The Real Santa Claus: Saint Nicholas and the Invention of Father Christmas | History Hit

The Real Santa Claus: Saint Nicholas and the Invention of Father Christmas

Image taken from page 17 of The Coming of Father Christmas by E. J. Manning, 1900.
Image Credit: Public Domain

With his long white beard, red coat, reindeer-drawn sleigh, sack brimming with presents and cheerful demeanour, Father Christmas is a figure recognised and beloved the world over. With origins rooted in Christianity and folklore, Father Christmas variously appears in different cultures under guises such as Jultomten, Père Noël and Kris Kringle.

Inspired by the gift-giving Saint Nicholas, jazzed up by the Victorians and now celebrated worldwide, Father Christmas is a festive staple for many cultures.

From his Christian origins to the emergence of his white-bearded, sleigh-riding persona, here’s the history of Father Christmas. And no, contrary to popular myth, Coca-Cola didn’t invent his red costume.

St. Nicholas was a real person

The legend of Father Christmas can be traced back over a thousand years to a monk called St. Nicholas, who was born in 280 AD near Myra in modern-day Turkey. He was admired for his piety and kindness, and legend has it that he gave away all of his inherited wealth. One of the best-known of these stories is that he saved three poor sisters being saved from sexual slavery by pouring gold down their chimney, where it landed in a stocking hanging by the fire.

St. Nicholas’ popularity spread over many years, and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day was originally celebrated on the anniversary of his death, and by the Renaissance, he was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, which cracked down on the veneration of saints, St. Nicholas was widely revered, particularly in Holland.

St. Nicholas found his way onstage in a play by Ben Jonson

The earliest evidence for a Father Christmas-esque figure is in a 15th-century carol, in which a character called ‘Sir Christëmas’ shares the news of Christ’s birth, telling his audience to “make good cheer and be right merry”. However, this early personification didn’t depict him as a father or old man.

Enter playwright Ben Jonson, whose play Christmas, His Masque, from 1616, featured a character called Christmas, Old Christmas or Old Gregorie Christmas, who wore old-fashioned clothes and sported a long thin beard.

In the play, he has children called Misrule, Carol, Mince Pie, Mumming and Wassail, and one of his sons, named New Yeares Gift, brings “an Orange, and a sprig of Rosemarie…with a coller of gingerbread…[and] a bottle of wine on either arme.”

Frontispiece to The Vindication of Christmas by John Taylor, 1652. The figure of Old Christmas is depicted in the middle.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After prolonged Puritan campaigning, in 1645 Oliver Cromwell’s English Parliament banned Christmas. It reappeared after the Restoration of 1660. During the reign of Henry VIII in 16th-century England, Father Christmas was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur.

Crucially, his character at this time was not concerned with entertaining children and was more of a spectacle of merriment for adults. Nonetheless, Father Christmas went on to appear in stage plays and folk drama over the next 200 years.

The Dutch brought ‘Sinter Klaas’ to America

The Dutch likely introduced Father Christmas to America at the end of the 18th century via the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, which later became New York. In the winters of 1773-1774, a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families would gather to honour the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ death.

The Americanism ‘Santa Claus’ emerged from St. Nicholas’ Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas. In 1809, Washington Irving popularised this name by referring to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York. 

As Sinter Klaas became more widely known, he was described as everything from a rascal wearing a blue three-cornered hat, red waistcoat and yellow stockings to a man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a ‘huge pair of Flemish trunk hose’.

Santa Claus was brought to England in 1864

Mummers, by Robert Seymour, 1836. From The Book of Christmas by Thomas Kibble Hervey, 1888.

It’s likely that Santa Claus – not Father Christmas – was introduced to England in 1864, when he featured alongside Father Christmas in a story by American author Susanna Warner. In her tale, Santa Claus brought gifts, while other stories suggested that other beings such as fairies and elves were responsible for secret Christmas gifts.

By the 1880s, Santa Claus had almost completely merged with Father Christmas and was universally popular across the country. It was by then common knowledge that Father Christmas came down chimneys to put toys and sweets in stockings.

The Victorians developed our current image of Father Christmas in Britain

The Victorians in particular were instrumental in developing the cult of Father Christmas and Christmas time in general. For them, Christmas was a time for children and charity, rather than raucous celebrations presided over by Ben Jonson’s Old Christmas.

Prince Albert and Queen Victoria popularised the German Christmas tree, while gift-giving shifted to Christmas from New Year. The Christmas cracker was invented, mass-produced cards were circulated and Christmas carol singing re-emerged.

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Father Christmas became a symbol of good cheer. One such image was John Leech’s illustration of the ‘Ghost of Christmas Present’ from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Father Christmas is depicted as a kindly man who leads Scrooge through London’s streets and sprinkles the essence of Christmas onto the happy people.

Father Christmas’ reindeer-drawn sleigh was popularised by a 19th-century poem

It wasn’t Coca-Cola. The current image of Father Christmas – jolly, white-bearded and donning red coat and trousers – was popularised in the United States and Canada by the 1823 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas. The poem is typically known as ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas and was written by Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore for his three daughters.

The poem also popularised the idea that Father Christmas flew from house to house via a reindeer-drawn sleigh and left presents for deserving children.

Portrait of Santa Claus, by Thomas Nast, published in Harper’s Weekly, 1881.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast also played a role in developing Santa’s image. In 1863, he depicted him dressed in stars and stripes as a way of speaking to Union troops during the American Civil War. By 1881, he had cemented the image of Santa Claus via his illustrations for A Visit from St Nicholas, and introduced the world to Santa’s workshop in the North Pole.

Coca-Cola only started using this version of Father Christmas in adverts in the 1930s.

He takes a variety of forms around the world

Alternate versions of Father Christmas exist worldwide. Well-behaved Swiss or German children are rewarded with Christkind (meaning ‘Christ child’) or Kris Kringle, who is an angel-like figure who accompanies St. Nicholas on his night-time present delivery mission.

In Scandinavia, a jolly elf called Jultomten delivers presents via a sleigh drawn by goats, while Père Noël fills the shoes of French children with treats. In Italy, La Befana is a kindly witch who rides a broomstick down the chimney to deliver toys into stockings.

Though his history is complex and varied, the figure of Father Christmas today universally represents a unified, generous and cheerful Christmas spirit around the world.

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Lucy Davidson