Who is Father Christmas?

The gift giving character at Christmas seems to come in many guises, but is he St Nicholas, Santa Claus or Father Christmas?  Are these names of different characters or are they all the same one?  It seems there are lots of stories that swirl around at this time of year, so let’s see if we can make some sense of them.

To start at the beginning St Nicholas was a real person. He was Bishop of Myra in the 4th century and red and white were traditionally the colours of the Bishop’s robes. He was well known for his kindness to children and his generosity to the poor. After he died the legend of Saint Nicholas grew and the feast of St Nicholas is celebrated in Europe, with gift giving happening overnight on 5th/6th December.  In the Low Countries children would leave their shoes on the windowsill and in the morning there would be a small present in them.  The name given to the bringer of these small gifts was Sinterklass.  There are also stories that some of his ‘little helpers’ would kidnap naughty children and put them in Sinterklaas’ sack!  Maybe that is why we get these lyrics from the song Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

‘… he’s making a list and checking it twice

He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice’

So far so good.  We have a gift giving, elderly gentleman, dressed in red and white, working overnight and called Sinterklaas.  The big obstacle here seems to be the timing; how did the gift giving move to 24th December.  To explain that we have to switch continents and move to America.

An American by the name of John Pintard helped to establish the modern popular conception of Santa Claus based upon the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas.  He observed the feast of St. Nicholas long before it became fashionable. In 1810 he published a pamphlet proposing St. Nicholas as the Patron Saint of New York City, and Patron Saint of his newly established New York Historical Society. Washington Irving, also a member of the New York Historical Society, also wrote about Sinterklaas.  However, it is not entirely certain that Irving wasn’t having a bit of a joke with poor old Sinterklaas as he had ‘Saint Nick’ arriving in New Amsterdam (now called New York) with the earliest settlers and flying around in a ‘sky-wagon’, hurling down people’s chimneys presents that somehow ended up in the children’s stockings.  Whatever the truth of the matter, the story just stuck and St Nicholas/Sinterklaas became a fixture in the American celebration of Christmas.  However, as interesting as this may be, it still hasn’t helped us with the timing issue.

For that we have to thank another American, and allegedly, another member of the New York Historical Society.  Clement Clarke Moore is credited with writing a poem entitled A Visit from St Nicholas for his small childrenThe poem was first published anonymously in 1822 and is now better known by its first two lines:

     “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house 

      Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;”

The poem was repeatedly reprinted at Christmas and its popularity had the effect of moving the present giving part of the Christmas celebrations to Christmas Eve.   

Now we have a link between St Nicholas and Santa Claus but where does Father Christmas fit into this jigsaw?

In Medieval England and for centuries afterwards, the figure of Father Christmas represented the spirit of kindness and good cheer, but he wasn’t necessarily a bringer of presents.  In Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol Scrooge buys the Cratchit family a turkey, but nothing we today would think of as a ‘proper’ present.  So why did Father Christmas change?  Sad to report it seems like Father Christmas was just consumed by his American cousin, Santa Claus, and the commercial interests at play made it compulsory for the figure of Christmas to bring presents.

Does this article fully explain the truth of Christmas traditions? 

Probably not, but safe to say the true Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas of Myra. He truly lived. He truly died. His body is still interred in the Italian City of Bari. So if you dismay of the over commercialisation of Santa’s Grotto, and want to go back to something original and authentic, holiday in Italy and you can visit Santa’s grave.  Now, that would be quite a different Christmas experience!