Is Father Christmas just another name for St. Nicholas? Is he the same as Santa Claus?
England, like much of Europe, had a St. Nicholas tradition before the Reformation, described in this account from the 16th century:
In many places it was the custom for parents, on the vigil of St. Nicholas, to convey worldly presents of various kinds to their little sons and daughters, who were taught to believe that they owed them to the kindness of St. Nicholas and his train, who, going up and down among the towns and the villages, came in at the windows, though they were shut, and distributed them. This custom originated from the legendary account of that saint having given portions to three daughters of a poor citizen whose necessities had driven him to an intention of prostituting them, and this he affected by throwing a purse filled with money privately at night in at the father’s bedchamber window, to enable him to portion them out honestly.*
St. Nicholas’ popularity is shown by the roughly 500 English churches dedicated to him during the middle ages. Many medieval stained glass panels also attest to his popularity and show that he was well-known throughout England.
As part of the English Reformation St. Nicholas traditions were expressly outlawed by King Henry VIII, particularly the Boy Bishop custom.
“Father Christmas” first appears in a 15th century carol, “Hail, Father Christmas, hail to thee!” He is the personification of Christmas, rather than a real person. He shows up again in the next century as social critics lament the loss of traditional Christmas hospitality. He comes with his children, Mis-Rule, Carol, Minc’d Pie, Gamboll, Post and Paire, New-Yeares-Gift, Mumming, Wassail, Roast Beef, Plum Pudding, Offering, and Babie-Cake, at the beginning of Ben Jonson’s Christmas His Masque, performed for James I in 1616.
Father Christmas’ predecessors come from different groups that invaded England. The Romans (AD 43) brought Saturn who returned at Saturnalia with food and wine, revelry and equality among people. The Saxons (AD 600) anthropomorphized seasons and weather, inviting “King” or “Lord Frost” or “Snow,” inside by dressing an actor in a pointed hat and cloak draped in ivy; if the personification was treated kindly, it was hoped the season would treat them likewise. Vikings (AD 800) brought Odin, who wore a hooded cloak, listened to the people and distributed goods to worthy folks; and Thor, with cloak and long white beard, who lived among the icebergs. Elements of these personages coalesced to form “Christmas,” “Old Christmas” or “Father Christmas” by the the 1400s. “Father Christmas” was never a Christian religious figure, but symbolized rather the arrival of those [seasonal] secular pleasures that came from elsewhere than the Christian tradition.”**
Father Christmas was described originally as wearing a doublet, long stockings and a high hat. By the 18th century he wore a red or green fur-lined robe, with holly or ivy around his head, and carrying the Yule log and a bowl of punch. Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present is probably Father Christmas. He did not bring gifts.
Henry the VIII may have suppressed St. Nicholas in 1542, but the Puritans tried to eliminate Christmas entirely in 1643. Shops were required to be open and churches closed, because of associations with “popery” and to stamp out the “misrule” that often led to drunkenness, excessive gambling and general licentiousness. Mince pies, mummers, holly and church services were all suppressed. This caused a lot of resistance that was expressed in a number of pamphlets being printed both for and against observing Christmas. Defenses came particularly from royalists, who also tended to be recusant Catholics:
Any man or woman, that can give any knowledge, or tell any tidings of an old, old,very old gray-bearded gentleman, called Christmas, who was wont to be a very familiar guest and visit all sorts of people, both poor and rich, and used to appear in glittering gold, silk and silver, in the court, and in all shapes in the theatre in White Hall, and had ringing, feasts and jollity in all places, both in the city and the country, for his coming—whoever can tell what is become of him, or where he may be found, let him bring him back again into England. (An Hue and Cry after Christmas, 1645)
Traditional festivities reappeared after the Restoration in 1660, though they were forever changed. Feudal relationships were changing as people had been scattered or killed; many landed gentry who had lost estates and moved to London. As the Industrial Revolution began in the 1700s, country life would never be the same. Rural society had observed the full Twelve Days of Christmas as a festival season with revelry, leading to excess, throughout. With the move to industrialized cities, workers, unlike their earlier rural counterparts, had just Christmas Day free from work. Gift giving, traditionally exchanged at New Year’s, moved to Christmas Day as it was now the only day free from labor.
The 19th century brought changes to Christmas observance everywhere, in Europe, as well as the United States. These forces, caused by industrialization and breakdown of communal life, led to domesticating the earlier, more raucous celebrations that led to excess and disorder. The emerging cozy, home-based, child-centered Christmas led to the development of Santa Claus. England, without a gift-giver since losing St. Nicholas in the 1500s, had transformed Father Christmas into a Santa-like figure by the 1870s. Father Christmas became the gift-giver. Though he kept elements of his established appearance—a long hooded robe and holly around his head—he came to function just like the American Santa Claus.
Father Christmas forsook the spirit of drink, feasting, merriment and revelry to become, like Santa, the gift-giving children’s friend.
How America captured Christmas by historian George Goodwin, with some background for Father Christmas, too; HistoryExtra, the BBC History Magazine, December 4, 2019.
* from the Diary of Henry Machyn, 1550-63), Notes and Queries, p. 174 [12S. I. Feb. 26, 1916]
Bowler, Gerry, Santa Claus: A Biography, McClelland & Stewart Ltd, Toronto, Canada, 2005, p. 156-7.
Bowler, Gerry, The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, McClelland & Stewart Ltd, Toronto, Canada, 2000
Pimlott, J. A. R., “Merry Christmas,” History Today, Volume 3, Issue 12, 1953
Copeman, Dawn, “Who Is Father Christmas? TimeTravel—Britain
** Del Re, Gerard and Patricia, The Christmas Almanac, Random House, 1979, 2004, p. 66,67.
Durston, Chris, “Lords of Misrule: the Puritan War on Christmas,” History Today, Volume 35, Issue 12, 1985
Green, Thomas, “The English Father Christmas: A Separate Origin,” The History of Santa Claus and Father Christmas
Walsh, William S., The Story of Santa Klaus: Told for Children of all ages from six to sixty, Moffat, Yard & Co, 1909 (reprint: Gale Research Company, 1970)