The history of Christmas part 5: Christmas Eve is the perfect day to explore the evolution of Father Christmas or Santa Claus

Coca Cola would like us to think they invented the modern-day depiction of St Nicholas as Father Christmas. They did not. Coca Cola first commissioned Haddon Sundblom to depict Santa Claus in their advertising in 1931. As you can see in the image above, taken from a Christmas Card dated 1909, Haddon Sundblom was not the first to draw the image of a plump, jolly Santa Claus in a red suit. We can trace a gradual evolution of the figure we recognise today in historical records and fiction.

Bishop ‘Saint’ Nicholas was born in Greece in 280AD. His saint’s day, the day that the church chose to remember his life on, was December 6. He lived through the persecution of Christians. He was imprisoned for large parts of his life and defiantly held his faith. He was declared a saint by the Church for performing miracles, such as, bringing three boys back to life after an inn keeper had murdered them and hidden them in barrels in a basement. He also gave the father of young girls a gift of gold to pay their dowries so they could marry and avoid prostitution. These were the reasons he became known as the patron saint of Children. At the time it was common for people to pray to a saint for particular needs. Just as people had used to pray to one of several pagan Gods, they would call on St Nicholas in their prayers to protect good children and manage badly behaved children. He was a popular saint to call on for other reasons too, sailors and some countries chose St Nicholas as their patron to watch over them and keep them safe. Across the Roman Empire, including Britain, as Christianity spread and the recognition of other gods ceased, people no longer had the excuse of the celebration of the Roman god Saturn to exchange gifts in December. The recognition of St Nicholas’s day at the beginning of December, therefore obliged, and gift-giving became connected with this saint’s day.

St Nicholas continued to be associated with the gift-giving of the Christmas season into medieval times. Independently of this there was also a spirit of Christmas. Medieval actors professionals and amateurs, known as mummers , used to travel around villages and houses enacting traditional plays, generally portraying stories from folklore. Sir Christmas or Mr Christmas appeared in these plays.

The term Father Christmas first appeared in literature to our knowledge in 1616, mentioned by a playwright who was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Ben Jonson.

Following the English Civil War, Cromwell banned all plays and any recognition of saints or pagan spirits, though. Recognising St Nicholas and his gift-giving was considered sinful and a wicked distraction from Christ. In the years that these practices were outlawed, people’s behaviour over Christmas changed in Britain. After the restoration of the monarchy, the crowning of King Charles II, the general population were used to more subdued celebrations. There was, though, still a need to encourage the good behaviour of children, and still a desire to have someone to watch over children. Christ became the gift-bringer, merging the tradition of gift-giving with the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25. But this was only in Britain, elsewhere in Europe the traditions of another gift-bringer continued, particularly in northern Europe, where he thrived as the bearded ‘SinterKlass’ who travelled about houses delivering gifts.

It was the Europeans who populated America who brought together all of these traditions, arriving from different countries, the favourite traditions gradually merged. The spirit, the father, of Christmas, St Nicholas the patron saint of Children, SinterKlass the gift-giver. In 1809 Washington Irving’s book, A knickerbockers History of New York, records St Nicholas riding in a flying wagon, sliding down chimneys to bring presents to the good children and switches to the bad children.

In 1821 an illustrated anonymous poem, entitled The Children’s Friend, dressed St Nicholas in the furs of the Germanic gift-giver and introduced a reindeer to pull his flying wagon.

In 1822, Clement C. Moore wrote A visit from St Nicholas for his own children, the poem that became known as The Night Before Christmas. This poem, depicting a plump Santa Claus, riding a sleigh with not one but eight reindeer, was published anonymously a year later.

When Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, with scenes describing English Christmas celebrations, the recognition of a spirit of Christmas was something familiar still in the Victorian world, more so than St Nicholas. Father Christmas was like Father Time or the Green Man. You can see this in the illustration of The Ghost of Christmas Present. Father Christmas was a representation of the spirit of good will and hopefulness that turned the dark nights, not someone who was a part of the celebrations. In those days, although it took a while for traditions to globalise, popular behaviours and interests did spread. In the wake of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert making the indulgent Germanic Christmas traditions fashionable too, the jolly figure of Santa Claus became the depiction of Father Christmas across the British Empire.

Father Christmas’s red suit began to appear later in the 1800s notably in Thomas Nast’s cartoons for Harper’s Weekly. The elves in Santa’s workshop were also introduced through the press, in a drawing published on the front cover of Godey’s Lady’s book in 1873.

So by 1931, when Santa Claus first appeared in the Coca Cola adverts they were in fact capturing a figure that children already knew.

An Edwardian Father Christmas costume

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