Today, Father Christmas is viewed as the British equivalent of Santa Claus.
But the truth is, he’s an entirely different character whose history lasts much longer than that of Santa.
The character is so old that historians aren’t even sure how he was named before he became the symbol of Christmas.
Father Christmas has pagan origins. He represented spring and everlasting life, encouraging people to have fun and feast. There’s no evidence he was originally a father, but he certainly was a nice guy.
The political history of a country often affects its culture, and Britain was no exception. With the arrival of Saxons and Vikings, the perception of Father Christmas has changed drastically.
During the Protestant Reformation, Father Christmas has met the same fate as Saint Nicholas. Any mention of him was prosecuted.
But the memory of Father Christmas remained, and once the Civil War was over, he returned. This was no longer the good old Father Christmas, though.
People’s understanding of a Christmas symbol continued to evolve under the influence of foreign literature and drama.
Over time, the images of Santa Claus and Father Christmas have blended completely. But although not many know the difference between these figures today, Father Christmas is much more than the British name for Santa.
Father Christmas has been around since the early Medieval times, long before Christianity appeared and took over Europe. He originated as an allegorical figure, a symbol of the winter season rather than a physical being.
At that time, Father Christmas wasn’t even called Father Christmas, as this holiday didn’t exist. Early historical facts are hard to track due to the wide variability of his former names.
Initially, the emphasis of the British winter solstice celebration, which later turned into Christmas, was on entertainment for adults and not children.
This explains why Father Christmas used to preside over holiday feasts instead of gift-giving.
Father Christmas symbolized the coming of spring after long, dark winter. For this reason, he was portrayed wearing green, with wreaths of everlasting plants adorning his head.
Holly, ivy, and mistletoe were also used to decorate houses, protecting them from evil spirits.
Saxon & Norse Influence
Unlike the modern Santa Claus, Father Christmas wasn’t originally viewed as an old man. At least, no early evidence supports such a portrayal. But the common perception of Father Christmas changed when Saxons came into play.
Britain was ruled by Saxons starting with the fifth century A.D. Naturally, British and Saxon cultures started to blend, and Father Christmas borrowed characteristics of the Saxon King Frost or Father Time.
While Father Christmas didn’t give out any gifts but encouraged people to celebrate, King Frost had a different idea of a perfect winter holiday.
Legends tell he would come to homes and ask for something to drink or eat. If people managed to please King Frost, he would grant them mild winter. That’s how Father Christmas started to be associated with gift-giving.
The connection of Father Christmas with gifts was further emphasized by the Vikings who came to Britain in the late eighth century.
The period from 20th to the 31st of December was celebrated as Yule, the Scandinavian winter solstice festival.
During Yule, Odin, along with other Norse Gods, was believed to roam the night sky in a sleigh pulled by his horse Sleipnir.
Odin was typically dressed in a green or blue coat, had a long white beard, and gave gifts to good people.
Over time, Father Christmas has acquired characteristics of Odin. He could now see whether people behaved good or bad, could travel magically to any place, and grew a beard.
Christmas, His Masque
Saxons and Vikings weren’t the only ones who influenced the British perception of Father Christmas.
Ben Johnson’s play “Christmas, His Masque” is one of the earliest and most famous depictions of Father Christmas known to modern historians.
The play was introduced for the Royal Court in 1616. Father Christmas appears with a thin, long, white beard and old-fashioned attire.
He claims to be a good Protestant like any in his parish, which is an ironical comment on Puritan attempts to change Christmas traditions.
Johnson’s Father Christmas is depicted as an old man and a father of numerous children. His imagination and humor are truly brilliant, as the names of his children include “Mince Pie,” “Mumming,” and “Misrule.”
Puritan attempts to put Christmas to an end continued until and during the Civil War. In 1645, Royalists tried to defend the winter tradition, once again introducing a play featuring personified Christmas.
“The Arrangement, Conviction, and Imprisonment of Christmas” shows us a woman who wondered where the good old Father Christmas had disappeared. She then finds out that he was, as the name of the play suggests, convicted and imprisoned.
Only three decades later, in 1647, the Parliament had banned Christmas celebrations. The same faith awaited Easter and Whitsun.
After the Civil War
After the Civil War that ended in 1651, Father Christmas remained in exile for about a decade. Then, he started to return and appeared on stages again and again for the next two centuries.
However, Father Christmas was far from how the British portrayed him before the war.
In fact, his look was now closer to the original Father Christmas before the Saxons and Vikings influenced it. He didn’t give presents anymore and symbolized only fun and feasts.
The 19th century was lucky for Father Christmas. Victorian Era emphasis on family values required a more reputable Christmas spirit.
And Father Christmas returned, yet again portrayed with a wreath of holly, giving out gifts to children and adults.
While the overall impression of good old Father Christmas returned, his appearance has undergone some changes following worldwide trends.
It was heavily influenced by Thomas Nast’s illustrations for Harper’s Weekly and Clement Clark Moore’s poem “The Night before Christmas,” written in 1822.
Father Christmas was now portrayed as a jolly and plump smiling man. His coat had shortened and was now blue, red, tan, or of any other color.
The difference between Father Christmas and Santa Claus started to fade even before the latter has arrived in England.
Sinterklaas Meets Father Christmas
While the British were praising Father Christmas, most of Europe has chosen Saint Nicholas as the Christmas symbol.
The Dutch had called Saint Nicholas Sinterklaas and have brought the character to New Amsterdam, which later became New York, during colonization times.
Nicholas was initially a bishop from Myra, located in the place of modern Turkey. In the fourth century, Nicholas has performed numerous good deeds and has earned a Saint’s title during his life.
One of the legends of Saint Nicholas narrates he helped an old man who didn’t have money to marry his daughters.
Nicholas has secretly dropped a stocking full of gold down the man’s chimney. That’s how the tradition of hanging stockings began.
Like Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas has little to do with the modern idea of Santa Claus. He never had a white beard, nor was he plump and jolly. And, like Father Christmas, he was banned in many regions during the Protestant Reformation.
In other words, the stories of Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas were developing simultaneously but never intersected until the late 19th century.
According to evidence, Santa Claus has stepped on the British Island in 1864. Alongside Father Christmas, Santa starred in a tale by American author Susanna Warner, “Fairy Gifts.”
In Warner’s story, the two Christmas characters brought gifts to children and adults together, helped by fairies and other mythical creatures.
Soon after the first mention of Santa Claus in England, the images of two Christmas spirits completely merged. Evidence of this can be found in The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore.
It notes that in 1883, a French traveler said that Father Christmas coming down chimneys to put gifts in stockings was common knowledge.
Popular to our day Punch magazine called Father Christmas old-fashioned and food-focused, while Santa Claus – a modern and more cheerful figure.
So, since the late 19th century, Father Christmas has become nothing but an outdated version of Santa Claus.
Father Christmas Today
The original, pagan depiction of Father Christmas hasn’t been used in media for several centuries. However, rare mentions of good old Father Christmas can be found in the culture of the 20th and 21st centuries.
For instance, in 1976, J. R. R. Tolkien has published a series of private letters to his children called “Father Christmas Letters.”
Greg Lake has referred to the character in his 1974 song “I Believe in Father Christmas,” while The Kinks in 1977 in their song “Father Christmas.” In 1991, Raymond Biggs’ books were adapted as a short cartoon “Father Christmas.”
Today, most of Britain’s population prefer Santa Claus over Father Christmas, and some don’t even know about the existence of the latter.
But some Brits continue to appear dressed as the character on traditional festivals, preserving the national history.
Image credit: Unsplash