pages. I was disappointed that the book was no what I expected – I kept thinking it would suddenly start breaking down Santa Claus myths but it didn’t. Still, it’s a good bit of academic detective work and work a read. Especially if you’re into Herne the Hunter or you’re a soft polytheist or divine archetype believer.
This review is a hot mess and I think that reflects my feelings on this book. Rarely am I so conflicted with a book. Usually, I’m pretty decisive when it comes to these sorts of things. I’m perfectly able to say “I like this book despite X things”. I’m more on the fence about it because I like what the book does but I’m not sold by the theory so I have a hard time with it. This review is scattered, bouncing around with topics, and overall is a mess.
First, let me cover some basic info. I don’t usually review history books. Modern history and comparative religions isn’t actually my cup of tea. Prehistory, folklore, and death rituals were always my area of study. I majoring in archaeology and folklore in college. So I avoid getting into these sorts of discussions because they’re not my forte nor do I want them to be. I am perfectly aware that I do not possess the right kind of background knowledge to have a complete discussion on the origins of Christmas. I don’t have any Christian background so I cannot possibly offer a comparison. I freely admit this. It’s not something I want to study. Other people actually like and know this stuff, so why not let them make informative posts?
Now, I am NOT a fan of comparison religion studies. Or, what I mean is I don’t like seeing deities compared point by point to each other. Like Odin and Jesus being compared. Yes, they are comparable, but they’re not the same entity to me so it irks me to see them compared this way. Like comparing fruits or something. “Hey, you hung on a tree and you hung on a dead tree! You’re the same!” You rarely get actual contrasts with these studies too. I’ll be flat out honest: this is because I’m a hard polytheist.
That being said, I picked up this book on a whim at the library and thought, hey, let’s review it. So here it is. You’ve been warned.
Next, I have so many mixed feelings about this book. At first, I was surprised and liked it, then I was iffy. At some points I was actively unhappy with it., and now I’m back to “ehhhhh, maybe????” In fact, I went through all those emotions in the first chapter. Why? I’m not sure. It’s a mix of reasons.
This book is written by a man from the Neatherlands, who moved to the US and worked as a historical researched for Hollywood before moving back to the Netherlands. (I’ll come back to his origins later) So he’s a historian but not an academic one. Normally, that doesn’t bother me. Getting college degrees is super expensive and taxing so lots of people are experts on stuff but don’t have that piece of paper to prove it. Not a big deal to me. But he’s an actual badass. WWII vet, escaped from Nazi’s after being condemned to death, traveled the world. That kind of badass. I mentioned this specifically because the author does reference his own knowledge and experiences.
This book is also published by Llewellyn which has a not-so-great history of publishing rubbish. It was published in 1995. Additionally, and this is a more personal pet peeve, there aren’t any footnotes. There’s a bibliography but nowhere does it tell you which information came from which book. This is problematic because some of the course material of this book has been discredited or more evidence has come to light. Without footnotes, you can’t weed through which material is still good.
The other issue with older books is that things were adopted via cultural appropriation or there’s some sort of racist undertones of something, that at the time was part of normal society. Don’t mistakes my meaning here – just because something was OK in the 1950s doesn’t mean it was OK then and doesn’t mean it’s OK now. Just because you didn’t know what you were doing is wrong doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong. Live and learn from your mistakes. Try to do better.
Finally, this book uses the word “shaman”. Let me talk about the word “shaman”. It’s a word that originates from the Saami people (BTW, they’re from the same world region as the Neatherlands). It was used by anthropologists as a catch all for primitive magic workers or religious leaders. It should not be used this way. The Saami people are still around and, more importantly, each group of people that “Shaman” is attributed to have their own word for practitioners. Use that word.
