Father Christmas

A Brief History

Æthelberht, Going Postal
Detail of a late medieval Greek Orthodox icon showing Saint Nicholas slapping Arius at the First Council of Nicaea.
Byzantine Icon-Painter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I wanted to write a seasonal piece for GP, but I’m a totally rubbish cook so a recipe is out of the question. What could I do instead? How about a brief history of Father Christmas?

I don’t think Father Christmas needs much of an introduction. I imagine just about everyone reading this knows of the link between Father Christmas and St Nicholas, and many of you will have heard that the modern image of Father Christmas was heavily influenced by the Coca-Cola Company about ninety years ago. I thought given the time of year, it might be interesting to have a closer look and better acquaint ourselves with this well known character.

St Nicholas was the 4th Century bishop of Myra, today known as Demre which is located in the modern day province of Antalya in Turkey. So the story goes, St Nicholas was the only son of very wealthy parents who both died in an epidemic. Raised as a devout Christian, the young Nicholas followed the instructions of Jesus; “sell what you own and give the money to the poor”. He joined the church and used his inherited wealth to help those in need. His generosity and charity became legendary, hence his elevation to Sainthood.

Æthelberht, Going Postal
An Orthodox icon depicting St Nicholas. Note the red and white robes, the traditional colours for a bishop

Perhaps the best known story about St Nicholas involved a poor father with three daughters. He couldn’t afford a dowry for his daughters and thus their futures were somewhat bleak in 4th Century Myra. St Nicholas, having heard of the situation, visited the family home clandestinely at night and threw a bag of gold through the window (in some versions of the story it was dropped down the chimney). The bag of gold, it is said landed in stockings or shoes left to dry in front of the fireplace.

Does this sound familiar?

The gift was gratefully received and the eldest daughter was married. St Nicholas returned a second time with the dowry for the second daughter. The gift was again gratefully received by the father. When St Nicholas returned with the dowry for the third daughter the father was waiting and discovered who the mysterious benefactor was. Some of the older puffins reading this may remember in years gone by it was a tradition to receive a stocking at Christmas with an orange or satsuma. A golden fruit makes a good substitute for the gold that St Nicholas gifted that original poor family. So the legend of St Nicholas as the bringer of gifts was born.

Another story relates to how three children were murdered and their bodies hidden by an evil inn keeper. St Nicholas stayed at the inn and received a vision of the murders. He confronted the inn keeper with his crimes and prayed to God. The three children were restored to life and returned to their families.

In yet another story said to have taken place after the death of St Nicholas, Arab pirates from Crete raided Myra on  the feast day of St Nicholas and took a young boy named Basilios as a slave. The next year Basilios’ parents refused to celebrate the feast day of St Nicholas and instead spent the day in prayer for the well-being of their missing son. It’s said St Nicholas appeared to Basilios in slavery on Crete and returned him to his parents. Thus the legend of St Nicholas as the protector of children.

On another occasion during a period of civil unrest in Myra three men were arrested and sentenced to execution for crimes they didn’t commit. Hearing of this, St Nicholas went to the place of execution and grabbed the blade from the executioner and threw it to the floor. The three men’s lives were spared. St Nicholas is the patron saint of the wrongly accused.

Such was the legendary nature of St Nicholas’ benevolence he has been adopted by a staggering array of groups and professions. One of those groups is seafarers. As a young man St Nicholas made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On his return sea passage the ship he was travelling on was caught in a violent storm. The waves threatened to overwhelm the vessel and leave it foundered. St Nicholas calmly knelt on the deck and prayed. The storm miraculously abated and the sea calmed. And so it was St Nicholas became the patron saint of seafarers.

St Nicholas died on 6th December 343 (by the Gregorian Calendar). His remains were interred in the church where he served as bishop in Myra. By the late 11th Century, as the Religion of Peace was peacefully spreading it’s way through Christendom the safety and security of St Nicholas’ remains come to be a concern for some. The ports of Venice and Bari were both rather keen to get hold of the remains of the saint, for safe keeping of course. The commercial benefits and prestige associated with becoming a major centre for Christian pilgrimage had nothing to do with it, of course. By this time a much larger church had been built over the top of the original Church of St Nicholas in Myra. In 1087 sailors from Bari tricked the monks into showing them where the remains of St Nicholas were interred, they smashed the tomb open with an iron bar and made off with the remains. They took them back to Bari where they were interred in the crypt of the purpose built Basilica di San Nicola, which was consecrated by Pope Urban II. In a rather amusing twist of irony some modern archaeologists believe that the sailors from Bari removed the wrong remains in 1087 and that the real remains of St Nicholas are still interred beneath the Church of St Nicholas in Turkey.

Æthelberht, Going Postal
The smashed tomb of St Nicholas at his church in modern day Demre
Æthelberht, Going Postal
St Nicholas’ tomb in the crypt of the Basilica di San Nicolo in Bari

In fact, it was seafarers who carried the stories and legends of St Nicholas across Christendom. He became a hugely popular saint in the Middle Ages. In England alone over four hundred churches were built bearing his name. St Nicholas became an especially popular saint in the Eastern Orthodox church, and Russia in particular.

