He breaks into our houses every year to the delight of good children everywhere but he didn't start out delivering presents to kids. And did you know that there are parts of him that are probably older than Jesus? Find out all you need to know about a man coming to a chimney near you this Christmas.
Apart from his elves, no one knows what Father Christmas really looks like but the characteristic white beard and red clothing are in fact creations of American cartoonists in the Victorian era.
The original British Father Christmas, as depicted in 17th century, sported a beard, but it wasn’t white, and his clothing colour was green, not red. And we can thank Scandinavian myths for his reindeer pulled sled, though the red nosed reindeer leader, ‘Rudolph’, was another American advertising creation. His elves have a Germanic and distinctly devilish background but the mince pies, milk and sherry we leave out for Father Christmas have an even more ancient origin. Such offerings are reminiscent of sacrifices to pagan gods that long pre date Christianity.
Another pre Christian link is Father Christmas’s first name, ‘Father’. This is thought to be derived from ‘Woden’, or the better known ‘Odin’, the ‘All-Father’ head god of North European and Scandinavian mythology. Americans prefer to refer to him as Santa Claus, and this name derives from the third century saint, Saint Nicholas. He was a charitable bishop from Myra (now called Demre) in Turkey. His first gifts were anonymously delivered bags of gold coins to a man so that a he could afford to have his daughters married. Some accounts say that he left a gold coin in each of the daughters’ stockings and in others that he dropped his gifts down the man’s chimney because the door was locked. There are still other, more grim and graphic, variations of the story. One has the three daughters about to enter prostitution to escape financial hardship. Another has three boys being butchered in order that their meat could be sold off as ham whereupon Nicholas resurrects the boys.
Saint Nicholas was, and is, such an inspiring figure that even though the town of his birthplace is now largely Muslim, and so no longer recognises Christmas, they still celebrate the figure of Santa Claus. Nicholas is believed to have died on 6 December and in certain countries, like Holland, children receive gifts on this day, the Feast of St Nicholas, rather than at Christmas.
But if our Father Christmas really wanted to be accurate and come the night before the birth of Christ, he’d be popping down our chimneys sometime in September. So why does he come on the 24 December? Well, the Gospels don’t give a date for Jesus’ birth so the reason we celebrate it on 25 December is because Pope Julius I in the fourth century AD said so. He wanted to popularise Christianity and so appropriated existing pagan practises as everyone from the Romans to the Babylonians celebrated the beginning of the end of winter. This is perhaps why early representations of Father Christmas saw him dressed in green, representing the green shoots of spring in the depths of winter.
Americans believe that Father Christmas is based in the North Pole which considering it consists of constantly shifting frozen ice, is just a bit unlikely. The British and European traditions are more prosaic, and believe his workshop is in Finland, in an area called Lapland. Some even think his grotto is somewhere in the Korvatunturi mountain range.
The address for your letter to Father Christmas, is “Santa’s Grotto, Reindeerland, SAN TA1.” Please note, letters from naughty children may be read but not always actioned, and please limit requests to single items as Father Christmas has roughly 700,000,000 children to visit in one night.