There’s also an underlying level of racism attached to the word “shaman”. It rides the line of the “noble savage” trope and “magical savage” trope. Both of which are so racist that it makes my stomach turn. These tropes rely on the idea that “savages” (I.E. anyone NOT a Victorian anthropologist) are uncivilized and White Man has to civilize them – often forcibly and often at the cost of the POC’s original culture. This works with the second trope as well. Because POCs are somehow “lesser” (read: “savages”) their religions and cultures, especially their magical practices, are more magical. Because they’re less “civilized” and “closer to nature” or some other made up bullshit like that. Which then means that White Man are superior in some way because they’re not as close. Or, the reserve is suggested – the culture in question is spiritually greater because they’re not technically greater (but there’s still generally the idea that the culture lacks something, as a whole).
All of the above said, the word “shaman” is being used in an anthropological sense, not as a catch-all or buzz word. It means a magical practitioner. It means a priests of a culture’s religion. It means a spiritual leader. I’m still not happy with it’s usage but it’s the same unhappiness I have when I read anthropological texts and they use the word. So, I’m not happy but most people wouldn’t see this as an issue at all.
But there’s some weirdness here I can’t quite identify. It reminds me strongly of some of my older anthropology texts, without the overt racism. It’s not quite glorification of paganism either. It’s… I don’t know. Maybe it’s because many ideas are presented as the Sole Source for something and generally speaking, especially with ancient beliefs, there isn’t a singular source. But at the same time, the author doesn’t present everything as a singular source. It’s sort of a “there’s lots of things here and they all don’t have the same origin but the heart of the matter is the same”. He fully acknowledges that cultures help develop religions. There’s a slight bias again Christianity, perhaps, but maybe more of the style of religion that Christianity has rather than Christianity itself.
But, this book doesn’t really specify any specific tradition. It kind of covers the Christmas gambit. It also separates out pagan practices from Christian ones and makes a distinction between Xmas tree and Christmas tree – one being Christian and the other not.
I think part of my dislike comes from the “this is where this ancient idea came from, without a doubt” statements made. It’s a mistake commonly made by writers who want to present ideas to the general population rather than academics – simplify things so readers get the information without realizing that we know relatively little for certain. Read an academic paper and you’ll find a lot of “we believe”, “we think”, “the evidence suggest”, “therefore” scattered throughout. Because there’s probably going to be evidence later on providing either more context or disprove the theory. Scientists are usually OK with saying, “this works, we don’t know why, but let’s run some tests to figure out why” whereas most of the populace just wants concrete answers.
There’s the idea of Olde Religion mentioned. But it’s weird. He fully acknowledges the religions aren’t all the same but he tends to group all pagans together. Which, you know, isn’t right. I think he’s aiming for soft polytheism and archetypes with this idea rather than saying all pagan religions everywhere are the same or are one religion. But “the pagans” is a term used freely throughout the book and I’m not sure if it’s intended to be a way to talk about those who worshiped pagan religions or a united people under one pagan religion. I think the Olde Religion refers to the local pagan religion but it’s not explicitly stated to mean that so… I don’t know. I think my conflict would be resolved if the author simply wrote “Olde Religions”. Adding that plural ending would have made all the difference to me.
This comes apparent when he discusses in brief major cultures like the Celtic. The Celts weren’t really a wholly united people (neither were the Norse until much later) so by his own presented logic there’s going to be differences in religion. And there were. Regionalization of religion, even the same religion, is definitely a thing. Not often acknowledged but it’s a reality we have to face. But when discussing the Greco-Roman he says Herne is now Pan and that’s just… ugh. What? There’s a LOT of research on Greece and Roman religions (which aren’t the same) and while there is some mixing among the cultures you can’t just say one god is the other – unless you’re going with soft polytheism and an archetype belief. Which is fine (not my thing but I get it). It’s just presented in a weird way.
