The Story of Father Christmas...

Ever wondered why a plump, white bearded, old gentleman symbolises Christmas cheer and goodwill? Why he is associated with this particular time of the year and where he come from? Nathan James Dodd has been doing some research.

Created by Nathan James Dodd on Monday, 31st of August, 2015.
Updated on Thursday, 26th of November, 2015.


Father Christmas

Many believe his origins lie with St Nicholas who may, or there again may not, have lived in 4th century Asia Minor. Legend has it that he was an all round good guy, halting storms, saving sailors and grabbing swords before they dealt prisoners terminal harm.  

Probably most significantly, he adored children, distributing gifts amongst them and using his father’s fortune to help the poor. Stories about St Nicholas remained popular in England up until the 1600s when the Puritans decided they didn’t like saints or Christmas festivities and banned them.

At this time Father Christmas had already made an appearance as Sire or Lord Christmas in songs and poems. He begins to be depicted as a merry, rotund old man as a reaction against Puritan values and his age reflects the antiquity of Christmas.

Click here to see a range of Christmas Santa Decorations.

Coming To America

Over in America, Dutch immigrants had brought with them the legend of ‘Sinter Klass’ an elderly man with a white beard who rode over the rooftops at night delivering gifts down chimneys into the grateful arms of good children. Badly behaved children got to meet his companion, a figure worryingly identified as ‘Black Peter’.

If you were a Viking, you might be saying hold on a moment, what about Odin.

Indeed, the great god of Norse mythology did take to the heavens every Yule tide with an eight legged horse in a similar fashion to Sinter Klass. And, sounding increasingly familiar, children would leave straw and carrots out for the horse and Odin would reward them with sweets.

In Europe during the 19th century St Nicholas had been replaced by Christkinlein or the Christ Child who delivered gifts in secret to children, travelling with a dwarf like helper called Pelznickel.

Now back to America, whose melting pot attitude to life never lets the facts get in the way of a good story, and where the morphing of all the Christmas characters into one avuncular old man who enjoys distributing presents, was well on the way by the 1800s.

‘Sinter Klass’ had already emerged as St A Claus in 1773 and in 1821 a poem was published with ‘Santeclaus’ dressed in fur riding on a sleigh drawn by a single reindeer. A few years later we find the original Blitzem, Comet, Cupid, Dancer, Dasher, Donder, Prancer and Vixen pulling the sleigh.

Fashion Icon

At this time Santa’s fashion sense was unclear - the familiar red and white combo that, through TV, film and print, has became recognisable the world over hadn’t happened. And before you say it, don’t even think about it as something Coca-Cola dreamt up.

Originally described as ‘attir'd in round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, a high crownd Hat with a Broach, a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse’, up until Victorian times he had been dressed in dressed in green. As the ‘Ghost of Christmas Present’ Dickens had him as a genial man in a green coat lined with fur.

The Americans while agreeing that he appeared to be ‘chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf’ with ‘a little round belly’ that ‘shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly’ were just about to readjust all our ideas on how he dressed.

The person who really is responsible for creating the current image is an illustrator called Thomas Nast whose picture of Santa appeared in 1863 defined the red cloak and floppy hat look, and this is the character that we are familiar with today and that was used in Coke’s 1930s advertising campaign.

Where he lives might also be a Nast idea. One of his drawings included the caption ‘Santa Claussville, N.P. and later another American author wrote that Santa lived ‘near the North Pole, in the ice and snow’. He certainly looks as though he’s travelled a long way on his sleigh and the reindeer are in need of refreshment.

So when you leave out carrots, mince pies and sherry, you are helping on his way a jolly old man whose existence is steeped in myth, cloaked in folklore and branded in modern day America.

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