The modern Father Christmas isn’t a folktale, strictly, since there are no actual stories about him and he’s always seen as being just there. So perhaps he doesn’t really belong on a folktale blog at all. On the other hand, he is a legendary figure in the sense that he’s rumoured (at least in some circles) to really exist. Also, if you go far enough back, he’s a saint about whom many stories certainly have been told. So let’s crave the indulgence due to the season and have a proper look at him.

 

As everyone knows, the secret life of Father Christmas begins with St Nicholas. There have been attempts to push his roots further back. The poet Robert Graves had him down as a mushroom-munching shaman, but the evidence, such as it is, is against this. So St Nicholas it is. Attested facts about the historical Nicholas are predictably few, but apparently he was bishop of Myra in modern Turkey in the fourth century AD. His remains – lovingly cherished during the Middle Ages, as saints’ relics tended to be – were moved from Myra to the Italian town of Bari, so among sticklers for detail in the Catholic Church he is known as St Nicholas of Bari – and in 2005 his face was reconstructed from the remains by forensic experts from Manchester University, yielding this image of the actual face of Santa Claus. His white beard is apparently accurate and his broken nose was quite likely sustained through torture in the course of the emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the early Christians. Like, wow.

The memory of the real Nicholas soon acquired a saintly aura, and he became the object of veneration around his home area within a couple of centuries of his death. He went on to become a very popular saint in medieval Europe, with a feast-day on December 6th, and an accompanying body of legend relating numerous miracles and good deeds, and attesting to his habit of secret gift-giving. He miraculously “resuscitated three little boys whom and innkeeper had murdered and salted down to make into pies,” and also “secretly threw three bags of gold through the window of a poor man’s house, as dowries for his three daughters, who would otherwise have been sold into prostitution.” Such tales were enough to establish Nicholas as the patron saint of children (among other things, including “the unjustly imprisoned, scholars, seafarers, pawnbrokers (whose symbol is his three gold balls), barrel makers, brewers, bootblacks, brides, druggists and perfumiers, among others“). Here we seem to find the deepest historical root of the Santa phenomenon, since gift-giving to children became permanently associated with his feast-day across Catholic Europe. The Dutch St Nicholas was remembered as a bishop and visualised accordingly, in a red cope; the German saint had a retinue of elf-like helpers who brought presents for good children, but also a flogging for bad ones. Such are the direct antecedents of the modern Santa, as can be gleaned from Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud’s indispensible Dictionary of English Folklore.

There were English traditions of Saint Nicholas running parallel to the German and Dutch ones, but they seem not to have fed so directly into the modern Santa, mainly because they fell foul of the Protestant reformation. In the Middle Ages, for example, the English kept St Nicholas’ Day as a day of licensed horseplay associated with young people. On December 6th, church institutions such as “cathedrals, abbeys, collegiate churches and schools” would elect a bogus “boy bishop,” sometimes known as a “St Nicholas,” who dressed up bishop-style and presided over a period of typically medieval misrule, involving processions and fundraising collections in the street, with the typical boy bishop’s bogus term of office lasting until December 28th. This custom fell into disuse in the 1550s, but it seems to have survived the Reformation in adapted form as a day of tolerated horseplay within schools: in the 1680s, John Aubrey was still recording that St Nicholas was “the patron of the School-boies” and describing his feast as a day when scholars enjoyed “the priviledge to break open their Masters Cellar-dore.”

The English meanwhile had also been in the habit of personifying Christmas at least since the late Middle Ages, predominantly indeed as a bearded old man, but at first St Nicholas and Father Christmas seem to have been quite distinct characters, just as their feast-days were separate events. In English, the earliest extant reference to “Sir Christemas” seems to be in the lyrics of a carol which was probably written by a mid-fifteenth century Devonshire priest, Richard Smart. In the carol, Sir Christmas is welcomed in person by revellers. “Captain Christmas,” the “Christmas Lord” and “Prince Christmas” appear in similar terms over the following century or so, and, like “St Nicholas,” the name was also used as a temporary title for real people appointed to preside over periods of licensed misrule during corporate revelry in various institutions. “Old Gregory Christmas” features in a Ben Jonson masque of 1616, and “Old Father Christmas” was put on trial in a 1658 pamphlet satirising the Commonwealth government. This seems to be the Father Christmas who appears as a kind of chorus or narrator in the folk theatre or mummers’ plays which flourished in their modern form (according to the record) mainly from the eighteenth century, and were performed in local contexts often at or around Christmas.

For the following two centuries or so, the English Christmas seems to have gone into something of a decline, but if so it was revived by the Victorians, who naturally revived the character of (Father/Captain/etcetera) Christmas along with it. However, it took time for consensus to emerge regarding this character’s name and attributes. Accordingly, Christmas appeared in the 1840s as “a reveller in Elizabethan costume grasping a tankard, a wild, holly-crowned giant pouring wine, or a lean figure striding along carrying a wassail bowl and a log.” In similar terms he appeared as a hearty, bearded, but youthful and green-robed Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickens’ Christmas Carol (1843). Red at this point was an increasingly common but not mandatory colour for his livery, and at first he seems to have had no particular relationship to children or gift-giving specifically; he was simply a symbol of the festival and the general air of merriment which went with it. Concomitantly, if Dickens’ famous story is anything to go by, the Victorian Christmas was mainly about food, bought and shared within the family, with an almost vestigial religious observance and a general, fairly secular sense of charity and good fellowship. It consisted mainly of a visit to church and a special family meal, and the exchange of presents did not bulk large in its foreground.

