History of Father Christmas

Father Christmas being pulled by a sleigh
Father Christmas the ultimate Christmas sybmol

Father Christmas, myth, fiction or fact? To many children who celebrate Christmas, Father Christmas is a fact. They visit him at department stores. Watch Christmas parades. Even fly to the frozen North with their parents to see him in the snow. Lapland being the most popular of these destinations. Yet when children discover that he is not real, they still continue with the spirit of Father Christmas with younger siblings and on into adulthood when they themselves have children.

So why does Father Christmas (Santa Claus, St Nick, Saint Nicholas) have such a spell over so many people? Is it a religious figure or a believe in our pagan pass or a side to everyone that is still a child? What ever the attraction, such a figure can be traced back to pagan times. One of the strongest pagan figures associated with Father Christmas, is that of Odin. Odin even had a coat with a hood, it was blue and he also sported a long white beard.

Was Odin the Original Father of Winter

Odin comes from Germanic mythology. He rode through the sky on a eight legged white horse called Sleipnir. He was believed to have servants originally ravens (Hugin and Munin), who would help him find out who had been good and who hadn’t. Some historians, like Siefker believe that children would place carrots and straw in their boots near the chimney for Sleipner. Their reward would be gifts. The similarities between Odin and Father Christmas are striking.

In Scandinavian countries the winter bringer of gifts was, Tomte. He was a strong man with a beard, dressed in grey clothes and a red coat. More linked with farming and ensuring that Tomte was pleased, porridge was given to him as a gift. It was only after the arrival of Christianity that his role softened . His claim to Father Christmas, like that of the Yule Goat. The Yule Goat was meant to be invisible but like Tomte demanded gifts to be pleased. And only in the 19th Century did he become a giver of gifts. His role is more of an enforcer like Tomte. But he would ensure that Yule preparations were carried out correctly especially in Scandinavia.

As with the date of Christmas, Christianity seems to have taken the role and stories of pagan figures like Odin and adapted them. Christianity’s bringer of gifts is Saint Nicholas of Myra, now in Turkey. St Nicholas was known for giving gifts to the poor. It is believed that he put coins in their shoes, even dropping a bag of coins down a chimney.

6 December is St Nicholas Day. In Holland it is the tradition on St Nicholas Eve, 5 December for children to receive gifts. In the days leading up to 5 December the children leave their shoes by the chimney with carrots and straw. Like children of pagan times had for Odin and Sleipnir. Instead this time it is for St Nicholas’ horse, Amerigo.

Dickens or Moore – THe Father of the Modern Father Christmas

Here is an example of pagan mythology mixing with Christianity. But the Father Christmas or Santa of Britain, North America and Australia, was developed more in the 19th Century. Father Christmas dates back in Britain to at least the 17th Century, as a white bearded man, in a green robe, with fur trimmings.

Charles Dickens portrays him in ‘A Christmas Carol’ as ‘the ghost of Christmas present’, the ghost of good cheer. Tradition has it that Father Christmas arrives the night of Christmas Eve, when stockings are hung up by the chimney (a tradition from Odin). But where does this mixing of stories find its true modern day beginning.

The name Santa Claus comes from Dutch immigrants to America, Sinterklass. It wasn’t until the cartoonist Thomas Nast drew Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly in 1863, that the modern form of Father Christmas started to take place. He is credited with creating the first illustrations of Father Christmas or Santa that have come to represent the character we have come to associate with Christmas.

Clement Clarke Moore and Father Christmas

But it was four decades earlier that an anonymous poem believed to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore on December 23 1823 for the Sentinel of Tory, New York, the modern image of Father Christmas developed. That poem was titled ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’, commonly known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’ or ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas’. First and arguable the most famous Father Christmas story. A book for any collection, it describes the visit of St Nick to a home. It describes the sleigh and reindeer landing on a roof, a figure climbing down a chimney, filling stockings left by the chimney and the figure flies off into the night.

A story told to child in one form or another. Here is the myth of Father Christmas. The collection of all the pagan mythology and Christianity rolled into one. If there is a starting point for the modern story of Father Christmas, this is a good a starting point as any.

Father Christmas Traditions

Traditions have grown up around Father Christmas. Traditionally in Britain letters to Father Christmas were burnt on an open fire, so that the wish list would transport itself up the chimney and to its destination. With the lack of open fire places and the advance of the internet, postal systems promise a return letter from him. New traditions are appearing. A child’s visit to see Father Christmas at a school fete or in a department store to tell him what they would like, is still very popular. Many stores like Selfridges in London having spectacular Christmas Grottos and in Melbourne, Australia, the Myer Christmas windows are a must see event during the festive season.

Father Christmas and Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve it is a tradition in Britain for sherry, mince pies and a carrot to be left out and in North America a glass of milk and cookies, for Father Christmas and his reindeer. Sadly even political correctness seems to have taken over for Father Christmas. Drink driving now a major issue for Father Christmas. Ask any Father Christmas these days in his Grotto what he would like to have left out on Christmas Eve, water or milk is almost the norm. The final ritual on Christmas Eve is the hanging out of the stocking, in the hope it will be filled with toys. And for many they will find the stocking at the bottom of their bed on Christmas Day morning. The other presents laid beneath the Christmas Tree.

Father Christmas has moved from a pagan mythical figure, to bishop with a white robe (as celebrated in Holland) to a jolly, plump white bearded man in a red coat and trousers with, white fur trimmings, a big black belt and black boots. No one knows where he lives. In North America it is the North Pole, in Europe somewhere in the Arctic Circle but the myth continues. What is known, he will deliver to the good child and not to those on the naughty list. A tradition dating back to Odin.