Friday, 16 December 2016

Who is Father Christmas?

Father Christmas, with his rich, red suit and bushy white beard, has been an iconic figure since Victorian times, but the personification of Christmas has been part of English folklore since the fifteenth century. After the Puritans banned Christmas during the English Civil War, supporters of the Royalist cause published political pamphlets marrying the old customs of feasting and merrymaking with the festivities, in the process taking Old Father Christmas as their ‘figurehead’.

‘The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas’ (1687) from a pamphlet by Josiah King.

Although his popularity dwindled following the Restoration, Christmas folk or mummer’s plays kept Old Father Christmas alive through the late eighteenth century and on into the nineteenth.

Christmas as a festivity for children developed during the Victorian era. Prior to then it had been a time of feasting and carousing strictly for adults, sometimes even with an air of menace when associated with the Lord of Misrule, a mock king introduced by the Normans, who wore red robes and made sure the celebrations were run in the old pagan manner. Villagers would leave out food and drink to pacify any malicious spirits. This association gradually died out when the tradition of the Lord of Misrule also became lost in the annals of time, although into the Regency, a servant was made a king or queen for the night on Twelfth Night and a misruling lord still exists in the British military through the officers and NCOs serving the men Christmas dinner.

In a fifteenth century carol purported to be written by the Rector of Plymtree between 1435 and 1477 makes an early mention of Sir Christmas. This is quoted from Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, 1833, by William Sandys.

In Die Nativitatis

Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell.
Who ys there thay syngith so nowell, nowell?

I am here, syre cristsmasse;
Well come, my lord sr crstmasse,
Welcome to vs all bothe more & lasse,
Com ner, nowell.

Dievs wous garde, brewe srs, tydyge y zow bryng,
A mayde hath born a chylde full zong,
The weche causeth zew for to syng,

Criste is now born of a pure mayde,
In an oxe stalle he ys layde,
Wher'for syng we alle atte abrayde,

Bevvex bien par tutte la company,
Make gode chere & be right mery,
And syng wt vs now joyfully,

This celebrates the birth of Jesus and exhorts parishioners to ‘Make good cheer and be right merry, And sing with us now joyfully, Nowell.’ So it is clear that already the seed of Father Christmas was there, beginning to be nurtured.

In the seventeenth century, various plays and masques, including The Masque Of Christmas, 1616, by Ben Jonson, continued to preserve the persona of Christmas as an individual.


Enter Christmas, with two or three of the guard, attired in round hose, long stockings, a fine doublet, a high-crowned hat, with a brooch, a long thin beard, a truncheon, little ruffs, white shoes, his scarf and garter: tied cross, and his drum beaten before him.

WHY, gentlemen, do you know what you do? ha! would you have kept me out? CHRISTMAS, old Christmas, Christmas of London, and captain Christmas? Pray you, let me be brought before my lord chamberlain, I'll not be answered else: ’Tis merry in hall, when beards wag all: I have seen the time you have wish’d for me, for a merry Christmas; and now you have me, they would not let me in: I must come another time! a good jest, as if I could come more than once a year: Why I am no dangerous person, and so I told my friends of the guard. I am old Gregory Christmas still,
and though I come out of Pope’s-head alley, as good a Protestant as any in my parish.

In a court masque of 1638, by Thomas Nabbes, it is said the stage directions assert that Christmas is represented by ‘an old reverend Gentleman’ in a furred gown and cap etc.’

By the eighteenth century, it seems, traditions muddled on much as before, but in the middle of the century, according to William Sandys, Stevenson introduced ‘…Old Christmas talking of the former festivities of the season, of sitting by the fire with a bowl of lamb’s wool; after which some sang carols; the servants went to dancing, and sung one to the tune of Hey,

            Let’s dance and sing, and make good cheer,
            For Christmas comes but once a year. 

So, it would appear from this that the character of Father Christmas as we know him today is beginning to evolve.

In 1774, David Garrick produced A Christmas Tale at Drury Lane, to popular acclaim. Although forgotten once the season was over, it ran for nineteen performances and was a spectacular piece of magic, music and romance.

‘…Mr. Palmer, in the character of Christmas:


Behold a personage well known to fame;
Once lov'd and honour'd - Christmas is my name!
My officers of state my taste display;
Cooks, scullions, pastry-cooks, prepare my way!
Holly and ivy round me honours spread,
And my retinue show I'm not ill-fed.
Minc'd pies by way of belt my breast divide,
And a large carving knife adorns my side;
'Tis no Fop's weapon, 'twill be often drawn;
This turban for my head is collar'd brawn!
Tho' old and white my locks, my cheeks are cherry,
Warm'd by good fires, good cheer, I'm always merry:
With carrol, fiddle, dance and pleasant tale,
Jest, gibe, prank, gambol, mummery and ale,
I, English hearts rejoiced in day of yore;
For new strange modes, imported by the score,
You will not sure turn Christmas out of door!
and though I come out of Pope’s-head alley, as
good a Protestant as any in my parish...

