This year, our older son (8) understands how the magic of Father Christmas really works. Yes, we’ve reached that time, and while I’m a little sad about it, I’m also quite relieved that we’re now working with the truth.
As part of explaining the whole thing, and to help him understand how to keep that Christmas magic he loves alive, I decided to find out more about Father Christmas; Santa Claus; St Nicholas. So many of our traditions are based in myth and legend much older than Christianity, and I imagined this old, gift-giving father figure would be the same. And as it turns out he’s as old as time; and just like Christmas itself, he’s a mixture of many lores, legends and faiths.
St Nicholas – the Christian version
The Christian saint figure of Nicholas is one of FC’s chief origins, and is where the American name Santa Claus comes from. Nicholas was a 4th century Greek Orthodox bishop, who was renowned for giving gifts to the poor – in particular, providing dowries for three impoverished Christian sisters. His saint’s day is 6 December, and a gift-giving custom developed on this day throughout Europe to honour him. St Nicholas’ day is still observed and celebrated in many places, particularly in Amsterdam, where his arrival procession includes the handing out of over five tonnes of sweets (!). He’s depicted in bishop’s robes, with a beard and a kindly demeanour…and so our modern picture begins to form.
The Green Man – the Pagan version
But we need to go further back, beyond Christianity – that hugely successful hijacker of old traditions – to get the full picture. While the Romans were partying hard with the Saturnalia feast in December, the Northern Europeans (including the British) were celebrating Yule, the great midwinter event that celebrates light and the hope of spring, at the darkest time of the year. A key figure in this lore is the Green Man, who represents the natural cycle of the earth and nature, rebirth, and the coming of spring. Bearded, with green robes, he appears in many ancient cultures around the world, and brings the gift of life.
Father Christmas – the Tudor version
When Henry VIII took a sledge hammer to the Catholic Church traditions in England, the celebrating of saints’ days fell somewhat out of favour over the ensuing century – but people like an excuse to gift presents, so the St Nicholas tradition was pushed back to the Christmas celebrations at the end of the month. The English version of Father Christmas began to emerge at this point, and he appears to be a mixture of the old and new – a kindly old man (just like St Nicholas), but donning robes of green to represent the spirit of Yule; an embodiment of joy and revelry, to get us through the darkest days, and a bringer of peace and light, with the promise of spring.
Coca-Cola – the Modern Version
And then, I think, the rest is history. Once this figure was established in the popular consciousness, he remained and evolved into what we have today – an avuncular figure who rewards good behaviour with a gift (which I suspect started as a useful parenting tool at the very earliest stages of its evolution). The Victorians really ran with the whole idea, and as Christmas cards were just getting started then too, Father Christmas was an excellent emblem of good cheer. And surely Coca Cola’s decision to use him in the 1930s is one of the greatest marketing triumphs in the history of advertising. He’s not going anywhere now (and neither is Coke!).
It was so hard to see the sadness in our son’s eyes when he first understood, but it helped so much to explain to him where it all came from: the many centuries of Yuletide and Christmas tradition, layer upon layer added by each historic event and new faith; the generations of people who have cherished the joy of gift-giving at this time of year; and above all, the magic of midwinter celebrations, which are all grounded in that one human trait that is constant in all of these lores, legends and faiths: love.
As always, there’s lots more to be read on Wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Claus