Father Christmas

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Victorian depictions of the English Father Christmas

Father Christmas is the Christmas gift-bringer of English folklore, and the traditional British name for the personification of Christmas. Though a forerunner of (and now synonymous in the USA with) Santa Claus, Father Christmas is actually a separate and older folkloric entity, stemming from an unrelated tradition.

Although he has a quite different origin, in the English-speaking world Father Christmas is now associated with the development in the United States of Santa Claus, and the two terms are often considered to be different names for the same figure. The term is also used in many English-speaking countries outside the United Kingdom, and a similar figure with the same name (in translation) exists in several other countries.


In England, the festival of Christmas had been personified for several centuries in poetry, drama and song before the modern character of Father Christmas started to emerge in the late Victorian period.[1]

15th century - first English personification of Christmas

The first known English personification of Christmas was associated with merry-making, singing and drinking. A carol attributed to Richard Smart, Rector of Plymtree from 1435 to 1477 takes the form of a sung dialogue between "Sir Christemas" and a welcoming group. Sir Christemas gives the news of Christ's birth, and encourages everyone to drink: "Buvez bien par toute la compagnie, / Make good cheer and be right merry, / And sing with us now joyfully: Nowell, nowell."[2]

16th century

In most areas of England the old word 'Yule' had been replaced by 'Christmas' by the 11th century, but in some regions 'Yule' survived as the normal dialect term .[3] The City of York maintained an annual St Thomas's Day festive celebration of The Riding of Yule and his Wife which involved a figure representing Yule who carried bread and a leg of lamb. Nuts - emblems of abundance and fertility - were thrown to the crowd. In 1572 the riding was suppressed on the orders of the Archbishop, who complained of the 'undecent and uncomely disguising' which drew multitudes of people from divine service.[4]

Such personifications, illustrating the Medieval fondness for pageantry and symbolism,[3] extended throughout the Tudor and Stuart periods with Lord of Misrule characters, sometimes called 'Captain Christmas',[1] Prince Christmas'[1] or 'The Christmas Lord', presiding over feasting and entertainment in grand houses, colleges and Inns of Court.[2]

In his allegorical play Summer's Last Will and Testament,[5] written in about 1592, Thomas Nashe introduces for comic effect a Christmas character who is miserly and who refuses to keep the feast. The transposed kill-joy figure is reminded by Summer of the traditional role that he ought to be playing: "Christmas, how chance thou com’st not as the rest, / Accompanied with some music, or some song? / A merry carol would have graced thee well; / Thy ancestors have used it heretofore."[6]

17th century - enter 'Father Christmas'

Excerpt from Josiah King's The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas (1686), published shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England.

In the early 17th Century, criticism from radical Protestants of those who wished to observe the feast of Christmas met responses incorporating personification and allegory from writers determined to defend it.[7]

Thus, Ben Jonson in Christmas his Masque (1616) presents 'Old Christmas' in outdated fashions,[8] "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." Christmas protests against an attempt to exclude him: "Why Gentlemen, doe you know what you doe? ha! would you ha'kept me out? Christmas, old Christmas? Christmas of London, and Captaine Christmas? ... they would not let me in: I must come another time! a good jeast, as if I could come more then once a yeare; why, I am no dangerous person, and so I told my friends, o'the Guard. I am old Gregorie Christmas still, and though I come out of Popes-head-alley as good a Protestant, as any i'my Parish".[9]

The stage directions to The Springs Glorie, a 1638 court masque by Thomas Nabbes, state that "Christmas is personated by an old reverend Gentleman in a furr'd gown and cappe &c."[7] Shrovetide and Christmas dispute precedence, and Shrovetide issues a challenge: "I say Christmas you are past date, you are out of the Almanack. Resigne, resigne". To which Christmas responds: "Resigne to thee! I that am the King of good cheere and feasting, though I come but once a yeare to raigne over bak't, boyled, roast and plum-porridge, will have being in despight of thy lard-ship."[10]

The rise of puritanism led to increasing condemnation of the traditions handed down from pre-Reformation times, especially communal feasting and drinking. As debate intensified, those writing in support of the traditional celebrations often personified Christmas as a venerable, kindly old gentleman, given to good cheer but not excess. They referred to this personification as "Christmas", "Old Christmas" or "Father Christmas". At the time "Father" was a title sometimes given to older men worthy of respect: "...A respectful title given to an old and venerable man..." "father, n.".[11]

During the mid-17th century, the debate about the celebration of Christmas became politically charged, with Royalists adopting a pro-Christmas stance and radical puritans striving to ban the festival entirely.[12] Early in 1646 an anonymous satirical author wrote The Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisoning of Christmas, in which a Royalist lady is frantically searching for Father Christmas: this was followed months later by the Royalist poet John Taylor's The Complaint of Christmas, in which Father Christmas mournfully visits puritan towns but sees "...no sign or token of any Holy Day". A book dating from the time of the Commonwealth, The Vindication of CHRISTMAS or, His Twelve Yeares' Observations upon the Times (London, 1652), involved "Old Christmas" advocating a merry, alcoholic Christmas and casting aspersions on the supposedly charitable motives of the ruling Puritans. In a similar vein, a humorous pamphlet of 1686 by Josiah King presents Father Christmas as the personification of festive traditions pre-dating the puritan commonwealth. He is described as an elderly gentleman of cheerful appearance, "who when he came look't so smug and pleasant, his cherry cheeks appeared through his thin milk white locks, like (b)lushing Roses vail'd with snow white Tiffany". His character is associated with feasting, hospitality and generosity to the poor, rather than the specific giving of gifts.[13]

18th and 19th centuries

"Ghost of Christmas Present", a coloured version of the original illustration by John Leech made for Charles Dickens's festive classic A Christmas Carol (1843).

