In the 18th century Father Christmas was likely to be found only in mummers’ plays in which he was a stock character who would enter with the phrase: “In comes I, Old Father Christmas.” This would be followed with rhymes similar to these examples:
In Comes Old Father Christmas
He comes but once a year
I hope your pocket’s full o’ money
And your cellar’s full o’ beer.
In comes I Father Christmas
Christmas comes but once a year
When it comes it brings good cheer
Roast beef, plum pudding, and plenty good ole English beer
Good master and good mistress
I pray you are within
I’ve come this merry Christmas time
To see you and your kin
By the early 19th century, Christmas had fallen into disfavour with many, being associated with rural yokels or the servant class. It had no connection to children and was viewed as a time of raucous alcohol-fuelled celebration centred on adults. Little wonder that images like this prevailed.
When English parents learned about Santa Claus and the idea of a secret midnight Christmas Gift-Bringer, Father Christmas was given a new costume. One 1842 description of a Christmas party has him in a “scarlet coat & cocked hat, stuck all over with presents for the guests” but the guise that proved lasting was a long robe, fur-trimmed, with a hood, rather like a monk’s or contemporary German and French Gift-Bringers. Here is a Punch cartoon from 1895.
As we saw yesterday, Father Christmas was not originally a magical Gift-Bringer but rather a late-medieval figure representing seasonal celebration and charity. The first description of what he might look like comes from a court masque by Ben Jonson who presented it before King James I in 1616. There he is said to be “a man with a long, thin beard in a costume of round hose, long stockings, close doublet, high-crowned hat, with a brooch, a truncheon, little ruffs, white shoes, with his scarves and garters tied cross, and his drum beaten before him”.
The first image of Father Christmas comes from 1637, illustrating a ballad decrying the loss of the hospitality that aristocrats once dispensed to their tenants at Christmas.
The Springs Glorie, a 1638 court masque by Thomas Nabbes, says that “Christmas is personated by an old reverend Gentleman in a furr’d gown and cappe &c.” The next decade would see Christmas banned by the Puritan English Parliament, giving rise to a tract war. A 1653 defence of the holiday called A Vindication of Christmas showed the old gentleman looking like this:
Josiah King’s pamphlet from 1657, The Examination and Tryall of Old Father Christmas, was illustrated with this image:
So the 17th-century Father Christmas is deemed by almost all to be elderly, wearing old-fashioned clothing trimmed with fur. Clearly, he is the representative of an early, more merry time. How the 18th century saw him change will be the topic of tomorrow’s post.
Though the term nowadays is synonymous in many Anglophone countries with Santa Claus, Father Christmas began life merely as the personification of Christmas. Some have pointed to a pagan origin (a perceived resemblance to Saturn, Neptune and Odin) but the term only came into use in the fifteenth century when a carol addressed him: “Hail, Father Christmas, hail to thee!” He appeared again the sixteenth century when social critics began to bemoan the loss of traditional Christmas hospitality. Ben Jonson’s Christmas His Masque written in 1616 for James I opens with a parade of the sons and daughters of Father Christmas: Mis-Rule, Carol, Minc’d Pie, Gamboll, Post and Paire (a card game), New-Yeares-Gift, Mumming, Wassall, Roast Beef, Plum Pudding, Offering and Babie-Cake. After his children have been led in by Cupid Father Christmas enters despite attempts to bar him and tries to establish his credentials as a native Englishman:
“Why, gentlemen, do you know what you do? Ha! would you have kept me out? CHRISTMAS! — Old Christmas– Christmas of London and Captain Christmas! Pray let me be brought before my Lord Chamberlain; I’ll not be answered else. ‘ ‘Tis merry in hall , when beards wag all.’ I have seen the time you have wished for me, for a merry Christmas, and now you have me, they would not let me in: I must come another time! A good jest — as if I could come more than once a year. Why I am no dangerous person, and so I told my friends of the guard. I am old Gregory Christmas still, and though I come out of the Pope’s Head-alley, as good a Protestant as any in my parish.”
Father Christmas was not initially viewed as a magical Christmas Gift-Bringer but rather as the symbol of seasonal charity, hospitality, drink, and merriment. After St Nicholas was driven out of England by the Protestant Reformation, the country had no equivalent benevolent figure until the 19th century when English parents adopted the American Santa Claus and renamed him. In the twentieth century the omnipresence of American popular culture led to the two terms becoming interchangeable.
Tomorrow we will see how the appearance of Father Christmas mutated over the centuries.
Yesterday we saw some Christmas cards sent by World War II German soldiers from Canadian prisoner of war camps. Today we see some from the opposite side of the fence: two cards sent by British soldiers held by the Nazis. You will note that in the first card there are soldiers and a sailor depicted — captured air crew were prisoners of the Luftwaffe who ran a separate camp system. The Germans seem to have let the prisoners design their own cards so they tend to be more unique than those from Allied POW cages.
When the laws of warfare are observed (as they generally were between Nazi Germany and the western Allies) prisoners of war are accorded the right to communicate with their families at home. Often this took the form of Christmas cards supplied by the captors. Here are two which Canadian officials made available to German prisoners in World War II. In the first card, prisoner Theodore Kutsche sends Christmas greetings to his mother and sister. At this stage of the war it was very likely that Kutsche was a member of a downed aircrew.
