Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and others famously described how he sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake. Meanwhile, little Jimmy Boyd and the Ronettes crept downstairs when they should have been in bed to find their mothers kissing him underneath the mistletoe. All over the world, a single legendary figure looms large over the magical night before Christmas. But what exactly do we know about the kindly old gentleman known throughout England as Father Christmas?
Like Christmas itself, Father Christmas has moved with the times. The festival started out in the first centuries of the Christian era, borrowing heavily from pre-existing feasts. Yule – the old Northern European midwinter festival – contributed its name and traditional Yule log. The Romans’ Saturnalia supplied gift-giving and merrymaking, while their New Year festivities brought greenery, lights and charity to the party. By the Middle Ages, Christmas had become one of England’s most prominent – and unruly – festivals: a hedonistic period of eating, drinking, dancing, singing and gambling.
Not surprisingly, this went down badly with the English Puritans. In 1647 – following Charles I’s defeat in the English Civil War – Christmas was banned by the country’s Parliamentarian rulers. This proved too much for some people, and pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities. It was at this time that the figure of Father Christmas emerged. Anti-Puritan writers introduced « old Father Christmas » as an emblem for the good old days: a bearded character in long robes, encouraging the population to eat, drink and be merry. Father Christmas got his way in 1660, when the Christmas ban was finally overturned.
Father Christmas soldiered on as a stock character in the Christmas folk plays performed throughout England, until he became caught up in the great Christmas revival of the Victorian era. He supplied the model for the cheery Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – published in 1843 to instant success. The first Christmas card was marketed the same year, while Christmas trees established themselves as fixtures in better-off homes. As the Victorians reinvented Christmas as a time for family gatherings and generosity, Father Christmas became an emblem of good cheer and the spirit of Merry England.
As the 19th century wore on, this ancestral figure slowly merged with a newcomer from across the Atlantic. Originally a Dutch institution, Santa Claus established himself in America in the 1820s: a jolly figure on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children. By 1900, England had fully adopted this nocturnal visitor, combining the two characters into one. Today, the Oxford English Dictionary defines Father Christmas as: « the personification of Christmas as a benevolent old man with a flowing white beard, wearing a red-sleeved gown and hood trimmed with white fur, and carrying a sack of Christmas presents ». Be sure to leave him a little something near the fireplace before you turn in on Christmas Eve!