This tradition continued into the following centuries, with "Old Father Christmas" being evoked in 1734 in the pamphlet Round About Our Coal Fire, as "Shewing what Hospitality was in former Times, and how little of it there remains at present", a rebuke to "stingy" gentry.[14] A writer in "Time's Telescope" (1822) states that in Yorkshire at eight o'clock on Christmas Eve the bells greet "Old Father Christmas" with a merry peal, the children parade the streets with drums, trumpets, bells, (or in their absence, with the poker and shovel, taken from their humble cottage fire), the yule candle is lighted, and "High on the cheerful fire i]s blazing seen th' enormous Christmas brand."[15] Again evoking seasonal generosity, a letter to The Times in 1825, warning against poultry-dealers dishonestly selling off sub-standard geese at Christmas time, is jokingly signed "Father Christmas".[16]

In these early references, Father Christmas, although invariably an old and cheerful man, is mainly associated with adult feasting and drinking rather than the giving of presents to children, a famous image of this time being John Leech's illustration of the "Ghost of Christmas Present" in Charles Dickens's festive classic A Christmas Carol (1843), as a great genial man in a green coat lined with fur who takes Scrooge through the bustling streets of London on the current Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace.[17] By the 1840s however this had begun to change; diarist Barclay Fox refers to a children's party given on 26 December 1842 featuring 'venerable effigies' of Father Christmas and the Old Year; '...Father Christmas with scarlet coat and cocked hat, stuck all over with presents for the guests...'[18] From the mid 19th century Father Christmas gradually began to merge with the pre-modern gift-giver St Nicholas (Dutch Sinterklaas, hence Santa Claus) and associated folklore.

Folk theatre

An 1852 depiction of a Christmas play. The Father Christmas character is at the far left.

By the late 18th century (and possibly earlier) Father Christmas had become a stock character in the ritualised English folk theatre, and his presence is considered one of the defining features of the "Southern England" type of mummers play. Father Christmas features as the introductory character in 46 of the surviving texts from the 18th and 19th centuries, with his introductory speech containing variants of the same opening couplet in them all (echoing the Father Christmas character from Ben Jonson's Christmas his Masque, 1616). The oldest extant script and speech is from Truro, Cornwall in the late 1780s, and reads:[19]

hare comes i ould father Christmas        
    welcom or welcom not/        
i hope ould father Christmas will never be forgot/        
ould father Christmas a pair but woance a yare/        
he lucks like an ould man of 4 score yare/
Here comes I, old Father Christmas,        
    welcome or welcome not
I hope old Father Christmas will never be forgot!
Old Father Christmas appear[s] but once a year,
He looks like an old man of fourscore [80] year[s].


His physical appearance in the folk tradition varied, sometimes carrying holly (as in the 1856 Worcestershire play) to represent the season, sometimes carrying a "begging-box" or crutches (as in the 1860 Hampshire play) as a reminder of the traditional duty to support the poor at Christmas.[21] In the Truro play he's specified as looking 80 years old. According to William Sandys, writing in 1852, "Father Christmas is represented as a grotesque old man, with a large mask and comic wig, and a huge club in his hand." [22] Structurally, the character takes the place of the Beelzebub of the Northern England plays, and seems to either have evolved from him or been an active replacement for him; often Father Christmas is recorded as retaining Beelzebub's costume and appearance.[23] Sometimes he is depicted as the literal father of one or more of the other characters, and in a play from Ilmington (recorded before the First World War) is depicted as an old woman named Mother Christmas.[24]

20th and 21st centuries

Nowadays in the UK, though the figure is often called Santa Claus, he is still referred to as Father Christmas; the two names are synonyms. In Europe, the figure is usually translated as Father Christmas (Père Noël, Papá Noel, Babbo Natale, etc.) rather than "Santa Claus".

Under the Marxist-Leninist doctrine of state atheism in the Soviet Union, in 1920s, Christmas celebrations—along with other religious holidays—were prohibited as a result of the Soviet antireligious campaign.[25][26] The League of Militant Atheists encouraged school pupils to campaign against Christmas traditions, among them being Father Christmas and the Christmas tree, as well as other Christian holidays, including Easter; the League established an antireligious holiday to be the 31st of each month as a replacement.[27][28] The winter holidays concentrated on New Year's Day and Father Christmas was replaced by Ded Moroz, who also brought gifts to the children. The Christmas tree was replaced by the Winter tree which was decorated similarly.


