The Talking Forest Runes

A Stroll through the

Talking Forest

This blog primarily concerns my new runic array based on 42 trees and shrubs of the forests of North America. Most of these plants are also represented by the same or similar species in Europe and temperate Asia. Join me on our journey through the Talking Forest as we discover the beloved trees of our world and our imaginations.

Step Deeper into the Woods...

Who is Santa? What is He?

Kay Broome

Santa's Throne - Hostpapa web photo
Santa's Throne (Web photo)

We are all familiar with Santa Claus, that jolly fat guy with eight reindeer who, at this time of year, is frequently seen in various stages of drunkenness at the local mall.  Many of us are probably aware that one of his numerous names is St. Nicholas. But many of the earlier artistic renditions of Old St. Nick portray someone who looks as if he wouldn’t be comfortable with all the partying, revelry and excess which is part of the season.

St. NIck from Palekh, Wikimedia Commons, Russia, Public Domain
St. Nicholas icon (from Palekh, early 1900s)

In fact, the original St. Nicholas is a highly revered and iconic figure in the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican churches. He was originally a Christian bishop in Dark Ages Greece (now Turkey), and is thus known as St. Nicholas of Myra, to differentiate him from the various other saints of the same name. His purview covers the protection of children, mariners, the poor and the needy.

So how does this devout religious of the 3rd century CE fit in with the jolly and rather hedonistic character in the red suit?  Well, in actuality, Santa, or at least his modern incarnation, much like other representatives of our “Christian” holidays, is mostly pagan.  But it’s not clear exactly where the fat, jolly guy in red originated.  We do know that most of our modern Christmas celebrations in North America, such as the evergreen tree and the Yule log, came primarily from German settlers.  And much of our modern Santa iconography with the rotundity, red suit and reindeer originated in 18th century advertising, rendered by artists of various European backgrounds.

Coming of Father Xmas, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Detail from The Coming of Father Christmas, 1894 (book by Eliza F. Manning)

Why the red suit?  It is said that the original St. Nicholas wore red robes when healing the sick; moreover, red, the colour of blood, has traditionally been associated with life. A warm, vivid colour, red offers hope in this cold dark season. It’s certainly more eye-catching than the traditional colours worn by earlier Santa avatars such as Father Christmas and Kris Kringle.  These figures of Christmas folklore, popular in England from the time of Henry VIII, were later depicted wearing green, white or even blue robes, usually with a holly wreath crown (more on that later).  Indeed, the Santa of the bright red suit only became a common image after a Coca Cola ad campaign in the early 1930’s featured him as such. 

Scandinavian Santa?

Odin Rides to Hel, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Odin Rides to Hel from Baldrs Draumar, 1908 (W.G. Collingwood)

Although red is associated with many of the gods believed to be avatars of the Father Christmas/Santa Claus figure, one of them, the Norse Allfather, Odin was usually depicted wearing a blue robe. However, Odin’s Wild Hunt was a legendary ride through the night sky on his horse, Sleipnir.  In his retinue were Valkyrie maidens and valiant warriors slain in battle. Might this tale have led to the modern myth of Santa with his airborne sleigh?  It is curious that Santa drives eight reindeer and Sleipnir has eight legs – a coincidence or an ancestral memory of old myths? One thing that is certain is that the Norse winter solstice celebration, with its burning Yule log, its copious feasting and merrymaking had a powerful influence on our modern Christmas.  But Santa’s Norse roots may stretch back even further than Odin. 


Ullr, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Ullr, from Icelandic Manuscript, 1765-66 (Jakob Sigurdsson)

Ullr was a pre-Aesir god of hunting, who is believed to pre-date even the earlier Vanir gods of Scandinavia.  Wielding a yew bow, Ullr is associated with hunting and fishing and he travels on skis. Although he is not portrayed with reindeer, some believe Ullr was originally a god of the indigenous Saami people of northwestern Europe, some of whom still raise reindeer for dairy, meat and transportation.  Very little is known about Ullr but there are some theories that he was an early archetype of Odin and even ruled on one occasion in his stead, while Odin was away on business. 

