‘He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake’… but just how much do you know about the real Father Christmas?
Almost every person has some story about him that they’ve been brought up with. For me, Santa would visit Christmas Eve some time during the night and leave a pillow case of presents at the end of our bed. Without spoiling these memories, let’s shine a little light on the true story behind Santa Claus.
The history of ole Saint Nick goes back to 3rd Century when Nicholas (later St. Nicholas) inherited a vast amount of money from his parents. Instead of buying some new swag for himself he used it all to assist others. Whether they be sick, in need or poor. He eventually became Bishop Nicholas and devoted his life to serving God. I won’t fully go into the life of Bishop Nicholas, but whilst Roman Emperor Diocletian (famous for punishing Christians) was in charge he suffered persecution but was later released. He died in 343AD so how on earth did we get from Bishop Nicholas to Papa Noel?
I remember being told about Nick’s cracking set of gold balls when I studied History of Art at University. I see your eyebrows raise. Well, it became common knowledge that Nicholas had given out golden coins when distributing his wealth. So if you ever see a painting of St. Nicholas, you may see golden balls, coins or oranges on display. A tad bit of symbolism that reflects his charitable nature.
Due to this generosity, Nicholas became known as protector of children and sailors and quickly became the most popular saint in Europe. Whilst he hit popularity peak during the Renaissance period he was still not the Santa Claus we know today. In Britain, we didn’t actually have a ‘Father Christmas’ until A LOT later. After the Norman invasion, we did however meet ‘King Winter’. At this time, he hadn’t evolved to the popular guy we know today and was yet to don the red and furry suit we all know and love. Instead he wore a long green cloak with mistletoe and ivy. When Britain fell under the Saxon rule in the 5th and 6th centuries ‘King Winter’ would be welcomed into people’s homes to share stories and sit by the fire. Kindness was shown to this figure as it was believed you would then receive good tidings.
I bet Odin is a word you haven’t associated with Christmas before. Well, when the Vikings invaded Britain they of course brought their legends with them. Norse God Odin was thought to visit Earth in late December and this of course brought about another legend of ‘, a portly, elderly man with a white beard and a long, blue, hooded cloak [riding] through the world on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, giving gifts to the good and punishments to the bad. ‘ (Time Travel Britain, 2017) Sound familiar enough? Odin and Santa had a lot in common. Both could tell whether you were naughty or nice, both time travellers, and both fat.
The Spirit of Christmas
With the Normans brought further confirmation of this character. A mixture of St. Nicholas, King Winter and Odin… all which represent the Spirit of Christmas. He became known as a character who proceeded over the Christmas festivities and brought cheer and joy to the darkest month of the year.
No room for Santa
Of course, in 1644 the Puritans banned Christmas and the jolly figure that represented this time of year. As a bit of a taboo subject, but sorely missed, many would still discuss Father Christmas. But it wasn’t really until the Victorian age that he would fully revived.
Americanisation of Father Christmas
You didn’t think America would miss out on popularising this figure? The poem ‘The Night Before Christmas’ was released in 1822 and gave us a combination of the figures discussed above. This followed on from Americanisation of this story which you can read more on here.
At this time it also became widely popular that Santa was depicted in Red. Beforehand you could find him in many other colours but most popularly green.