Herne the Hunter is presented as a major figure and the source of Santa. I do see the connection but let’s cover some real talk here. Herne the Hunter is first written of in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor as a spirit that haunts Windsor forest. (The author states the Shakespeare connection himself). Given he probably existed as a oral legend previously, he’s still not this hugely ancient figure. He’s certainly not universal. He’s a folk legend from England. But he was popular, especially with the Victorians. He’s linked to a crapton of other deities though – Cernunnos, Odin, Pan, and so on. Pretty much any horned deity. Let me be clear. I have no problem with Herne being considered a deity or being worshiped as a deity. I have no issues with him being an archetype or an epithet of another deity. I have minor issues with Herne being presented as a individual ancient deity because the evidence doesn’t support that. So when the author uses Herne the Hunter as his base for a horned deity, it makes me frown unhappily. It fits with the soft polytheism ideaology being presented though. (BTW, Gaia isn’t mentioned to the same extent as Herne the Hunter but the author kind of presents her as a general archetype too and I make frowny faces at that as well).
Sexuality is handled in an interesting way in the book. The author goes out of his way to state that he uses the term man as a universal general term rather than devoting everything immediately to the masculine. But he does it to avoid the awkward he/she. In the rendition about the discovery of fire (page 8), it was a young woman who touched it first before dancing with it then presenting it to the eldest male. Though afraid, the eldest male was not “to be outdone by a mere girl” and that prompted him to utilize the fire. Then the two of them had sex because fire is sexy. Like any study of culture and religion, sex is discussed in terms of symbolism and so on.
As a side note, the information on STDs isn’t fully accurate. It’s mentioned in a single paragraph on page 66. Syphilis, for example has origins of around Columbus’ time and the origins might go back further, being conflated with cases of leprosy. New evidence suggests even older origins, if I recall my readings right. In historical context, some group it along with smallpox and the bubonic plague in terms of deaths. There’s lots of misinformation on sex out there. Let’s not spread any more of it, OK? OK.
Fire is a repeating theme in the book and is covered consistently. Through fire, the importance of plants were examined (since you burn wood and plants to create fire)
As to the subject matter itself? I think most readers who have done research on the origins of Christmas (or read posts and/or rants on the subject) will be aware of a some of the knowledge. I think. The information isn’t basic or everyday knowledge but if you’re interested in the subject, you’ll probably be aware of a good portion of the material. Some of the specific rituals and tidbits of knowledge are more obscure. The author dug into a lot of academic sources so sometimes the material may seem a bit dense to a casual reader. But anthropology is my field of study so maybe I’m bias?
Anyway, part one covers the history of Christmas in general. Part two actually talks about Santa. Kind of. I picked up the book because of the potential for study on Santa (who is something of a god-hero for me). Santa is presented here as having origins of the Shaman and here specifically but that isn’t explicitly stated until page 93.
Once we do start digging into Santa himself, it gets to the meet of things. There’s a breakdown of various Santa Claus like figures across the world. But the chapter ended far too quickly for my liking. The library copy of the book has a delightful foldout for “The Family Tree of Santa Claus” breaking down various related individuals to the Santa Claus myth.
The later chapters follow the fictional story of Bjorn which illustrates much of what was being previously discussed. A lengthy conclusion wraps everything up nicely. I quite liked the commentary on magic, as a definition. The conclusion is a commentary. It summarizes things and goes more into personal beliefs of the author.
The rest of the book consists of a glossary, bibliography, index, credits, and so on.
Overall, this book read more like an academic text written for a wider audience. It wouldn’t be out of place in an anthropology class as topical reading. It’s definitely something of interest to read if you’re looking for a more academic text without digging through academic papers. That being said, be aware that academic texts present ideas and theories to an audience. They are suppose to present a theory that follows the evidence at hand. That’s what this book is doing.
Is it a text looking at folklore and stories of Santa Claus and examining them? No. That’s what I expected and that’s definitely not what I got. That being said, this book wasn’t a waste of time and offered a great deal of information and insight into this theory. I liked the book and I do recommend it if you want a more academic reading about the origins of Christmas and winter rituals.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, I’m SUPER impressed. This review was probably a bit tough and technical to get through. Gold star for you!