In A Nutshell
Santa Claus is one of the most recognizable images in the world. Gandalf, a wizard, is a central character in J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings books. Both figures derive their backstories from Odin, the Norse supergod.
The Whole Bushel
According to Norse mythology, Odin is the leader of the gods and father to comic book hero Thor. Odin is all powerful and often associated with war, witchcraft, death, wisdom, and pretty much everything else you can attribute to a deity.
When Odin wished to travel among the mortals without being noticed, he assumed the guise of a traveler and is often referenced as “Odin the Wanderer” (or sometimes “Vegtam the Wanderer”). In this state, he is frequently portrayed as an old man with a long beard and a wide brimmed hat, carrying a staff.
In a letter in 1942 and a biography in 1977, J.R.R. Tolkein revealed that his inspiration for Gandalf came from two sources. The first was a painting in the form of a postcard called “Der Berrgeist,” which depicted an old man with a long beard and wide hat sitting in the woods. The second source is Odin, as Tolkein once described Gandalf as an “Odinic wanderer.” The name “Gandalf” also has roots in Norse history and may be a loose translation of the Norse words for “staff” and “elf.”
Most people are familiar with the name and image of Santa Claus. Also known as St. Nick, Kris Kringle, and Father Christmas, he is generally associated with bringing children gifts on Christmas. Much like Gandalf, Santa’s inspiration came from more than one source. The most obvious is St. Nicholas, a Greek bishop who lived in the third and fourth centuries. St. Nicholas was known as a very generous person and often gave to those in need. It is most likely from this generosity that we get Santa’s ritual of giving gifts to the good children (lumps of coal for naughty children came much later).
Through the centuries after St. Nicholas died, his legacy evolved and blended with other traditions. By the 17th century in Holland, he was known as “Sinterklaas” and was portrayed as an old man with a long beard and staff (sound familiar?). At this time, Sinterklaas was associated with the ancient pagan holiday Yule. Sometime around the winter solstice (which is a few days away from modern Christmas), Sinterklaas would ride through the sky on his white, eight-legged horse and celebrate the defeat of evil. Over the years, Sinterklaas’s eight-legged horse became eight flying reindeer.
In Norse mythology, Odin was often seated upon his own white, eight-legged flying horse named Slepnir. Also on the solstice, Odin was known to enter homes through fire holes (chimneys) and reward those loyal to good and against evil. Children would put their shoes near the fire and Odin would fill them with candies and treats. This tradition continued with Sinterklaas and eventually with Santa Claus filling stockings with toys on Christmas morning.
The current commonly accepted image of Santa Claus is itself a combination of two sources. The first is the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“The Night Before Christmas”), by Clement Clark Moore. Thomas Nast, the illustrator for the poem, was the first to portray Santa wearing a red suit. The second source is a series of Coca-Cola advertisements from the 1920s and 1930s that showed the more rotund and jolly Santa Claus that we’re familiar with today.