The surprising history (and possible future) of Father Christmas:
One lives in Lapland and the other lives at the North Pole, but Father Christmas and Santa Claus are basically the same, right?
Well…the short answer here is ‘Yes and no’.
What do you mean?
Father Christmas as we view him today has a lot of the same attributes as Santa Claus. So much so that Father Christmas is commonly referred to as ‘The British Santa’. But they don’t have the same origin story.
Really. Santa Claus is basically an American evolution of St Nicholas. St Nicholas was a kindly soul from Turkey who rose to festive prominence through his habit of secret gift-giving. Father Christmas is a wholly British invention, and his history is a lot older, a lot less benevolent and a lot more…well…drunk.
How much older?
Centuries. In fact, Father Christmas probably predates Christmas itself.
How can Father Christmas be older than Christmas?
Part of what made Christianity so successful in Europe was its ability to adapt existing festivals into Christian festivals. Christmas is a Christianised version of pre-existing midwinter festivals.
We don’t know much about these festivals, but they probable involved a lot of feasting, drinking, and as much good cheer as people could muster to keep their spirits up during dreary winters. It’s almost certain that the character we now know as Father Christmas has his origins in these festivals. Perhaps, once upon a time, he was even some kind of midwinter deity.
Did you say ‘Drunk’..?
I certainly did! The very first written mention of Father Christmas (as ‘Old Sir Christemas’) is in a carol written in 1477. In this carol, Sir Christemas loudly exhorts listeners to drink and be merry. Similar mentions of ‘Sir Christemas’ and ‘King Christmas’ in our earliest plays, songs, and rhymes all have him either encouraging others to drink or rolling around drunk himself (usually both). Explains the red cheeks, I suppose.
Drinking remained Father Christmas’s main attribute for a good few centuries. In the sixteenth century, a mischievous old fellow known variously as ‘King Christmas’, ‘Captain Christmas’, or ‘Lord Christmas’ appeared in rhymes, plays, and party games, during which he encouraged drunken pranks and the disruption of social norms during the Christmas period. He liked anything harmlessly transgressive (for the time) – nobles serving their servants, husbands dressing as their wives, livestock being led through the house…that kind of thing.
OK, so, when did ‘Sir Christmas’ (or whatever he was called) become ‘Father Christmas’?
This is where things get tangled up with religion and politics. It’s a long story, but I’ll try to keep it as brief as possible.
During England’s flirtation with Puritanism following the Civil War, there was a backlash against old fashioned Christmas traditions. Especially those involving a lot of drinking, mischief, and merriment (which were basically Sir Christmas’s entire schtick up to this point).
So, people who did not like Puritanism adopted Sir Christmas as a kind of mascot. He became a symbol of the ‘good old times’ which had been lost under Puritan rule. To really ramp up the nostalgia value of this message (and perhaps to remove any troublesome royalist associations), ‘King/Sir/Lord Christmas’ became ‘Old Father Christmas’.
In 1658, a satirical pamphlet was published in which ‘Old Father Christmas’ (depicted as an elderly man with fur-lined robes and a long, white beard – starting to sound familiar?) was put on trial for causing ‘immoderate eating and drinking’.
What was the verdict?
You’ll be pleased to hear that the anti-Puritan jury of the pamphlet acquitted Father Christmas, and he went on to have a roaring comeback with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Having lived solemn, fun-starved lives for several years, the return of Christmas was very welcome to the people – and they went about making merry with a vengeance. For some time, Father Christmas enjoyed his old pastimes of getting drunk and playing pranks on people.
But his experiences during the Puritan times had changed him. After the genuine chaos of the civil war, people didn’t have much stomach for the kind of misrule that Father Christmas used to represent. Plus, during his time as a political figurehead he’d acquired a new and unfamiliar set of morals.
Having been used in political propaganda to represent the kind of cheery goodwill which the Puritans seemed set against, Father Christmas’s old mischief did not sit as well with the public as it once had. Slowly, Father Christmas was becoming less of the drunken trickster and more of the jolly patrician figure we know today.
When did he start giving presents?
Oh, not for ages.
For the next two hundred years or so, Father Christmas was simply the personification of good festive cheer. According to folk traditions, he dressed in green, wore holly on his head (as you do), and rode around the country on his long-suffering ‘Yule Goat’. He’d call in on people – apparently at random – over the Christmas period. Those whom he visited would (if they were able to give him some food, some booze, and a morsel for his animal) be blessed with good fortune and good cheer for the year to come. It was wise to leave the food and drink out for him, just in case he visited while you were asleep.
So, things are starting to sound slightly familiar…but we’ve still got some way to go before the presents and the sleigh enter the picture.
OK, but WHEN did he start giving presents?
You can thank the Victorians for that. The Victorians really did a number on Christmas. While the pre-Victorian Christmas was mostly about eating and drinking and playing havoc with social norms, the Victorians transformed it into a much tamer, child-focused festival which was more about shoring up than disrupting the status quo.
Under the Victorians, Father Christmas quickly became a benevolent, grandfatherly figure who was all about ensuring that children enjoyed themselves at Christmas – if, of course, they were good (the original Sir Christmas would have definitely been on the side of the naughty children, being quite naughty himself).
Small gifts of fruit or sweets were a big part of Victorian Father Christmas’s appeal to children – but the transformation was complete with the arrival from America of Santa Claus.
So, Father Christmas IS Santa Claus? After all that??
Like I told you at the beginning – yes and no!
Santa Claus, based on the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas, evolved in the USA and began to filter into British Christmases during the 1850s. In the early days, he usually featured alongside Father Christmas as a separate character entirely. But it didn’t take long for the lines to get blurred.
Santa Claus had always been more closely associated than Father Christmas with the buying and giving of presents and, as Christmas became more commercialised, Santa quickly overtook Father Christmas in the forefront of British shopper’s minds. It only took 30 or so years for Santa Claus’s modus operandi to merge with the character of Father Christmas. By 1890, the tradition of Father Christmas plopping down chimneys in the night and leaving presents was as embedded in Britain as though it had always been there.
Is that the end?
Probably not. Father Christmas has been around longer than Christmas has, and has survived some pretty hard historical knocks.
The current Santa-ish version of Father Christmas is still evolving. And the gap between Santa Claus and Father Christmas seems to be starting to widen again. For example, the red worn by Santa Claus became ‘canon’ due to an advert by Coca-cola (which featured the now traditional red costume with white fur trim). But as Santa became increasingly associated with the more commercial side of Christmas – the advertising, the presents, the stockings – Father Christmas began making a return on the feasting-and-merriment side of things.
The non-Santa Father Christmas usually wears green. Sometimes he looks a little scary, with ivy in his beard and holly on his head. He’s certainly not as child-friendly as Santa Claus. But he’s still around, and he’s gaining ground. Look out for him at folk festivals, in Christmas decorations, at a growing number of National Trust properties, and maybe even around your own Christmas table…
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