Santa Claus And Father Christmas Used To Be Two Completely Different Characters
Santa Claus influenced the transformation of Father Christmas. (howtochristmas.co.uk)
Today, we tend to think of Santa Claus and Father Christmas as one and the same, along with Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, and every other name the fat guy in the red suit goes by. Indeed, the backstories and modus operandi of each of these characters are nearly identical, from flying sleighs and reindeer to a North Pole workshop. In truth, Father Christmas was once more than Santa Claus's British disguise. Santa Claus and Father Christmas were once completely different characters who, through the magic of Christmas, morphed into one figure. Let's take a look at how that happened.
Father Christmas was a pagan figure depicted wearing a long blue cloak. (worthpoint.com)
Who Was The OG Father Christmas?
The British have a long tradition of feasting and making merry with a mid-winter celebration, and sometime in the 1400s, a fictional personification of the festival emerged in writings and songs. At first, this personification was a pagan character who signaled the midway point of winter and ushered in spring, but as Christianity spread to the British Isles, he took on a decidedly more spiritual role, heralding the news of Christ's birth and announcing the start of the festivities. According to the ancient texts, he was called "Father Christmas" but also "Sir Christmas" and "the King of Christmas," both of which we can all agree are way better.
By the late medieval era, Father Christmas was known as a tall, thin old man with a flowing white beard who wore a blue hooded cloak. Between the winter solstice on December 21 and the end of the month, he wandered around the region, handing out gifts to the good people he encountered and doling out punishments to the wicked. During the Victorian era, Father Christmas was an important figure who delivered Christmas spirit to young and old and encourage folks to eat, drink, and be merry.
Santa was based on the very real Saint Nicholas. (Photo by Matthias Balk/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Who Was The OG Santa Claus?
The legend of Santa Claus originates with the real-life Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop and generous gift-giver. The Saint Nicholas stories mingled with the myths of Norse god Odin, who was a key figure in the pagan midwinter celebration of Yule, to form the basis of the Santa Claus legend. In the 18th and 19th centuries, German and Dutch settlers in the United States spread Santa Claus to the New World, where authors and artists developed an entire Santa Claus extended universe.
Father Christmas and Santa were once very different. (worldfactsftw.com)
Differences Between Santa Claus And Father Christmas
Traditionally, the best gift you could get from Father Christmas was holiday spirit, which unfortunately doesn't have a cash value. In fact, the British didn't always exchange gifts at Christmas, instead saving that custom for the new year. Santa Claus, meanwhile, is well-versed in the merit of material goods. American kids are taught that Santa lives at the North Pole with his wife, but British children grow up believing that their Christmas man lives in Finland, which must result in a lot of disappointing skiing trips.
A New Yorker sought to bring back Dutch pride. (ncregister.com)
How Did Santa Claus And Father Christmas Merge?
The modern city of New York has deep roots in Dutch culture, to the point that it was actually once called New Amsterdam. In the 1870s, when a man by the name of John Pintard who served as head of the New York Historical Society sought to reintroduce Dutch traditions to the city, he latched onto the Dutch's Saint Nicholas Day celebration and attempted to resurrect it in New York.
Washington Irving's comic tale of Saint Nick was meant as farce, but New Yorkers loved it. (nationalreview.com)
Enter Washington Irving
Pintard owed much of his success in this endeavor to author Washington Irving, who was also a member of the New York Historical Society. He penned a spoof of the Saint Nicholas story that saw the old bishop flying over the city in a magical wagon, tossing presents down chimneys that magically landed in stockings hung by the fireplace. Although he intended his short story to be farce, New Yorkers loved it.
Clement Clarke Moore added details to the Santa story. (youtube.com)
Enter Clement Clarke Moore
Washington Irving's Santa Claus tale was so popular that another member of the New York Historical Society, Clement Clarke Moore, decided to write a poem for his own children based on Irving's story. That poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," began with the now-famous line "'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse." Moore took a number of literary liberties with his poem, moving the date of Saint Nick's visit from Saint Nicholas Day on December 6 to the night of December 24, naming each of Santa’s flying reindeer, and providing some of the first descriptions of Santa's clothing, body, face, and personality.
Father Christmas evolved to be more like Santa. (etsy.com)
Santa Flew Back Across The Pond
The origins of Santa were imported to America, but the total Santa package, complete with description and backstory, became an export. As Santa stories trickled back across the pond, Brits fell in love with the warm, fuzzy character. In only a decade, Santa totally invaded England, and his backstory was assigned to Father Christmas as well. He was even forced to swap his traditional long, blue cloak for a red one.
A jolly gift-giver by any other name would smell as minty. (mariechantalblog.com)
Two Pasts, One Future
The tradition of Santa Claus and the whole Christmas celebration is constantly evolving. Presently, Santa is a conglomerate of several fictional and real-life figures, as is Father Christmas. Although the two characters have very different pasts, it is clear that they now share a future.