In the late 1920s black American preachers found a market for short recorded sermons as a three-minute oration fit nicely on a 78-rpm disc. Here is a sermon recorded in Atlanta, 3 November 1926; the Reverend J.M. Gates waxes eloquent on the possibility of imminent death and the need for repentance. Using Santa as a metaphor for things hoped for, he warns that the future might bring something much nastier than a Christmas present. In later years Gates would also gives his listeners “Will the Coffin Be Your Santa Claus” and “Will Death Be Your Santa Claus.” Attend to his message:
While we think on the 25th of December, we are expecting a great day. But on that day it is said that Jesus was born, but we celebrate Christmas wrong. From the way I look at this matter, shooting fireworks, cursing, and dancing. Raising all other kinds of sand.
Ah, but death may be your Santa Claus. Those of you who are speaking to the little folks and telling them that Santa Claus coming to see ’em, and the little boys telling mother and father, “Tell old Santa to bring me a little pistol,” that same little gun may be death in that boy’s home. Death may be his Santa Claus. That little old girl is saying to mother and to father, “Tell old Santa Claus to bring me a little deck of cards that I may play five-up in the park.” While the child play, death may be her Santa Claus.
Those of you that has prepared to take your automobiles and now fixing up the old tires, an’ getting your spares ready and overhauling your automobile, death may be your Santa Claus.
You is decorating your room and getting ready for all night dance, death may be your Santa Claus. Death is on your track and gonna overtake you after a while. Death may be your Santa Claus. Oh man, oh woman, oh boy, oh girl, if were you, I would be worrying this morning and would search deep down in my heart. For God I live and for God I’ll die. If I were you, I’d turn around this morning. Death may be your Santa Claus. Death been on your track ever since you were born, ever since you been in the world. Death winked at your mother three times before you was born into this sin sinnin’ world. Death is gonna bring you down after while, after while; Death may be your Santa Claus.
As we have seen, the liquor trade was shameless enough to use Santa Claus as a pitch man for beer and liquor. The temperance movement, which was strong enough in the early 20th century to persuade the USA and many jurisdictions in Canada to ban alcohol, also found an ally in Santa as this letter to young people testifies.
As we saw in yesterday’s post, Santa Claus is often used to tout the virtues of Christmas beer.
But the advertising industry has also used Santa to peddle hard liquor.
Christmas has ben associated with festive drinking since the time of the late Roman Empire and every nation that celebrates Christmas brings to it its own favourite Christmas beverage. In England the wassail bowl was full at Christmas with ale, roasted apples and spices, served hot. In Scandinavia the beer drinking that had accompanied heathen Yule observances was “christened” and it became obligatory to brew beer for Christmas. Drinking was dedicated to Christ and the Virgin Mary with prayers for a good new year. When the barley crop failed, the obligation to brew could be hard on famers but penalties were stiff. If a farmer did not brew Christmas beer for three years in a row, he could lose his farm.
In modern Scandinavia, Christmas beers have made a comeback. Laws in Norway and Sweden that had mandated all liquor to be sold through government stores had discouraged the brewing of seasonal beer but the past few decades have seen dozens of Christmas ales on the shelves.
Judging by the numerous prohibitions issued against it by Church authorities through the centuries, people have wanted to dance to celebrate Christmas for a long time. Dancing in churches was prohibited by the Council at Toledo in 590; in 692 another council in Byzantium warned against dancing during the Twelve Nights as did the Faculty of Theology in Paris in 1445 — in both cases they linked dancing to cross-dressing. In sixteenth-century Iceland church decrees were issued against dancing on Yule Eve and in Scotland in 1574 fourteen women were arrested for “playing, dancing and singing filthy carols on Yule Day.” Despite these strictures Christmas and dancing continue to be linked. (On the other hand, in 1325 church authorities in Paris forbade clerics under pain of excommunication from participating in dances except at Christmas and the feasts of St Nicholas and Saint Catherine when certain round dances were part of the liturgy.)
Nowadays, in Spain it is the “Dance of the Six” in the cathedral of Seville that opens the Christmas season — in front of the altar ten boys dance through a series of postures and movements that symbolize the mysteries of the Incarnation and Nativity. (In a rather less solemn manner in Cordoba, other Spaniards engage in “El Baile de los Locos”, the Dance of the Madmen. Led by El Loco Mayor, the chief madman, a mob of folk pretending to be demented dance though people’s houses during the Christmas season.) Dancing opens the Christmas season in Honduras as well — the Warini, the Christmas Herald is a masked dancer who goes house-to-house accompanied by singers and drummers. In Lalibela, Ethiopia on Christmas Day ceremonies include a dance by some of the priests who have accompanied the procession of the Coptic Ark of the Covenant. The Matachine dancers perform during Christmas in New Mexico while in Canada numerous aboriginal tribes hold competitive powwows; in Tirol men dressed as bears dance in the streets while in northeastern Brazil the Bumba Meu-Boi involves dancers guised as bulls and donkeys. In Scotland “guisers” went door to door dancing at singing; in Cornwall such folk were called “geese dancers”.
In Provence, at special Christmas services to honour their profession and its connection to the original Nativity, traditionally-clad shepherds and shepherdesses sing and dance behind a ram pulling a cart with a lamb. Scandinavian families link hands on Christmas Eve and dance around the tree singing carols. In the United States there are few cities without a ballet company who will performThe Nutcracker over the Christmas holidays while in the rural west of the country those with a yen to dance can attend the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball or the Sheepherders’ Overall Dance.