Who is Father Christmas?
When the celebrations of Christmas are fast approaching a
simple ho-ho-ho or mention of reindeer and sleighs brings one name to mind
for nearly everyone in the world. Father Christmas. He stands in a long tradition
of gift bringers that appear around the turn of the year. History
records many long and ancient traditions. The Romans gave gifts at
Saturnalia and Kalends. Woden, or Odin, scattered gifts down on the
children of the frozen north while they slept.
Instead of trying to wipe out the tradition the early
Christians welcomed it as a chance to give each other gifts in memory of
the birth of the Christ child. Different countries subsequently developed their
own traditions of who should bring the children's gifts. In Spain it was
the Three Kings, in Italy Befana and in Russia Baboushca. In parts of
Germany it was an angel who brought the gifts, known as ChristKind in
Germany when exported to the USA became Kriss Kringle (now a name given to
The tradition of gift giver goes way back into
pre-Christian times but in more recent years the appearance of Santa Claus
or Father Christmas has united many across the globe. Father Christmas is
also known as St. Nicholas, a fourth-century Christian Saint from Myra
about whom little is known. However many stories are told about him. One
story tells of how he saved the lives of three boys who had been
slaughtered by a village innkeeper and preserved in a barrel of brine. St.
Nicholas raised the boys from the dead and then converted the innkeeper.
It was this story that associated St. Nicholas with children.
In the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas was everyone's favourite
saint. He was patron saint of all kinds of people, including merchants,
sailors and small boys. The best known of the St. Nicolas stories may well
have an element of truth in it.
In Nicholas' home town, it is said, lived a family so poor
that the father could not afford dowries for his three daughters. Nicholas
determined to rescue them from starvation and distress, but without making
his generosity known. So, when the eldest daughter was old enough to
marry, he dropped a bag of gold in at her window by night. (Some say he
dropped it down the chimney, where it fell into the shoe or stocking she
had left on the hearth to keep warm).
Nicholas did the same for the second and third daughters,
but on the last occasion he was discovered by the grateful father.
Nicholas swore him to secrecy.
The 6th December is St. Nicholas' day and some countries
celebrate by giving presents the night before.
Every year, on the last Saturday in November, St Nicholas,
dressed in bishop's robes and mitre, arrives by steamer at the port of
Amsterdam, in Holland. With him is Black Peter, dressed in the costume of
a Spaniard of the 16th century. St. Nicholas disembarks, mounts a waiting
white horse and rides off, accompanied by a jostling procession of
children, first to the royal palace, where he is formally welcomed, then
to his chosen headquarters for the season. Black Peter is supposed to be
the Devil, now St. Nicholas' servant, come to punish any naughty children
and do to the dirty work of taking presents down chimneys.
Everyone in Holland gives presents on 5 December, St.
Nicholas' eve, and every present should come as a surprise. Sometimes a
tiny gift is wrapped in a huge box, or the parcel is hidden in an
unexpected place - anything that makes it as much of a happy surprise as
St Nicholas' first presents were said to be.
In the sixteenth century, after the Reformation, saints
went out of favour in Europe. However someone was needed to take the place
of St Nicholas and give present at Christmas.
In England, a merry old character from children's plays,
known as Father Christmas, took over the job.
France has Pere Noel, and in Germany the Christkind, or
Christ child, gave gifts. In the United States of America his name became
But Dutch settlers in America took St Nicholas with them.
They shortened his name to Class and called him Sinta Class, which soon
became Santa Claus in English. He became very popular with everyone and
American writers and artists gradually transformed the bishop in his robes
and mitre into the familiar figure with white beard and robes and hat.
No one is sure how St Nicholas' white horse turned into a
pack of reindeer. A nineteenth-century book shows a picture of him with
just one reindeer and in 1882 Dr Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem for his
children about Santa Claus in which he described eight reindeer and gave
them all names. But in Sweden he is still pictured drawn by mountain
The English Father Christmas came to look more and more
like his American counterpart, and now Father Christmas and Santa Claus
have become one and the same person.