From Russia with Frost

The people of Russia, that land of optimal winter, have their own version of Santa Claus: Ded Moroz. Also known as Grandfather Frost, he is popular in other Slavic countries including Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia and Bulgaria.  Ded Moroz appears to be a cooler version of Santa: trimmer, more elegant and rather younger looking, wearing a fur hat and carrying a mighty staff, he portions out gifts to all and sundry who have behaved themselves.  Although he could probably fit down a chimney with greater ease than Santa, Grandfather Frost prefers to stand on his dignity and be let in through the front door.

Ded Moroz, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, photo by Leonrid
 Grandfather Frost, Russia, December 24, 2022 (photo by Leonrid)

Ded Moroz is usually seen wearing a long blue, red or white cloak and is often accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka, the winter Snow Maiden, who melts upon the arrival of spring.  Originally banned in early Soviet Russia, Grandfather Frost was later reinstated as a cultural figure to help ward off potential competition from the “capitalist” Santa Claus, and he’s been a hit there and throughout Eastern Europe ever since. Instead of reindeer, Grandfather Frost rides a troika or three-horse sleigh, which in my opinion, lowers his cool factor just a tiny bit. It is believed that Ded Moroz was originally a foreboding weather god named Morozko, who presided over winter storms.

The Holly King

Holly grows rarely in Russia, therefore this plant is missing from the iconography of Ded Moroz. Holly shuns the  cold of the northern boreal forest, but thrives in cool damp climes.  It appears that the Holly King myth originated in the folklore of the Celts of Gaul, Britannia and western Europe. As we have seen, later variants of Father Christmas were usually depicted wearing a holly crown.  This implies that the origins of this avatar of Santa are most likely Celtic and maybe, southern Teutonic.

 Bright green and scarlet are associated with the Holly King as these are the noteworthy colours of the tree that gives him his title. Due to the tree's ability to retain its leaves and fruit in midwinter, the Holly King represents the continuance of life throughout winter's dormancy.

Wikimedia Commons, (photo: Dietrich Kreiger)
Green Men from South Door of Maria Laach Abbey in Germany (photo: Dietrich Kreiger)

The neo-pagan myth of a constant struggle between the Oak King and the Holly King for the love of the fertility goddess may be from rituals depicting the changeover of the seasons.  Mock battles between two men personifying summer and winter were held in past times at high festivals throughout Europe.  These rites still go on. Like many a pagan mystery, the origins of the Holly King and of Santa and his many avatars is for the scholars to figure out. In the mean time we will worship our pagan deities, old and new, in the ways we are accustomed.  One thing is certain: we need a holiday at this dark time of year and figures like Santa Claus, Nicholas the Saint, Grandfather Frost and the Holly King, who set examples of generosity and bring the necessary colour and cheer to this cold, dark season.

Holly (Ilex)

Holly, Hostpapa web photo
Holly (Webphoto)

Holly is Canada's only non-needled evergreen tree. Here it thrives only in the Carolinian forest of southern Ontario and on the coastal areas of southern BC.  The thick glossy leaves are a rich green, with points that are spiny and sharp.  These spikes help protect the leaves against foraging by ruminant animals; the farther the leaves are up the tree, the less thorny they become.  The tree fruits from September to December and the small scarlet berries stay on the tree throughout the winter, brightening up the snowy landscape and providing food for birds.  European hollies, especially Ilex aquifolium, are grown here as ornamentals, and they look much like the American holly (I. opaca).  Other native hollies are generally smaller, anywhere from ground cover to the size of a small bush.  Many of the latter make good hedges.

Thriving in mild temperate winters and providing much needed sustenance for the birds, Holly is truly the winter warrior, defending himself with his spiky leaves only as needed.  The rune is columnar, in imitation of the tree shape, with one central and five side branches, two on the left and three on the right of this masculine rune.  Each branch has a round “fruit” dot on the tip. However, all but the centre branch display their tip above the berry, denoting the spikiness of the leaves.

The rune’s kenning is warrior or battle.  Upright, it indicates conflict or struggle, as well as the strength to achieve a positive outcome.  The inverted rune suggests one who is preparing for self defence.  It may also caution potential conflict with others.  The toppled rune warns of quarrels or disputes. It may also indicate low morale or an unwillingness to engage.   The holly rune is useful in raising energy for courage and the defense of others.  It is also helpful in building discipline and banishing despair.

Talking Forest Holly Rune

Talking Forest White Oak Rune© 2009, Kay Broome

You can learn more about Holly and other Talking Forest runes by purchasing my book, available internationally in print or ebook on Amazon.

Prior Plantings