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.