Helios, the Greek sun god, drove a chariot across the sky each day drawn by eight snow-white horses. Do you know their names? Probably not. I found them in an old almanac:
Actaeon – Brilliant Radiance.
Aethon – Fiery Red.
Amethea – No Loiterer.
Bronte – Thunderer.
Erythreos – Red Producer.
Lampos – Shining Like a Lamp.
Phlegon – The Burning One.
Purocis – Fiery Hot.
The almanac didn’t give any sources, which puzzles me since I haven’t seen eight horses attributed to Helios anywhere else I’ve looked. Usually he’s said to have four steeds.
In any case someone else was familiar with these eight horses, at least back in the early 1800’s, when Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem to become famous the world over: “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” In this poem he introduces the idea that Santa Claus drives a sleigh across the sky on Christmas Eve, drawn by eight reindeer.
Well there you go. Moore seemed to like the name “Thunder” enough to keep it in its German form “Donner.” I guess the rest of the names were a bit too solar for a night rider, but Thunder (Donner) and Lightning (Blitzen) do give you the impression that Santa is really just another sky god. (Too bad that whoever came up with the idea for Rudolph didn’t name him Lampos, though.)
Santa Claus in his present form is more or less the invention of Moore, and you could say Christmas as we know it is also Moore’s invention since his poem presents everything we now associate with the holiday. The original historical Saint Nicholas was a bishop in a city now in modern Turkey, and he is depicted in the garb of a bishop in that part of the world. He’s the patron saint of sailors so he has a strong association with port cities. Sounds more like a warm weather guy to me, which I would have appreciated knowing at a young age, growing up in Florida.
The whole business about the North Pole, and reindeer, is a much later idea. What’s funny is that even in the USA the “reindeer” are rarely depicted as such. Most of the time they are artistically rendered as plain old whitetail deer, probably because that’s what Americans are familiar with.
In some parts of Europe, Santa Claus rides the sky on a white horse, which brings us back to Helios again.
Santa Claus is more than just a jazzed up, modernized Bishop Nicholas. He’s also a pagan relic of Northern Europe, the return of the sun at the darkest point of winter, the winter solstice.