Children, look away now. This is the real history of how the man in red came in to our lives every Christmas eve.
Father Christmas and Santa Claus were different
Though they’re now considered as different names for the same character, Father Christmas and Santa Claus actually have different origins. In fact, they been portrayed together as entirely separate characters.
Rather than a magical, gift-delivering figure, Father Christmas was originally a personification of the celebration of Christmas itself. He represented merriment, drinking and feasting – with those throwing Christmas parties dressing up in a crown to act as the “Christmas Prince” who would lead the festivities. Depictions of Father Christmas and his penchant for partying can be found from as far back as the 15th century, though it was around the mid 1600s when the character grew in popularity.
Father Christmas was a symbol of rebellion
The 1600s were dark times for Christmas lovers. After the Civil War and the beheading of Charles I, the country was ruled by a mostly Puritanical parliament who opposed the excesses of celebration and festivals. They passed a law called the Ordinance For The Abolishing Of Festivals, which completely banned Christmas, Easter and other holidays across the country.
The law stayed in place for 15 years and was, understandably, rather unpopular with many people. Protests were led against those joyless misers by the lovers of merriment and feasts, and Father Christmas became their symbol of the good old days. Anti-parliament pamphlets would feature cartoons of Father Christmas reminding people of the joys of Christmas and encouraging them to stand against the ban. They included verses like “Let’s dance and sing, and make good cheer / For Christmas comes but once a year” – which wouldn’t be out of place in a Christmas no.1. If they’d only had Mariah Carey there, the ban would have been lifted much sooner.
Father Christmas joined Santa Claus in delivering presents
While Father Christmas remained a symbol of festivities in England, he still didn’t give presents. The character was often portrayed in Christmas folk plays – called mummers – throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in which he was depicted as an old man with a white beard and a crown of holly who ushered in the celebration. He even had an uncredited cameo in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” as the Ghost of Christmas Present – described as a “jolly giant” of a man with a huge beard, a fur lined robe and a holly wreath on his head, who sits surrounded by fine foods and wines. But his American cousin, Santa Claus, was just starting to take off.
Santa Claus originated from the traditional Dutch character of “Sinterklaas”, based on the stories of Saint Nicholas – a 4th century Christian saint from Turkey – who, among other things, was known for secretly delivering presents to those in need. Though Saint Nicholas was traditionally celebrated on the 6th January, in the USA the character merged with the feasts of Christmas. A poem published in New York in 1821 featured the first mention of “Old Santeclaus” delivering presents for children on a sleigh led by reindeer. It also mentioned that he carried a “long black birchen rod” to beat naughty children with, so it wasn’t all merry laughter…
As Victorian Christmases in England became more family focused than simply excuses to party, and stories coming from America of the wonders of Santa Claus, Father Christmas had to adapt. Stories from around that time became mixed – some would show Father Christmas throwing the annual festive do while Santa delivered the presents, some would feature Father Christmas delivering presents himself. Each also differed in appearance depending on who was telling the story, so it became very difficult to tell them apart. Occasionally they’d appear together, but eventually the two characters merged in to one.
Coca Cola didn’t invent the image of Father Christmas
It’s often said, usually by people trying to ruin the fun by showing off how smart they are, that the image of Father Christmas – an old fat man with rosy cheeks and a bushy white beard, dressed in a bright red suit – was invented by the Coca Cola company in the ‘30s as part of their marketing campaign. But we’ve already seen that the well fed old man, the white beard, the reindeer and the robes were in place long before Santa Claus and Father Christmas became synonymous.
In fact the adverts produced by Coca Cola by a man called Haddon Sundblom were taken from an already well established depiction of Father Christmas. Even the red and white clothes – often claimed to be based on the colours of the Coca Cola logo – were set in place in the 1823 poem by Clement Clarke Moore: “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, now more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas”.
So the true story of Father Christmas goes back over 500 years and blends a varied mixture of traditions from different countries. When people insist that “Father Christmas” is the proper English name for him, they should be reminded that the character we celebrate today is not necessarily the same as in the pre-Santa Claus days.