He is round. He is jolly. He is dressed in red and has a long, white beard.
Christmas is a time of joy and celebration and one of its most famous icons is the toy-making, present-giver Father Christmas, or Santa Claus. Ho-ho-ing away cheerily, he drives his sleigh through the skies to bring toys to good children, all over the world. He clambers down their chimneys and eats offerings of cookies and milk, before leaving the presents in the prepared socks.
Or so the story goes.
But where did Santa Claus really come from?
This mythical figure exists in several other countries and is called by many different names. Papa Noel in Spain, Saxta Baba in Azerbaijan, Dyado Koleda in Bulgaria, Babbo Natale in Italy, and Daidí na Nollag in Ireland, to name but a few.
In England, the earliest personification of Father Christmas does not present him as a giver of toys or as a lover of children. An old Carol addresses him as ‘Nowell’ and ‘Sir Christmas’, the personification of the season who encourages people to eat, drink and make merry and who has nothing at all to do with toys and presents.
The specific depiction of Father Christmas as a merry old man emerged in the early 17th century, when the rise of Puritanism led to an increase in the condemnation of all excess – including eating, drinking and feasting. In 1866, Thomas Nast, a cartoon artist, made a montage entitled ‘Santa Clause his Works’, and for the first time, established ‘Santa’ as a maker of toys. At the time, Father Christmas, began to emerge as a kind, jolly old gentleman, giving to the poor and the needy.
Eventually, he was associated with Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra. The legend surrounding Saint Nicholas, or in Dutch, Sinter Klaas (who became Santa Claus to the Americans) states that he was a shy man who wanted to give money to the poor without being seen. Once, he tried throwing money from a roof, and the money accidentally landed in a sock which a girl had left to dry by the fireplace. This is where the tradition of leaving a sock for Father Xmas to fill came from and why he is said to come down from the chimney.
However, we need to go further back in time than that. Father Xmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival and he was usually dressed in green, a sign of the returning spring. He was, literally, the personification of the season and he was known as ‘Old Man Winter’.
The Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843) is based on Old Man Winter. He is described as a large man with a red beard and a fur-lined green cloak. Images of Santa Claus dressed in red only started to appear on Christmas greeting cards late in Victorian times.
The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore entry on Father Christmas considers him to be a pre-Reformation and medieval Yule-tide visitor, who is entirely separate from St Nicholas and Sinter Klaas, only being combined with his legend (and thus becoming associated with giving presents to children) in the 1870s.
In truth, the origins of Santa Claus can be traced back to the 600s, when the Saxons who invaded and settled in Britain had the custom of giving human characteristics to the weather elements, welcoming the characters of King or Lord Frost, Lord Snow, etc. to their homes in the hope that the elements would look kindly on them. Actors dressed in cloaks and ivy would represent the season and feast amidst the revellers.
The Vikings also brought with them legends of their god Odin, who was the father of all the other Norse gods. He is said to have worn a disguise during the feast of Yule (that is, the Winter solstice which takes place on 21st December, the longest night of the year). He mingled with his subjects dressed in a hooded cloak, giving him the chance to listen to his people and see if they were happy or not. He was portrayed as a sage with a long white beard.
Even further back than the occupation of Britain by the Saxons, there was the pagan Celtic worship of the Winter Holly King, who prevailed during the winter months and who provided for and protected his people during the coldest months of the year.
Be he Father Christmas, Sinter Klaast, Saint Nicholas, Odin, or the Holly King, what’s for sure is that the legend of Old Man Winter has prevailed throughout the ages, not only as the personification of Winter, but as a way of bringing families and friends closer together in a time when, although the weather is harsh and life is tough, everyone still goes on feasting and making merry with loved ones.