Originally written on December 2020. Updated 2022
Long before Santa charioted his flying reindeer across our magical Christmas skies, it was a female reindeer who drew the sleigh of the sun goddess at winter solstice.
That’s because, unlike the male reindeer who sheds his antlers in winter, it is the larger and stronger doe, who retains her antlers.
And it is she who leads the herds in winter.
It was when we “Christianized” the pagan traditions of winter, that the white bearded man, our beloved Santa Claus was born, the same that today adorns our Christmas cards and decorations.
So this season, when we gather by the fire to tell the most popular stories of Santa and his flying reindeer, why not tell the story of the ancient Deer Mother?
After all, It was she who once flew through winter’s longest darkest night with the life-giving light of the sun in her horns!
Ever since the early Neolithic, when the earth was much colder and reindeer more widespread, the female reindeer was venerated by northern folks.
She was the leader of the herds upon which they depended for survival, and they followed the reindeer migrations for milk, food, clothing and shelter.
Basically, from the British Isles, Scandinavia, Russia, Siberia, across the land bridge of the Bering Strait, she was a revered spiritual figure associated with fertility, motherhood, regeneration, as well as the rebirth of the sun, to stay in the theme of winter solstice.
Her antlers adorned shrines and altars, were buried in ceremonial graves, and were even worn as shamanic headdresses, with her image etched in standing stones, woven into ceremonial cloth and clothing, cast in jewelry, painted on drums, and tattooed onto skin.
The reindeer was often shown leaping or flying through the air, and her antlers were frequently depicted as the tree of life, carrying birds, the sun, moon and stars.
And across, the northern world, it was the Deer Mother who traditionally took flight from the dark of the old year to bring light and life to the new.
For the Sami, the indigenous people of the Nordic countries, Beaivi is the name for the Sun Goddess associated with motherhood, the fertility of plants and the reindeer.
Around this time, at Winter solstice, warm butter as a symbol of the sun was smeared on doorposts as a sacrifice to the Goddess so that she could gain strength and fly higher and higher into the sky.
Beaivi was often shown accompanied by her daughter in an enclosure of reindeer antlers and together they returned green and fertility to the land.
But there are many winter goddesses in northern legends associated with solstice, who took to the skies led by flying animals.
One tells of the return of Saule, the Lithuanian and Latvian goddess of the sun, who flew across the heavens in a sleigh pulled by horned reindeer and threw pebbles of amber, symbolizing the sun, into chimneys.
In Siberian legends the reindeer took flight each winter after ingesting the hallucinogenic Amanita Muscaria mushroom, the archetypal red toadstool with white spots.
Shamans would join them on a vision quest, by taking the mushrooms themselves and, climbing the tree of life in her horns, they would take flight like a bird into the upper realms.
Other folktales tell how shamans, dressed in red suits with white spots, would collect the mushrooms and then deliver them through chimneys as gifts on the winter solstice.
Not by chance, many historical explorations of the pagan origins of Christmas observe the link between Santa’s garb and the red and white amanita mushroom ingesting shaman…but probably you didn’t know that is was the female shamans who originally wore red and white costumes trimmed with fur, horned headdresses or felt red hats.
The ceremonial clothing worn by medicine women healers of Siberia and Lapland, was green and white with a red peaked hat, curled toed boots, reindeer mittens, fur lining and trim.
It sound familiar?
Considering that most of the shamans in this region were originally women, it is likely that their traditional wear is the true origin for Santa’s costume.
And it is also very likely that they were the first to take some shamanic flights with the reindeer on winter’s darkest night.
But, despite these women are largely forgotten today, the Deer Mother still lives in our oldest Christmas cards, seasonal decorations and tales of Santa’s flying reindeer.
Images from web – Google Research