Father Christmas

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

Now here’s a long and complicated story and one which I will tell carefully.

St Nicholas was a bishop in Turkey as long ago as 300 AD. By all accounts he was a generous man. One story told about him is that there was in his town a family with three daughters, but not enough money to pay the dowry necessary to see the daughters married. Nicholas went to the family’s house at night-time and threw through the window, or in some versions down the chimney a bag of gold to provide the first daughter with her dowry. A second night he threw in another bag of gold, and then a third, but by this time the father was so curious he stayed up to see who was giving the gifts. He discovered it was Nicholas and told everyone about the generosity of the man.

The legend of Nicholas lived on after his death and he became the patron saint of Russia, of sailors and of merchants. In some countries St Nicholas Day, December 6th, rather than Christmas Day, is the day children receive their presents.

In the Middle Ages Nicholas was everyone’s favourite saint, and all over Europe there are pictures of him, tall with a robe and long beard, and holding three golden balls in memory of his act of generosity, the same three balls that became the symbol of pawnbrokers. He was particularly popular in Holland where he is Sinter Klaas – St Nicholas in Dutch.

St Nicholas then went to America with the Dutch immigrants who settled around the city of New Amsterdam, or New York as it is known these days. In the 1800’s New Yorkers changed the Dutch Sinter Klass with his long robe and big beard into Santa Claus.

In 1823 a New York newspaper printed the poem “Twas the night before Christmas”.  The poem was written by Clement Moore to entertain his children and never expected it to be published. It was this poem that introduced the world to Saint Nick’s reindeers but still described the man himself as a short and jolly elf. The way we think he looks these days depends on a series of pictures by the American artist Thomas Nast and, strangely a series of adverts for Coca Cola in the 1930’s which dressed Santa in a  red coat to match the label on the Coke bottle.

And then there’s a character who’d been known in Britain for hundreds of years called Father Christmas. Back then Father Christmas was nothing like Santa. Britain had no tradition of St Nicholas but we did have a character who appeared in the traditional street theatre of the mummers. This character could be impish or he could be lean and gaunt and he was variously called Old Christmas, Sir Christmas or Father Christmas. He was a but like Old Father Time, the one who ushered in Christmas. If you know the way Father Christmas appears in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to bring Christmas into a waiting world you’ll get the idea.

So Father Christmas as we know him now is a mixture of the European St Nicholas, the American Santa Claus and the British Old Father Christmas. By the way, one difference to look out for between Santa Claus and Father Christmas is that the American version is normally drawn with a red suit and a hat while the British way of picturing him is with a long red cloak with a hood. Watch out for that.

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