December 24, 2013

Twelve Days of Tudor Christmas: Father Christmas

On the Eleventh day of our Tudor Christmas, we will discuss Father Christmas. Santa Claus and Father Christmas are, today, one in the same. Despite what many believe today, Father Christmas was not a purely Victorian invention. Rather, the version we tend to know today has evolved from Viking, Norman, German, and Christian lore.

Father Christmas was most likely an original evolution of a pagan figure who represented the coming of spring and wore a long green hooded cloak and a wreath of holly, ivy or mistletoe and had the ability to make people happier during the long winter months. Another origin story comes in the version of Jul, a form of the Viking god Odin, who sported a white beard and wore a long hooded cloak, and rode through the world on his eight legged horse giving gifts to the good and punishments to the bad.

St. Nicholas, a 4th Century Christian Saint and most popular "Santa Claus" originator, appeared in Britain about the same time as the Normans did. St. Nicholas was eventually merged with 'Father Christmas' and led to the formation of our modern Santa Claus or "Father Christmas." St. Nicholas was certainly known in Tudor times. Tradition has it that St. Nicholas was a wealthy Greek orphan who was raised in a religious home by his uncle, and later became a priest. He is depicted as an older man with a white beard. While traveling, St. Nicholas came upon a house where a man had murdered three boys and was trying to pass off their remains as ham. St. Nicholas saw through the ploy and brought the boys back to life. Another story tells of St. Nicholas secretly leaving money for a poor man who did not have the means to provide a proper dowry for his daughters (meaning they would probably have to resort to prostitution). Eventually, the legends around St. Nicholas had him leaving money and gifts for those who needed them. As stated before, though Father or Lord Christmas wasn't central to a Tudor Christmas, St. Nicholas was well known, and eventually combined with the Medieval 'Lord Christmas,' and Jul to form our modern day Santa Claus.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, the earliest evidence for a personified ‘Christmas’ is a carol attributed to Richard Smart, Rector of Plymtree (1435-1477). The carol is a sung dialogue between someone representing ‘Sir Christmas’ and a group who welcome him, in a way suggestive of a visiting custom:
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
’Who is there that singeth so?’
’I am here, Sir Christëmas.’
’Welcome, my lord Christëmas,
Welcome to us all, both more and less
Come near, Nowell!’
 Sir Christmas then gives news of Christ’s birth, and urges his hearers to drink:
“Buvez bien par toute la campagnie,
Make good cheer and be right merry.”
Thus, Father or Lord Christmas was well known in both Medieval and Tudor England. Lord Christmas from this time period is depicted wearing a long green robe trimmed in fur (most likely taking from the original pagan figure). Eventually, this evolved to the red and white suit we know so well today. Though he was present, Lord Christmas wasn't central to Tudor Christmas celebrations. It wasn't until Stuart and Victorian England that Father Christmas became a more central character in these festivities. Rather, records indicate that a parish would hire someone to dress in disguise and visit Parishioners and report back to the Parish priest on their well-being. It is unknown if this man served as a representation of St. Nicholas, and whether he gave the children of Parishioners gifts or not, as representations did in Germany.

An early 17th Century play by Ben Jonson titled Christmas, His Masque, was first presented at the Court of King James in 1616. In the play, 'Christmas' is represented by an actor with his entourage consisting of Cupid, Venus, and his children. He was described as being attired
"... in round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, a high crownd Hat with a Broach, a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white Shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse, and his Drum beaten before him." 
Because Father Christmas was not relegated by the Church and not considered a religious symbol, the secular world was able to do what they wanted with him. This began the real secular evolution of Father Christmas to the more recognizable version we know today.

With the coming of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth, Cromwell's Long Parliament banned all Christmas celebrations in 1645. In response, a broadsheet appeared on the streets of London taunting the Government, featuring a humorous political 'scandal' about the conviction and imprisonment and later escape of Father Christmas, saying "In comes I, Old Father Christmas, Be I welcome or be I not, I hope that Christmas will ne'er be forgot." During the celebratory ban, "Old Father Christmas" came to represent a nostalgic Christmas of days gone by, such as those celebrated by the Tudors. The Puritans were unable to stop all celebrations, despite the new laws, but were able to disrupt many traditions. John Evelyn wrote in his diary on 25 December 1652, "Christmas Day, no sermon anywhere, no church being permitted to open, so observed it at home." After the Restoration, Christmas and Father Christmas were again celebrated in England.

The Victorians culminated many of these Christmas traditions, forming a figure in pagan-like attire (remember that green and fur trimmed robe?) with icicles or ivy around his head, who was as likely to punish children as reward them for their behavior. Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol is a good example of the Victorian view of Father Christmas, represented as The Ghost of Christmas Past in a green and fur trimmed robe, a crown of ivy, and hand holding a large goblet of Christmas 'spirits.' As time went on, both English and American versions of Father Christmas evolved into what we know today as Santa Claus, taking all these many traditions from the past and combining them into one jolly fellow.

Further Reading

  • The History of Santa Claus and Father Christmas. URL.
  • Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore (2001).
  • Austin, Charlotte. 'The Celebration Of Christmastide In England From the Civil Wars to its Victorian Transformation.' URL.
  • Josiah King. The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas (1686) in which Father Christmas was exonerated. URL.
  • The Reformation and Father Christmas. URL.
  • The Christmas Archives - England. URL.

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