However, from the 1870s, quite quickly, a child-friendly, gift-giving, German-American Santa Claus quickly re-established himself in England as the standard version of Father Christmas, and he remains so to this day. German and Dutch immigrants had carried the old Catholic legends and customs of St Nicholas to America, and in America these had been re-defined in less doctrinally specific terms to reinvent Santa as a clandestine gift-giving pixie. Washington Irving – the man who invented the mistaken idea that people before Columbus thought the world was flat – is said to have been the first to put Santa in a flying sleigh. Irving’s timing was bad from the viewpoint of the reindeer, since St Nicholas wasn’t long in America before he began to put on weight as well; a watershed moment in this process was Clement Clarke Moore’s famous 1822 poem, The Visit of Saint Nicholas (also known as The Night Before Christmas), which was illustrated by Thomas Nast in the 1860s. Here we encounter the well-known “fat man dressed in fur, driving a reindeer sleigh,” wearing a “belted jacket and furry cap.” Moore’s St Nick differs from the modern Santa in at least three further respects. Firstly, he seems to be a dwarf – hence his ability to get down chimneys, a point rather obscured in later versions of the legend which feature a full-size Santa. Secondly, Moore’s Santa smokes a pipe. Thirdly, it still isn’t entirely clear that he’s dressed in red: in fact, Santa’s trousers were often shown as blue Dutch knickerbockers until the early twentieth century, in token of his Dutch/German roots. “Santa Claus,” the form preferred by Thomas Nast, is an English rendering of Sinterklaas, the saint’s title and name in colloquial Dutch.

The American Santa Claus may have first reached England in a short story, The Christmas Stocking, by Susan Warner and published in London in 1854. It’s possible, too, that he reached England directly from Europe, like the Christmas tree; or European and American traditions may have met and overlapped with English ones. However it happened, the modern English Father Christmas had emerged by around 1880. We can now take up the tale with Notes and Queries (1849 – ), a weekly magazine that functioned, in effect, as a folklore discussion group in mid-Victorian England. In 1879, a Mr Edwin Lees (who may even be the man who founded this society – one day I’ll check) wrote to inform this magazine’s readers that he had “only lately been told” of a hitherto unrecorded custom from Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Devonshire:

On Christmas Eve, when the inmates of a house in the country retire to bed, all those desirous of a present place a stocking outside the door of their bedroom, with the expectation that some mythical being called Santiclaus will fill the stocking or place something within it before morning … From what region of the earth or air this benevolent Santiclaus takes flight I have not been able to ascertain.

The stockings, says Mr Lees, were secretly filled by “the master of the house” and more fanciful talk of “Santiclaus” was the preserve of “giggling girls.” It’s fascinating to note Mr Lees’ bewilderment at what is now literally part and parcel of Christmas celebrations: clearly it’s all utterly foreign to him, and you can almost hear him muttering: What will they think of next? The strange new custom was noted in County Durham about a decade later by a William Brockie, who surmised that Santiclaus was a folk memory of ‘Santa Cruz,’ the ‘Holy Cross’. In 1883 the chimney-diving, present-bringing Santa appeared to a French visitor to England as a matter of common knowledge.

Santiclaus was here to stay, and that completes the story of his secret life – almost. For, as rumour sometimes purports, the new Santa did in fact feature prominently in a 1931 advertising campaign for Coca-Cola, in illustrations by Haddon Sundblom. Sundblom generally is a striking figure because he almost seems to have made a career out of the capitalist misappropriation of religious imagery: he also, for example, painted the jolly old Quaker trademark for Quaker Oats, a company with no actual link to the Quaker movement whatsoever, and one of his last commissions was a faintly unsettling 1972 cover for Playboy featuring a young woman falling out of a red and white Santa cloak – which seems to sum up his legacy neatly. But Coca-Cola, and Sundblom, seem to have strengthened, rather than invented, Santa’s old association with red and white livery: it seems to be the 1931 campaign which finally established Santa’s default headgear as a “drooping tasselled red cap,” rather than (say) a brown fur cap or crown of holly.

And there, finally, we have it. In England at least, Father Christmas is a hybrid. He is partly a very old lay figure personifying the Christmas festival, and partly a recently-imported European-American folk saint with roots in medieval legend, and links to a custom of giving gifts (especially) to children. He is all overlain with a veneer of secular and commercialised popular culture – and (in my view at least) not one whit the less genuinely magical for any of that.

And the reindeer names? Dasher and Donner and the others? Most of them are mentioned in Moore’s 1822 poem, but the famous Rudolf first appears in an eponymous poem written by an adman for use by department store Santas, and set to music in 1949 after it proved popular with the children. It was a hit for Gene Autry.

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