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.