Father Christmas is the name used in many English-speaking countries for a figure associated with Christmas. A similar figure with the same name (in other languages) exists in several other countries, including France (Père Noël), Spain (Papá Noel, Pare Noel), almost allHispanic South America (Papá Noel), Brazil (Papai Noel), Portugal (Pai Natal), Italy (Babbo Natale), Armenia (Kaghand Papik), India(Christmas Father), Andorra (Lord Quinto), Romania (Moş Crăciun) and Turkey (Noel Baba) .
In past centuries, the English Father Christmas was also known as Old Father Christmas, Sir Christmas, and Lord Christmas. Father Christmas is said to wear (these days) a bright red suit, but in Victorian and Tudor times he wore a bright green suit.
Father Christmas typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, but was neither a gift bringer nor particularly associated with children. A traditional figure in English folklore, Father Christmas is identified with the old belief in the Old English godWoden.
In the English-speaking world, the character called “Father Christmas” influenced the development in the United States of Santa Claus, and in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, most people now consider them to be interchangeable. However, although “Father Christmas” and “Santa Claus” have for most practical purposes been merged, historically the characters have different origins and are not identical. Some authors such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, have insisted on the traditional form of Father Christmas in preference to Santa Claus.
Father Christmas is often said to reside at the North Pole or less commonly, in the mountains of Korvatunturi in Lapland, Finland.
The earliest English examples of the personification of Christmas are apparently those in carols of the 15th century. The manuscript Bodelian Library MS Arch. Selden b. 26, which dates from circa 1458 AD, contains an anonymous Christmas carol (f. 8) which begins with the lyrics:
Goday, goday, my lord Sire Christëmas, goday! Goday, Sire Christëmas, our king,
for ev’ry man, both old and ying,
is glad and blithe of your coming;
Similarly, a carol attributed to Richard Smert (c. 1400–c. 1479) in British Additional MS 5665 (ff. 8v-9v), begins in dialog form:
Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell Who is there that singeth so: Nowell, nowell, nowell? I am here, Sire Christësmas. Welcome, my lord, Sire Christëmas! Welcome to us all, both more and less! Come near, Nowell.
Both songs then proceed to proclaim the birth of Christ in the present tense and elaborate upon the story of the nativity as occasion for rejoicing. The specific depiction of Christmas as a merry old man begins in the early 17th century, in the context of resistance to Puritan criticism of observation of the Christmas feast. He is “old” because of the antiquity of the feast itself, which its defenders saw as a good old Christian custom that should be kept. Allegory was popular at the time, so “old Christmas” was given a voice to protest his exclusion, along with the form of a rambunctious, jolly old man.
The earliest such was that in Ben Jonson’s creation in Christmas his Masque dating from December 1616, in which Christmas appears “attir’d in round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, a high crownd Hat with a Broach, a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse”, and announces “Why Gentlemen, doe you know what you doe? ha! would you ha’kept me out? Christmas, old Christmas?” Later, in a masque by Thomas Nabbes, The Springs Glorie produced in 1638, “Christmas” appears as “an old reverend gentleman in furred gown and cap”. The character continued to appear over the next 250 years, appearing as Sir Christmas, Lord Christmas or Father Christmas, the last becoming the most common. A book dating from the time of the Commonwealth, The Vindication of CHRISTMAS or, His Twelve Yeares’ Observations upon the Times (London, 1652), involved “Old Christmas” advocating a merry, alcoholic Christmas and casting aspersions on the charitable motives of the ruling Puritans. Father Christmas dates back at least as far as the 17th century in Britain, and pictures of him survive from that era, portraying him as a well-nourished bearded man dressed in a long green fur-lined robe. A writer in “Time’s Telescope” (1822) states that in Yorkshire at eight o’clock on Christmas Eve the bells greet “Old Father Christmas” with a merry peal, the children parade the streets with drums, trumpets, bells, (or in their absence, with the poker and shovel, taken from their humble cottage fire), the yule candle is lighted, and; “High on the cheerful fire. Is blazing seen th’ enormous Christmas brand.” Although originally associated with adult feasting and drinking, since the Victorian era, Father Christmas has gradually merged with the pre-modern gift giver St Nicholas (Dutch Sinterklaas, hence Santa Claus) and associated folklore. Nowadays he is often called Santa Claus but also often referred to in Britain as Father Christmas: the two names are synonyms. In Europe, Father Christmas/Santa Claus is often said to reside in the mountains of Korvatunturi in Lapland Province, Finland. Traditionally, Father Christmas comes down the chimney to put presents under the Christmas tree or in children’s rooms, in their stockings. Some families leave a glass of sherry or mulled wine, mince pies, biscuits, or chocolate and a carrot for his reindeer near the stocking(s) as a present for him. In modern homes without chimneys he uses alternative 21st century electronic devices to enter the home. In some homes children write Christmas lists (of wished-for presents) and send them up the chimney or post them.