Actually, the Father Xmas I have in mind is not the Coca-Cola swilling, red-coated fellow in his speed of light sleigh, but rather the English Father Xmas who has quite different origins to St Nicholas and Santa Claus.
The earliest evidence for a personified Xmas is a carol attributed to Richard Smart, Rector of Plymtree in Devon from 1435 to 1477. It takes the form of a conversation between someone variously referred to as ‘Nowell’, ‘Sir Christëmas’ and ‘Lord Christëmas’ and a group of celebrating adults.
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
‘Who is there that singeth so?’
‘I am here, Sir Christëmas.’
‘Welcome, my lord Christëmas,
Welcome to us all, both more and less
Come near, Nowell!’
Sir Christmas then gives news of Christ’s birth, and urges everyone to drink:
‘Buvez bien par toute la campagnie,
Make good cheer and be right merry.’
So that’s the merry Xmas taken care of, but where did the visitation element come from, the one that doesn’t involve secrecy, chimneys and stockings? It seems that the English Father Xmas has his origins in Viking and Saxon lore.
The Saxon’s pre-Christian personification of the short days was King Frost, or Father Time, or King Winter, represented by someone in the village who would be given a fine gown and hat to wear and be welcomed by the fireside. They believed that welcoming Winter as an honoured guest would mean that he wouldn’t be quite so harsh with them.
The Vikings arrived as conquerors in the 8th and 9th centuries, bringing with them Odin whose winter guise was as Yalka or Jul and his month was known as Jultid from which we get the term Yuletide or Yule time.
They believed that Odin would come to earth on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. He was disguised in a long blue hooded cloak to join groups around their fire, sitting in the background and listening in to hear if they were content or not. Occasionally he would leave a gift of bread at a poor homestead.
Celtic Christians were brought into line with Roman practices by the decree of the Synod of Whitby in the 7th century, but much of the imagery harked back to that earlier pagan period.
The Normans brought with them the continental St Nicholas in 1066 and the pagan and Christian figures of Father Xmas began to merge. We don’t know if he was a gift-giver, but he seems to have become a sort of Master of Ceremonies for Xmas parties at the big houses.
In 1616 Ben Johnson published Christmas his Masque and in it his Xmas character began to take on the appearance we’re familiar with: ‘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’.
But what really made Father Xmas was when the Puritans did their level best to banish Christmas from the calendar entirely, along with mince pies and any other form of enjoyment.
Given that this was the one bright spot in the long winter months, it is no surprise that people rebelled and pamphlets appeared like the one on the left published by Josiah King in 1686 which portrayed Father Xmas as the embodiment of all the festive traditions that pre-dated the Puritan commonwealth.
He described him as an elderly gentleman of cheerful appearance, ‘who when he came look’t so smug and pleasant, his cherry cheeks appeared through his thin milk white locks, like blushing Roses vail’d with snow white Tiffany’.
Father Xmas was associated with feasting, hospitality and generosity to the poor rather than the giving of gifts, but he began to more and more take shape as the character we know and love today.
Father Xmas continued in this vein as the centuries passed, but gradually merged with St Nicholas the gift giver and the Dutch Sinterklass, particularly during the Victorian period – although the Ghost of Christmas Present imagined by Dickens is clearly a reference to the earlier English Father Xmas.
And of course his image rights have been stolen by the conglomerates of consumerism, but in some way, this is no surprise since he is the original global brand. Indeed, he topped the Forbes rich list in 2005.
But can you believe that there are some that say he never existed at all? Who cares what they think? The important thing is that Father Xmas believes in himself!
Anyway, I’ll leave you with a song by the sadly defunct Bellowhead that I think the original English Father Xmas would approve of, one that recalls a time when people made merry, the Lord of Misrule held sway and the mummers would entertain as the people drank and danced. As the lyrics go:
Now our sport is almost ended
And Christmas comes but once a year
We hope there is none here we’ve offended
And we hope we brought you all good cheer