Does Father Christmas exist?
Of course! Next question…
Who is he, then?
His first incarnation was as Nicholas, born in AD 270, who became Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (today part of Turkey). Imprisoned by the pagan Roman Emperor Diocletian, he was freed by Constantine the Great and continued his saintly work. He died in AD 343, on 6 December – now St Nicholas Day.
Little is known of his life, but legends told after his death focus on the children, sailors and young women he helped. Nicholas’s bones were stolen from Myra by Italian merchants and moved to Bari in 1087, and his reputation soon spread throughout Europe.
So how did the Vikings get involved with the story?
They believed that the god Odin flew over their houses on his flying, eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, dropping bread for the hungry to enjoy in the cold midwinter at the feast of Jul (Odin was sometimes called the Yule-father). Clearly, they must have seen Father Christmas’s flying reindeer and got confused.
When did the Yule-father become Father Christmas?
In early medieval England, the pagan Saxons honoured the Frost or Winter King, who had a lot in common with Odin. But, as Christianity became dominant, this figure became more closely associated with the festival celebrating the birth of Jesus.
By the 1400s, he was thought of as a chivalric knight called Sir Christmas, and by the Tudor era he had been charmingly renamed Captain Christmas. Rather than giving gifts to children, though, his job was to make sure everyone had fun at the lavish yuletide feasts.
This made him an enemy of Oliver Cromwell’s righteous government, which outlawed Christmas, fearing that it had become an excuse for unholy drunkenness. In response, the defenders of the tradition renamed the figure Old Father Christmas to make him sound more venerable. When the monarchy was restored and Charles II took the throne, Father Christmas kept his new name.
So who is Santa Claus?
The story of St Nicholas’s miracles and his generosity to children spread throughout medieval Europe, and in the Netherlands he became known as Sinterklaas. The Dutch believed that, like the Norse Odin, he travelled by flying horse, but also that black-faced assistants helped him choose the good children who deserved to be rewarded with pressies on the evening before 6 December, his holy feast day.
However, in the early 16th century, Martin Luther – the German founder of Protestantism – considered Sinterklaas too similar to pagan Odin. Instead he decreed that it was the Christkind (an angelic Christ child) who brought gifts – though he visited on 25 December, not the 6th.
Many Dutch became Protestants and dispensed with Sinterklaas, yet the old tradition was carried to America by Dutch settlers. In New York, a former Dutch outpost, by the early 19th century Sinterklaas had morphed into Santa Claus, who would soon be immortalised by American poets and writers. Some confused the rival Christkind with St Nick, and he acquired the nickname Kris Kringle.
Are Father Christmas and Santa now one and the same?
By the middle of the 19th century, England’s Father Christmas was more interested in the edification of children than drunken adult parties, and merged with the America idea of Santa.
By the end of the century, he had become a jolly man with a big white beard who, boarding his reindeer-hauled flying sleigh, delivered gifts down the chimney on 25 December. He was also accepted by most Christians as a miraculous proxy for Jesus himself, though in 1951, a French priest burned an effigy of Le Père Noël in Dijon, claiming that he was drawing too much attention away from celebrations of the birth of Christ.
This article was first published in the Christmas 2014 issue of History Revealed.