Æthelberht, Going Postal
A postcard depicting a Father Christmas based on the pre-Christian ancient British tradition

The feast day of St Nicholas, 6th December, came to be celebrated across Christian Europe where he was revered for his acts of generosity, benevolence and his aid given to those in need. In England we had a much older tradition. We had a pagan spirit who would visit in the very deepest, coldest and bleakest depths of winter to remind us that spring is coming and to raise everyone’s spirits. He would wear a hooded green cloak with a wreath of ivy, holly or mistletoe. When the Saxons arrived they brought the tradition of Father Time, sometimes referred to as King Winter or King Frost. The tradition involved someone dressing up as King Winter and would be invited into peoples’ homes to sit at the hearth and be given food and drink. Does this sound a bit like leaving a mince pie and glass of milk (or maybe something a little stronger) out for Father Christmas? The Saxon belief was King Winter would return the hospitality by giving a milder winter.  Let’s not forget the Vikings either. They brought the tradition of Jultid. During Jultid the god Odin assumes the aspect of Jul. As such he appears as a rather portly, white bearded old man dressed in blue. He rides across the sky on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir and dispenses gifts to the good, and punishment to the bad. Oh, and he knows exactly how good or bad everyone’s been. The magic horse also gives him the ability to bend the laws of physics and get around just about everyone and everywhere in an impossibly short space of time. Does this sound familiar, my dear Puffins? Finally, the Normans brought the tradition of St Nicholas to England in 1066.

Æthelberht, Going Postal
Odin as we normally recognise him, riding his eight legged magic horse Sleipnir and accompanied by his wolves Freki and Geri
Æthelberht, Going Postal
Odin as Jul, he knows if you’ve been naughty. Also note in this illustration he is accompanied by his ravens Huginn and Muninn. They would fly around the world each day and return to him in the evening and tell him what’s been going on. Probably a more reliable way of getting the news than watching the BBC or Sky

All of these influences went into creating the English Father Christmas. The earliest reference we have to Father Christmas is the line from a 15th Century carol “Welcome, my lord Christëmas.” In stage directions written by the dramatist Thomas Nabbes in 1630, Father Christmas is described as ‘an old reverend Gentleman in a furred gown and cap’. It should be noted however, that the English Father Christmas was more about merriment, good will and celebration than he was about the giving of gifts. That would come later. In Tudor England “Sir Christmas”, or “Captain Christmas” was said to preside over festivities.

After the English Civil War the Puritans took a very dim view of both Father Christmas and St Nicholas. The former they viewed as vile paganism, and the latter was a dangerous Papist figure. They abolished Christmas and banned all traditions associated with it. Royalist elements within England saw an opportunity and began promoting Father Christmas.

Father Christmas had gone underground.

Æthelberht, Going Postal
A 1652 royalist underground pamphlet depicting Father Christmas

With the Restoration in 1660 Father Christmas began to wane, but was kept alive through the 17th and 18th Century by the traditional folk plays which would later become known as mummers plays. A revival began with the Victorians, and it was also during this period that Christmas began to morph into the child-centric festival we know today. The Victorians also began to adopt the American tradition of Santa Claus.

Æthelberht, Going Postal
Dickens’ “The Ghost of Christmas Present” as depicted in the original 1844 edition. This one draws heavily on the ancient British tradition

So let’s talk about Santa Claus. In the 19th Century Dutch settlers took the tradition of Sinterklaas to America with them. Sinterklaas was said to bring gifts to the homes of well behaved children on Christmas Eve. Sinterklaas was an amalgamation of the Christian traditions of St Nicholas and the Pagan god Wodan and the winter festival of Yule. If you’re a Viking you may prefer to call them Odin and Jul. Over time Sinterklaas became Santa Claus, and Santa Claus became popularised in many European nations. As the years have rolled by, what really should be the two distinct traditions of Father Christmas and Santa Claus have slowly merged into one and today virtually nobody distinguishes between them, they are one and the same.

I bet most have you have heard at one point or another the claim that the Coca-Cola Company “invented” Santa Claus. Is that true? Sort of, maybe, in a way. In 1859 the American publication Harper’s Weekly began publishing the work of the German born illustrator Thomas Nast. Perhaps the pre-eminent American cartoonist of his time, Nast is today regarded as the father of the American political cartoon. As the tradition of Santa Claus was taking root in America and becoming more popular, Harper’s Weekly published twenty five Christmas drawings from Nast featuring Santa Claus between 1863 and 1886. Nast’s vision of Santa Claus was very heavily influenced by his own Germanic heritage, and Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem A Visit From St Nicholas, which you may know better as Twas the night before Christmas.

Æthelberht, Going Postal
Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus as published by Harper’s Weekly

Nast’s Santa Claus was very close to what we today recognise as Father Christmas. In fact we can probably regard it as the prototype for the modern character. In the 1930s the Coca-Cola Company commissioned the Swedish American illustrator Haddon Sundblom to produce images for their Christmas marketing. Like Nast, Sundblom took inspiration from the Clement Clarke Moore poem, as well as Nast’s earlier illustrations for Harper’s Weekly. Sundblom produced what is effectively the modern Santa Claus and went on to produce illustrations for Coca-Cola’s Christmas marketing campaigns for the next twenty five years.

Æthelberht, Going Postal
Haddon Sundblom’s Santa Claus drawn for the Coca-Cola Company

When I first set out to write this piece my intention was to show just how much modern marketing and consumerism, particularly that which we import from America, influences our society. What I’ve come away with however, is something quite different. I’m truly astonished at just how many influences and traditions are woven into Father Christmas.

I will say one thing though, being born to a working class English family, he was never Santa Claus to me. He was always Father Christmas, and he always will be.

© Æthelberht 2018

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