Children may well be asking if Father Christmas will be dressed in PPE this year, despite the fact that his work isn’t face-to-face. But the prospect of his visit is still a very much needed pick-me-up for parents and kids alike. And with the thought of that joy ahead, we wondered just how this whole Santa extravaganza got going in the first place!
We decided to head back to the third century to find out more…
Nicholas… as he was originally known
Nicholas, the man himself, was a Greek bishop living in a Roman town called Myra in what is now Turkey. Was he a jolly, rotund, rosy-cheeked, bearded fellow who had a penchant for red clothes? Very probably not. In fact, it’s believed he was more a determined character, with a wiry frame, who was a defiant defender of Christianity during the ‘Great Persecution’. And he will have spent many years in and out of prison before Constantine brought the faith into a position of prominence across the Roman empire.
It’s unclear what year he actually died, but December 6th is posited as the date. And as a result of his name being associated with several miracles, his reputation has become infamous and his persona the household one we now know.
A reputation built on good deeds
Interestingly, and perhaps this is one of the reasons St. Nicholas came to be so well regarded and remembered, he was the patron of many groups including sailors. But in about 1200, his connection with children was established and his reputation for being a secret deliverer of gifts was entrenched in our minds.
Two particular stories embedded this status in our psyche. The first tells the tale of three girls, whose father was so poor they were destined to prostitution. The tradition has Bishop Nicholas secretly delivering bags of gold to their house, anonymously, so that their father had money for their dowries.
The second is set in an inn, where the innkeeper had just murdered three boys, dismembered their bodies, and stored them in pickling juice in barrels in his cellar. Not only did Nicholas suss that a crime had been committed, but he also miraculously resurrected the boys as well.
His visits become connected with good behaviour
Both fabulous tales, of course, but they were enticing enough to engage with the mindset of medieval times. And thus between 1200-1500, the 6th December became a day for focusing celebrations on jollity and gift bearing. And it’s at this point that his appearance starts to change. European gods at the time were believed to host big white beards and they could fly. Thus his demeanour shifted slightly too, with an emphasis developing on his attendance being subject to good behaviour.
For a time, however, as the Protestant Reformation developed, focus moved from magical saintly figures onto Jesus as the centre of benevolence. This presented society with a challenge, however, for though festivals that were not biblically based fell out of favour, they left quite a hole. Gift giving in the middle of winter was a morale booster. Jesus was born in December, but there was no way that a baby could perform the miracle of gift giving. So for a time, baby Jesus had a scary helper to reinforce the good behaviour message and carry the treats.
It was at this time too that the date shifted in some countries to the 25th December, and nations diverged in how they saw St. Nick. For example, in Germany, he became more a threatening sidekick demanding good behaviour, whilst in the Netherlands, he retained his saintliness as a gift bringer. And it was the Dutch term for him, “Sinterklaas”, that made its way to the New World. His migration to northern America was met with mixed feelings, though. In some places celebrations were frowned upon, whereas in others a more pagan-style festival was enjoyed, which featured lots of eating and drinking. And the latter had by then become the tradition in England too.
The written word lends its power
However, as has often been the case in history, the romanticised versions espoused by poets and writers began to seep into the psyche. Their tales and words sought to bring Christmas together as a family celebration, and St. Nicholas was the perfect figure upon which to focus to make this shift. A book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York written by Washington Irving, introduced the idea of St. Nicholas smoking a pipe and flying over houses in a wagon to deliver presents to children who’d behaved. And by 1821 a poem entitled, “The Children’s Friend”, had captured the imagination. Here, Santa Claus is clad in furs etc., brings gifts and, most significantly, has lost his religious connections.
One of the most influential creative pieces, nonetheless, is Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas” – you may well know it as, “The night before Christmas…”. He wrote it in 1822 as a little night time story for his six children and had originally not intended to publish it. However, it was published anonymously the following year, and in it he mentions stockings by the chimney, a sleigh, eight reindeer (and their names), red cheeks, red nose, a round belly, and… St. Nicholas smiling and chuckling. The picture we now have of Father Christmas was set out in all its glory.
Of course, there were many details still to embellish. For example, the colour of his outfit, and the fact that he lives in the North Pole. But before the 1930s, Father Christmas was as likely to be seen in green or blue as in red… Though that all changed when a certain drinks producer took over the theme for themselves.
Still, we reckon that imagination feeds on imagination, and we’re pretty pleased that Clement Clarke Moore’s vision of St. Nicholas did migrate back to Europe to boot out the scary do-gooder and adopt the new title, Father Christmas, in some countries. And we say long may he continue to return every year!