In the Georgian era, any gifts given were usually exchanged on Saint Nicholas’ Day, the sixth of December. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, sailors and Russia. The North American tradition of Santa Claus is a corruption of his name and stems from the Dutch custom of giving presents to children on his feast day. However, it is likely that the custom of giving presents on Christmas Day, the Nativity of Christ, has travelled across the Atlantic. The holy demeanour of the bishop became a jolly, fat gentleman with ruddy cheeks and a white beard. In 1809, Washington Irving, in the Knickerbocker’s History of New York, portrayed Saint Nicholas as a portly, jolly chap who drove a wagon through the skies. This was further augmented by Clement C. Moore in 1822, when he wrote the poem which starts, ‘’Twas the night before Christmas…’ This portrayal was of a gentleman with twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks with dimples, a red nose, snow-white beard and a round stomach ‘that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.’ As with Saint Nicholas in Holland, he is a supernatural and generous figure, who comes at night down the chimney and leaves gifts for the sleeping children.

Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly. It was Thomas Nast who immortalized the modern perception of Father Christmas when he produced an initial illustration, in an issue of the same magazine in 1863. It proved so popular, he created this 1881 image.

Saint Nicholas was born in the fourth century in the then Greek village of Patara, near Lycia (now in Turkey). His parents were wealthy and he was brought up a devout Christian. He devoted his life to God and the needy, using his inheritance to help those suffering sickness or poverty. He became Bishop of Myra and his fame spread, leading to his persecution and imprisonment for his faith. When he died, on 6 December 343, he was buried in the cathedral at Myra. His life inspired great devotion and in 1087, Italian sailors are said to have removed his bones to Bari in southeast Italy to preserve them from the many wars around Myra. A shrine was built over his remains and became a major place of pilgrimage. There is now a magnificent church there. 

Saint Nicholas’ Day became a day of rejoicing and giving, as a celebration of his teachings. Due to his reputation for kindness and giving, many legends evolved through the centuries, of the miracles he performed. Stories are told of his calming storms, saving his people from famine, rescuing those in dire need and saving those wrongfully accused. One story goes that the father of three daughters was too poor to provide dowries for marriage. On three consecutive nights, a bag of gold was thrown through an open window, to land in stockings or shoes drying by the fire and thus save them from shame and slavery. The tradition of hanging up stockings or putting out shoes for gifts comes from this legend. Another story has Saint Nicholas bringing three boys back to life, having been variously murdered by a wicked innkeeper and put in a salting barrel or killed by a butcher to be made into pies.

There are a variety of customs in Europe to celebrate Saint Nicholas’ Day. In some countries he is believed to ride a white horse while spreading his largesse; in others, boys pretending to be bishops beg monies for the ‘poor’. This tradition of feasting and exchanging gifts on this day continues still in many European countries. The sharing of sweets, gifts, riddles and initials made of chocolate takes place on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day in the Netherlands, and the children fill shoes with carrots and hay for his horse, in the hopes of presents being left in return. It was this tradition of Christmas being primarily a holiday for children which was instrumental in bringing about the switch of Saint Nicholas into Father Christmas/Santa Claus and the exchange of gifts from Saint Nicholas’ Day to Christmas Day.

 The Yuletide feast of midwinter among Briton, Norse and Saxon peoples, along with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, among others, were probably influential in this regard as well, since feasting, ceremonies, decorations, symbolic figures and values, spiritual beings and the giving of gifts have long been a part of the winter solstice. It is not too far a stretch of probability to consider the association of Father Christmas with the North Pole, reindeer and snow to have come from Norse or Scandinavian customs in connection with Yuletide. In A Visit from St. Nicholas (’Twas the Night Before Christmas), eight tiny reindeer fly up to the house-top drawing a miniature sleigh. Kris Kringle of Nowegian tradition has a sleigh and reindeer which glide over the house tops in a fantastic manner, this having definite connections with the ancient Norse legend of Odin’s white horse Sleipnir, who was possessed of eight hooves and was the fastest horse in the world.

Supernatural beings have been a part of winter celebrations since pagan times. In many northern countries, demonic creatures such as vampires, witches, ghosts and trolls are thought to be abroad on Christmas Eve, but folklore also allows for the tiny manifestations of goblins, sprites, fairies and elves, so the cheery, green-suited human ushering children into ‘Santa’s Grotto’ is not so very surprising after all.

I will leave you with this lovely word picture of Christmas, courtesy of William Sandys’ Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern.

All images public domain, most courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Happy Christmas!

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