The man behind the beard: who really is Father Christmas?

The only good thing about finals season is that Christmas music is finally socially acceptable to play again and Netflix releases all of its gloriously bad Christmas movies. Christmas has become a massive commercial affair, with Father Christmas’s face at the centre of it all. But who really is this cultural amalgamation, Father Christmas/Santa Claus/St. Nick? And what does he have to do with Jesus’ birth? 

People have celebrated the end of December for millennia because it marks the Winter solstice or the rebirth of the sun. The day was celebrated with feasting and merrymaking, though with the rise of the Catholic church this conviviality became viewed as sinful. Thankfully it was already too deeply a part of the community for church officials to dismantle it completely and so it was appropriated by the church. Pope Julius I in the fourth century declared 25 December as the date of Christ’s birth and so the previously pagan festivities were then in Christ’s name.

In the 17th century, Puritans under Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration of Christmas because of its pagan roots and because it led to raucous partying and wild drinking. This was actually when the image of Father Christmas came about, as the anthropomorphism of Christmastime and merriment was used in pamphlets to counter the Puritan ban and the Restoration in general. 

There had been previous personifications of Christmastime – like the Lord of Misrule, a peasant elevated to organize Christmas festivities of drinking and general debauchery – and another figure who was supposed to represent Yule who carried a leg of lamb and bread. This anti-Puritan character, however, was the first who resembled the Father Christmas we know. Pamphlet Father Christmas sported a version of the archaic robes (archaic, even for those times) and the white beard he still wears today. 

Jump again to the 1800s and the notion of Christmas became intertwined with a vision of old England, something golden and romantic that was supposedly lost. The century before, Christmas celebrations had waned and with them, Father Christmas. Writers like Walter Scott and Thomas Hervey invoked this ideal of Christmastime as a nod to ‘the good ol’ days’ of England. Then when Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, Christmas became an ideal in itself. 

Meanwhile, the idea of Santa Claus was being born (originally a different figure from Father Christmas even though they’ve merged into one entity now). Santa Claus was based on Sint-Nicolaas or Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop, known for his generosity with the poor. A story spread of a father whose daughters were going to be sold into prostitution unless he could pay a dowry, which he could not afford. So, in some tellings of the story (many variations exist), it is said that Saint Nicholas, hearing the father’s plight, threw gold down the man’s chimney where it fell into a stocking that was drying by the fire, originating the tradition of putting gifts into stockings. Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) was celebrated by the Dutch as a day of feasting and gift-giving in early December. In the 1700s, Dutch immigrants brought the legend to America. 

The American author Washington Irving took these legends and published a satire of Dutch immigrants, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, in which he joked about their patron saint Sancte Claus (based on Saint Nicholas) and unintentionally reshaped Christmastime. He described Saint Nicholas as “riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children” and tells that Santa puts gifts into stockings. 

But it was Clement Clarke Moore who sealed Santa’s fate in his poem ‘An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas’ starting with the famous words “Twas’ the night before Christmas…”. In it, the patron saint is described as jolly and plump and is illustrated in a red suit (originating from the Bishop suit Saint Nicholas wore) and he has stayed like this until the present. This description of Santa is heavily drawn from Dutch tradition. Thomas Nast also drew popular cartoons in Harper’s Weekly that continued to reinforce this image of Santa Claus that was beginning to solidify. Norman Rockwell in the Saturday Evening Post and of course Coca-Cola commercialised Santa, further fuelling his merging with the English Father Christmas we know today. 

Corporate Santa, as it were, has diverged greatly from the original Father Christmas of English tradition, but hopefully that original spirit of Christmastime that Dickens and Irving appeal to, with family, generosity, and general merriment at the forefront, can still be found this Christmas (even with the impending doom of finals close upon us). 


Image: kodomo no tomo via Wikimedia Commons 

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