Christmas leads many of us to wonder about certain festive traditions and their origins. Why, for example, do we have Advent calendars? Who on Earth thought sprouts were a good idea? And, to turn to the subject of today’s blog-post, where exactly does the bearded present-distributing bloke in red come from? Various places, as it turns out.
To begin with, Father Christmas is (or rather, was) the traditional English personification of Christmas. For centuries he could be found as a character in the traditional folk plays known as mummers plays, although he did also make appearances in various Christmas-related publications, especially in the mid-seventeenth century when the Puritans banned Christmas (from around 1644 until the Restoration in 1660, the celebration of Christmas was forbidden in England; Father Christmas, as the embodiment of the old festive traditions, thus became linked with the Royalist cause in some of the pamphlets of the time). He had no real connection with present-giving, or with children in general for that matter, until mid-Victorian times – traditionally, he was all about feasting and being merry.
By the 1840s, he was portrayed as having a beard, dressed in a long robe (green more often than not, although red wasn’t unknown), wearing a crown of holly and surrounded by a plentiful amount of food and drink. Among other works of the early Victorian period, this was the image presented in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which first appeared in 1843 and was hugely influential in terms of reviving interest in Christmas and the themes and traditions attached to it; although not named as Father Christmas, the Ghost of Christmas Present (“clothed in one simple deep green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur … on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath … its dark brown curls were long and free: free as its genial face, its sparkling eyes, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour and its joyful air”) has many of the attributes associated with the figure sometimes also known as ‘Old Christmas’.
He became a gift-giver in the mid-nineteenth century as the Victorian idea of Christmas slowly evolved to become associated with giving children presents, among other things that we would associate with a modern Christmas; this was also the time when sending cards and decorating a Christmas tree became popular things to do in Britain at Christmas time. The Christmas tree is a German tradition that was popularised here by Prince Albert, although the Royal family were already accustomed to the idea as it was something they’d originally brought with them from Hanover in 1714. It was also in the mid-nineteenth century that the English idea of Father Christmas became inextricably linked with a similar personification of the festive season from the other side of the Atlantic, an American variant of the Dutch figure Sinterklaas.
Sinterklass is based on a real person – the fourth-century bishop St Nicholas who is the patron saint of children, sailors (in Greece he’s seen as a Christian version of the sea-god Poseidon), repentant thieves, lawyers, perfume-makers, murderers, pawnbrokers and orphans, among others. His reputation for gift-giving arises from one of many stories told about him – concerning a neighbour of his, a poor man who had three daughters but couldn’t afford to look after them, which had led him to consider sending them to work as prostitutes. Nicholas gave them money so they wouldn’t have to, but rather than doing this in person he threw the money through his neighbour’s window; on the third night of doing this, the neighbour found out who his family’s mystery benefactor was. A variant of this story has Nicholas climbing onto the roof and dropping the money down the chimney, with the coins landing in the girls’ stockings which they’d hung over the embers in the fireplace to dry.
In the Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas is usually depicted as an old man with a white beard wearing a red cape over a bishop’s robes, topped with a mitre. He gave gifts to children who’d behaved themselves on 6th December (St Nicholas’s Day) and it was this tradition that was taken to the New World by Dutch colonists, although not before it had been altered somewhat during the Reformation, with the gift-giving date being changed to Christmas Eve and his name being altered to Christkindl, which translates as ‘Christ Child’ although it was anglicised as Kris Kringle, with the name Sinterklass evidently surviving long enough for it to be anglicised as Santa Claus. This Dutch background is overtly acknowledged in that classic Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street, when Kris meets with a young Dutch girl who doesn’t speak English and surprises everyone watching, including the sceptical Susan, by conversing with the girl in fluent Dutch and singing a Sinterklass song with her.
The extent to which Dutch Christmas traditions had survived into the early nineteenth century USA is debatable (New Amsterdam had become New York in 1664), but what is well-known is that the modern-day perception of Santa Claus owes a lot to a famous 1823 poem, published anonymously in New York and later attributed to either Clement Clarke Moore or Henry Livingstone Jnr, called ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ which is perhaps better known by its opening line, ‘’Twas the night before Christmas’. This is where the notion of Santa riding around on his present-laden sleigh pulled by eight reindeer (Dasher, Dancer etc – but not Rudolph, who didn’t appear until 1939 in a separate poem) comes from.
It’s believed that ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ was in part based on Washington Irving’s A History of New York (1809) which included a dream-sequence in which Santa Claus – the name first appeared in print in America in the 1770s – flies over the treetops in a flying wagon of some sort. Irving, who was as influential on the American perception and celebration of Christmas as Dickens was in this country, was apparently trying to lampoon Americans of Dutch ancestry with his Santa reference. For his serious essays about Christmas, which appear in The Sketch Book, he apparently made great use of mid-seventeenth-century texts about English Christmas traditions which had been written at the time when Christmas had been banned (see above).