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Who Is Father Christmas?

by Dawn Copeman

St NicholasMany people today think that Father Christmas is just the British name for Santa Claus. Whilst it is true that Father Christmas and Santa are considered virtually the same today, Father Christmas is a completely different person entirely, with a much longer history.

The American Santa Claus has one source. He originated from Dutch settlers' stories about Sinter Klass, the Dutch name for St Nicholas, and how he gave presents to girls and boys.

St Nicholas was Bishop of Myra, in Turkey in the 3rd century AD, who would travel in his red bishop's robes and give gifts to the poor. He was believed to have been particularly kind to children. Apparently, he was also very shy. Legend has it that one day, wanting to give money to a family in secret, he dropped some gold coins down the chimney, where they landed in a girl's stocking. St. Nicholas didn't 'arrive' in Britain until after the Norman invasion, and when he did arrive his story was quickly absorbed into the legend of Father Christmas. By this time, our Father Christmas had already been around for centuries!

The earliest Father Christmas appeared during ancient British mid-winter festivals. He wasn't known as Father Christmas then, of course, but as a general pagan figure who represented the coming of spring. He would wear a long, green hooded cloak and a wreath of holly, ivy or mistletoe. It is the association with holly and mistletoe, and his ability to lift people's spirits, that we retain from this ancient Father Christmas.

Spirit of Christmas PresentWhen Britain fell under Saxon rule in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, Father Christmas took on the characteristics of the Saxon Father Time, also known as King Frost or King Winter. Someone would dress up as King Winter and be welcomed into homes, where he would sit near the fire and be given something to eat and drink -- a bit like our mince pies and whisky for Father Christmas, perhaps? It was thought that by being kind to King Winter, the people would get something good in return: a milder winter. Thus Father Christmas became associated with receiving good things.

This association was strengthened when the Vikings invaded Britain and brought their own midwinter traditions with them. The 20th through the 31st of December is known as Jultid -- the time when the Norse God Odin takes on the character of Jul, one of his twelve characters, and visits the earth. The name lives on today as Yuletide. During Jultid Odin, a portly, elderly man with a white beard and a long, blue, hooded cloak was said to have ridden through the world on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, giving gifts to the good and punishments to the bad. Our Father Christmas became fat like Odin and developed the ability to automatically know whether people had been bad or good. Also like Odin, Father Christmas could travel magically and be in lots of places in a short space of time.

Then with the arrival of the Normans and the story of St Nicholas the creation of the British Father Christmas was complete. Our first written reference to the entity of Father Christmas is found in a 15th century carol, which includes the line "Welcome, my lord Christëmas." From this point onwards, Father Christmas is seen to represent the spirit of Christmas: that of good cheer and benevolence to all. In Tudor and Stuart times Sir Christmas or Captain Christmas was called upon to preside over the Christmas entertainment in large houses. In 1638, we got our first image of Father Christmas courtesy of Thomas Nabbes, who illustrated him as an old man in a furred coat and cap.

Santa Claus
1881 Harpers Weekly ImageBut this reverence of a pagan figure and revelry was too much for the Puritans, and so in 1644 they banned Christmas and Father Christmas as well. Father Christmas then went underground and took a greater role in Mummers Plays, often striding onto the stage at the beginning of the play to say "In comes I, old Father Christmas, be I welcome or be I not? I hope old Father Christmas, will never be forgot." He also appeared in underground newspapers under the name of Old Christmas, where he was used as a representation of what people felt about Christmas and what they missed about it.

Yet it was not until the Victorian age that Father Christmas was truly revived as the spirit of Christmas. The Victorian Father Christmas embodied elements of all his predecessors and was usually drawn as a jolly, pagan figure in a long, hooded coat -- the colour of which could be red, blue, green or brown. The Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol as illustrated by John Leech, is very pagan indeed; with his green cloak and holly wreath he is a direct link to the most ancient Christmas Spirit of all.

By the middle of the 20th century, our Father Christmas had changed again. This time he was heavily influenced by America -- by Clement C. Moore's 1822 poem "The Night before Christmas", by the illustrations it inspired Thomas Nash to draw for Harper's Weekly, and by the Coca Cola Company.

In Moore's poem we see a St Nick who combines all the characteristics of Odin, St Nicholas and our Father Christmas. From Nash's drawings, which were heavily influenced by Moore's poem, we got the idea that Santa lives at the North Pole, has a list of good and bad children and reads letters from children -- letters which in Britain were posted up the chimney! And although Father Christmas had worn red before, to represent St Nicolas' Bishop's Robes, it was the Coca Cola Company's advert of 1931 that helped to make red the standard colour for Father Christmas's coat.

Thus Santa and Father Christmas became one. But although they are similar today, Father Christmas is not Santa; he is much, much more than that.

Victorian Christmas Card Santa

Victorian Christmas Card Santa

Victorian Christmas Card Santa

Victorian Christmas Card Santa

Victorian Christmas Card Santa

In this medley of Victorian cards, the robes of Santa or Father Christmas range from blue and turquoise to purple and green, sometimes trimmed with fur or flecked with stars. In most cases, Santa has not developed the "bowl full of jelly" belly that Clement Moore ascribed to him.

Harpers Weekly Santa 1863

In Harper's Weekly in 1863, Santa Claus (whose robe seems to be covered with stars) gives gifts to Union troops.

Harper's Weekly Santa 1874

By 1874 in Harper's Weekly, Santa's costume seems to becoming closer to what we're familiar with today.


Dawn Copeman is a freelance and commercial writer who has had more than 100 articles published on travel, history, cookery, health and writing. Dawn is the editor of the Newbie Writers Website (http://www.newbiewriters.com) and also edits the Writing World newsletter (http://www.writing-world.com/newsletter/index.shtml). . Dawn currently resides in East Sussex. She can be contacted at dawn@newbiewriters.com.
Article © 2005 Dawn Copeman

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