5. Father Christmas

Father Christmas

The figure generally known in the United Kingdom as Father Christmas is today essentially indistinguishable from the modern “Santa” figure. However, Father Christmas, prior to the twentieth century was one of several figures that combined to become the modern image typified by Haven Gillespie’s “Santa Claus is coming to Town”, sung by Eddie Cantor, of a jolly figure living in the North Pole, watching children constantly and bringing them gifts if they’ve been good.[1] As early as 1734 a work was advertised entitled Round about our Coal Fire: Or, Christmas Entertainments which promised in chapter 6: ‘of Fairies their use and dignity. Together with some curious Memoirs of Old Father Christmas; shewing what hospitality was in former times, and how little there remains of it at present’.[2] Victorian Father Christmas was more generally associated with the concept of “good cheer” than with St Nicholas. As is seen in the delightful 1894 picture book The Coming of Father Christmas by E.J. Manning, the idea of gift giving is strikingly minimalised. A tall slender man dressed in a cloak and in some scenes wearing a flower crown, he is at least described as having a ‘ruddy round face beaming’ and is seen in red sporting a long white beard. He comes to bring cheer to the children and encourage them to help others: ‘Hear my children! In the city I have little ones uncherished.’ Rounding up the ‘orphans, friendless, cold’ in the city, the children and Father Christmas invite them all to a feast. Much of this activity seems strikingly adult with a focus on the eating of food (and particularly the pudding), the playing of music, and dancing in circles. Ultimately he does give them some ‘treasures’ from his basket but it’s a brief scene after the feast and before the telling of the biblical story. This figure has been subsumed by the more Germanic and American Christmas figures though he is not lost from our popular culture even if only in name or in the figure of the ghost of Christmas Present.

by Alex Wakelam

[1] Ace Collins, Stories behind the greatest hits of Christmas (2012).

[2] Universal Spectator and Weekly Journal (London: 1734), issue 321, Saturday 30 November.

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