by Kathy Warnes
Everyone is looking to locate pursue, and capture the spirit of Father Christmas or Santa Claus, but unless you study him carefully and try to understand him, he will escape.
For centuries, people have been seeking to imprison Father Christmas. He hasn’t yet been definitively captured because he is a changeable, elusive target with many disguises and multiple aliases. He roams freely in countries all over the world and in all climates from Siberia to the Sahara desert.
The searchers who pursue Father Christmas so relentlessly have different ideas about his name, his pedigree, his physical appearance, his residence, the way he lives, and his agenda. Despite all of these uncertainties and variables, people still pursue Father Christmas so they can imprison his spirit and preserve his legacy.
Father Christmas Has An Ancient Family Tree
Father Christmas is a time traveler. He is a combination of legends from different cultures and a melding of mythical creatures. Father Christmas is early identified with Odin, a major god in Norse mythology. In her book, Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men, Phyllis Siefker noted that children put boots filled with carrots, straw, or sugar near the chimney to feed Odin’s flying horse Sleipnir. Odin repaid the children’s kindness by filling the empty boots with gifts and candy. She wrote that this custom survived in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands and eventually transformed into the modern practice of hanging stockings at the chimney.
St. Nicholas of Smyrna
The Christian tradition of Santa Claus began in the fourth century A.D. with Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna in what is now modern Turkey. Nicholas had wealthy parents who raised him as a devout Christian and bequeathed him their fortune when they died in an epidemic while he was still young. Dedicating his life to serving God, Nicholas used his entire inheritance to help the sick, needy, and suffering. Sometimes he would throw gifts to poor children through their windows.
After his death in Myra, the Orthodox Church elevated St. Nicholas to the exalted position of miracle worker and the Roman Catholic Church honored Nicholas by eventually naming him the patron saint of children and seafarers. His December 6th name day is widely celebrated in Europe, continuing his tradition of goodness and generosity. Modern historians believe that he may be buried in Ireland.
In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas Eve is celebrated on December 5th by sharing candies thrown in the door, chocolate initial letters, small gifts, and riddles. Dutch children put hay and carrots in their shoes for St. Nicholas’s horse, hoping that Saint Nicholas would exchange them for small gifts. French children left their shoes in front of the fireplace so that Pere Noel would fill them with gifts.
St. Nicholas is Transformed into a Venerable Englishman
In 17th century England, Puritans in the Anglican Church vigorously resisted celebrating the Christmas feast because they believed that Christmas was a pagan celebration. People who believed that celebrating Christmas was a good old Christian custom began to personify Christmas as a merry old man because the feast itself was old and mostly merry. In his Masque, dating from December 1616, Ben Jonson portrayed Christmas as wearing “round hose, long stockings, a close Doublet, a high crowned Hat with a Broach, a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse.”
Charles Dickens in his 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol , reinforced the spirit of Father Christmas when he depicted him as a large, friendly man in a green fur lined coat. Father Christmas took Ebenezer Scrooge through busy London Streets on Christmas morning and they both sprinkled the essence of Christmas over the celebrating people.
The Dutch and English Bring Father Christmas to America
Father Christmas influenced the development of Santa Claus in the United States and eventually people considered them to be interchangeable. Although Father Christmas and Santa Claus have been merged historically, they have different origins and are not alike. Washington Irving’s History of New York in 1809 Americanized Sinterklaas into Santa Claus.
A poem published in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823, established most of the precedent for the modern Santa Claus. The poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, tells the story of Santa Claus guiding a sleigh loaded with toys and landing it on the roof. He slid down the chimney of the house to deliver his gifts to eager children. Moore described him as being “chubby and plump with a belly that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.” He also named Santa’s Reindeer.
Thomas Nast, a 19th century American cartoonist, helped define Santa Claus’s modern image. All illustration of Santa Claus that he drew depicting Santa as a joy, rotund, old man appeared in the January 3, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly. Nast may also have originated the story that Santa Claus lived at the North Pole. His Christmas drawing in the Harper’s Weekly issue of December 29, 1866, titled Santa Claus and His Works, included the caption, “Santa Claussville, N.P.”
Father Christmas Aliases
Father Christmas goes by many names. In English speaking countries he is also known as St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, Old Father Christmas, Sir Christmas, and Lord Christmas. In central and northern Germany time gradually transformed the name to St. Nicholas to der Weinachtsmann. In France he is called Pere Noel and in Spain, Papa Noel. People in Malta identify him as Santa Klaus. In Portugal Father Christmas is called Pai Natal and in Italy Babbo Natale.
Father Christmas Disguises
Father Christmas traveled the world in a bright green suit in Victorian and Tudor times, but over time his suit changed to bright red. He often appeared as a rotund, white haired man dressed in a red or green suit trimmed with white far, a matching hat and black boots. He usually carried a large brown sack on his back filled with toys. He often sports a white beard and ruddy cheeks.
Father Christmas Has Multiple Addresses
In America, Thomas Nast contended that Santa Claus lived at the North Pole, but he didn’t specify the exact spot American children in later centuries received letters from Santa postmarked North Pole, Alaska.
In 1927, Markus Rautio, “Uncle Markus” revealed an important secret on Finnish Public Radio. He said that Santa Claus lived in Finnish Lapland on Korvatunturi or “Ear Fell.” The fell or rocky meadow, located on Finland’s eastern frontier, resembles a hare’s ears. The magic of Christmas transforms them into Santa Claus’s ears and he listens to all of the children of the world to make sure they are being good. A group of busy elves help Santa manufacture and load his sleigh with Christmas gifts for the children.
Chasing and Capturing Father Christmas
Father Christmas can be a difficult fugitive to track down and corner. Sometimes he is hidden under dollar signs, marketing, and seasonal hustle, bustle, and noise.
Father Christmas can be captured by giving gifts that come from the heart and spreading the spirit of peace, good will, and good cheer. May everyone in the world capture him this year!
Briggs, Raymond. Father Christmas. Random House Books for Young Readers, 1997.
Bronhoff, Jean De. Baber and Father Christmas. Random House Children’s books, 2001.
Gunn, Robin Jones. Finding Father Christmas. Hachette Book Group, 2007.
Siefker, Phyllis. Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas Spanning over 50,000 Years. McFarland & Company,1996.
Van Renterghen, Tony. When Santa Was a Shaman: Ancient origins of Santa Claus & The Christmas Tree. Llewylyn Publications, 1st Edition, 1995.
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