It is a common misconception[29] that the red suit originated from a Coca-Cola company advertising campaign, depicting a red suited Santa Claus in the 1930s. The red suit was used long before, however, both in British folklore and by American illustrator Thomas Nast.[30][31][32]

In popular culture

In literature

Father Christmas appears in many English-language works of fiction, including J. R. R. Tolkien's Father Christmas Letters (written between 1920 and 1942, first published in 1976), C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), Raymond Briggs's Father Christmas (1973), Debbie Macomber's There's Something About Christmas (2005), Robin Jones Gunn's Father Christmas Series (2007), Catherine Spencer's A Christmas to Remember (2007), and Richard Paul Evans's The Gift (2007).

In music

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Roud, Steve (2006). The English Year. London: Penguin Books. p. 385. ISBN 978-0-140-51554-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Simpson, Jacqueline & Roud, Steve (2000). The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 119. ISBN 0-19-969104-5. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 Simpson, Jacqueline & Roud, Steve (2000). The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 402. ISBN 0-19-969104-5. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Duffy, Eamon (1992). The Stripping of the Altars. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. pp. 581–582. ISBN 0-300-06076-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Nashe, Thomas (1600). "Summer's Last Will and Testament". Retrieved 12 January 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Whitlock, Keith (2000). The Renaissance in Europe: A Reader. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. p. 181. ISBN 0-300-082231.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 Hutton, Ronald (1996). The Stations of the Sun. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press. p. 117. ISBN 0-19-820570-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Jean Macintyre (1992). Costumes and Scripts in Elizabethan Theatres. University of Alberta Press. p. 230.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Christmas, His Masque – Ben Jonson". Hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com. Retrieved 12 January 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Bullen, AH (ed) (1887). Old English Plays: The Works of Thomas Nabbes, volume the second. London: Wyman & Sons. pp. 228–229. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 30 December 2012 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/68498?rskey=kF677t&result=1>
  12. J.A.R.Pimlott (1960). "History Today". 10 (12).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> http://www.historytoday.com/jar-pimlott/christmas-under-puritans
  13. The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas"
  14. Round About Our Coal Fire, or Christmas Entertainments. J.Roberts. 1734.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Dawson, William Francis (2007). The Project Gutenberg eBook, Christmas: Its Origin and Associations Project Gutenburg
  16. FATHER CHRISTMAS, "Christmas Geese", The Times (London, England) dated 24 December 1825, page 4. from The Times Digital Archive, accessed 22 December 2012.
  17. Jacqueline Simpson, Steve Roud (2000) "English Folklore". Oxford University Press, 2000
  18. R. L. Brett, ed., Barclay Fox's Journal, Bell and Hyman, London, 1979
  19. Millington, Peter. Father Christmas in English Folk Plays (2006)
  20. Millington, Peter, ed. (1785). Mummers Play: Truro, Cornwall (late 1780s). Truro, Cornwall.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Text of the play: Truro Mummers Play.
  21. Notes and Queries, Volume 11, Second series, (275), 6 April 1861, p.271
  22. Sandys, William (1852). Christmastide, its History, Festivities and Carols. London: John Russell Smith. p. 152.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Millington, Peter. Who is the Guy on the Left?, Traditional Drama Forum, Jan. 2003, No. 6 (2003)
  24. Tiddy, RJE. The Mummers' Play. Oxford, University Press, 1923, pp.226-228
  25. Connelly, Mark (2000). Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American, British and European Cinema. I.B.Tauris. p. 186. ISBN 9781860643972. A chapter on representations of Christmas in Soviet cinema could, in fact be the shortest in this collection: suffice it to say that there were, at least officially, no Christmas celebrations in the atheist socialist state after its foundation in 1917.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Echo of Islam. MIG. 1993. In the former Soviet Union, fir trees were usually put up to mark New Year's day, following a tradition established by the officially atheist state.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. Biracree, Nancy (11 January 1988). The Family Christmas Album. Paperjacks. ISBN 9780770109721. Father Christmas brought gifts on Christmas Day, and an old woman named Babouschka, whose origins are very similar to the Italian Befana, gave additional presents on January 6. These figures largely disappeared in the atheistic new state.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Ramet, Sabrina Petra (10 November 2005). Religious Policy in the Soviet Union. Cambridge University Press. p. 138. ISBN 9780521022309. The League sallied forth to save the day from this putative religious revival. Antireligioznik obliged with so many articles that it devoted an entire section of its annual index for 1928 to anti-religious training in the schools. More such material followed in 1929, and a flood of it the next year. It recommended what Lenin and others earlier had explicitly condemned--carnivals, farces, and games to intimidate and purge the youth of religious belief. It suggested that pupils campaign against customs associated with Christmas (including Christmas trees) and Easter. Some schools, the League approvingly reported, staged an anti-religious day on the 31st of each month. Not teachers but the League's local set the programme for this special occasion.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. "BBC – Father Christmas, green or red?". BBC News. 4 December 2009. Retrieved 1 April 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. Coke denies claims it bottled familiar Santa image, Jim Auchmutey, Rocky Mountain News, 10 December 2007.
  31. "Santa's arrival lights up the Green".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. Christmas in America – A History By Penne L. Restad.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links