A Weird History of Christmas, Part Two - Who on Earth is Santa?!

St Nick was said to secretly give gifts of cash to those in need, thereby making him the Patron Saint of children, sailors and prostitutes... which is a slightly worrying combination that would no doubt have caused a lot of finger-pointing in the ancient offices of BBC.

Hello! So, in Part One, we stumbled blindly through the earliest history of Christmas, and generally stared in bafflement at the intermingling of Pagan and Christian traditions. The bad news is, Part Two also has a similar bent... but the good news is, it's shorter. Plus, there's a bit at the end about the French being idiots.

So, let's embark upon our quest to discover the origins of Father Christmas, a man whose past is more mysterious than that of Kaiser Soze's from The Usual Suspects, though there's no evidence Santa would sooner kill Mrs Claus and all the Elves than be bullied by a drug kingpin. As you're probably realising, the roots of the modern bearded fella are often said to be a combination of two utterly distinct characters, one pagan and one Christian, but even this is more complex than it sounds.

Allegedly, way back in the Dark Ages, the Saxons once revered a chap named Old Father Time/King Frost/Winter King, and welcomed him as the bearded deity who visited at Yuletide (or 'Geol', in their language) with benevolent loveliness. However, the evidence for this is more dubious than a skyscraper made of biscuits - it all sounds a bit like 19th Century whimsy, a time when Britain was majorly crushing on Germany and its sexy Teutonic heritage. So, the Saxons aren't very reliable witnesses. Thankfully, instead we have Norse sources describing how the Viking god of wisdom, Odin, was said to wear a blue cloak, and travel around the world on his flying, eight-legged horse, delivering gifts of bread to those in need. These are great stories, and plausible origins for the whole Santa and the flying reindeer shebang, but once again, these come from a later period in medieval history, so take them with a truckload of salt.

Meanwhile, the Christian Church had acquired the miraculous services of St Nicholas of Myra, a charming 4th Century bishop from modern Turkey. St Nick was said to secretly give gifts of cash to those in need, thereby making him the Patron Saint of children, sailors and prostitutes... which is a slightly worrying combination that would no doubt have caused a lot of finger-pointing in the ancient offices of BBC Newsnight.

Over time, St Nick became venerated throughout Europe, and was increasingly popular in Germany and the Netherlands, where he was dubbed Sinterklaas. Here, he was known to kindly reward the well-behaved, and brutally thwack naughty children with a birch rod, which today would probably get him on the sex offenders register, and make him the subject of an ITV documentary (while the BBC would instead broadcast a glowing tribute to his charity work...) In any case, when the Dutch emigrated to America, Sinter Klaas went with them...

Back in Blighty, however, the Pagan chap allegedly called Old Father Time/King Frost had gradually become 'Sir Christmas' by the Middle Ages; and briefly during the Tudor era he was the fabulously-monikered 'Captain Christmas' (this surely needs to be a Hollywood movie), charged with ensuring the fun and frolics at posh feasts for the wealthy. In the 17th Century, he grew in popularity and descriptions of his character appeared in poems and plays, always with a long white beard and a fur-lined hood, so it seems the Odin thing might not be entirely bollocks.

Ironically, one person who wasn't a fan of Captain Christmas was Oliver Cromwell, whose attempts to stymie the Christmas festivities during the interregnum only served to make people want it more. As soon as Charles II was back in the hot seat, the ever-reliable 'Old Christmas' - clearly the Captain had retired from active service in the myth military - was back to reassure people that some traditions were here to stay. True to form, for the next 150 years, he mostly made hilarious cameos in pantomimes, like a bearded Christopher Biggins, though without the homoerotic innuendo.

However, by the 19th Century the Dutch 'Sinterklass' had evolved in America into 'Santa Claus', and the classic poem 'A Visit From St Nicholas' by Clement Clarke Moore pushed him profoundly to the centre of popular imagination.

Instead of being the bawdy sponsor of drunken piss-ups like Old Father Christmas, the American Santa Claus was derived much more closely from the Christian tradition of charity.

However, as Britain went through its own religious reawakening in the 19th Century, propelled by the rise of Methodism, Quakerism and Irish immigration, our own Father Christmas also began to morph into a much more moralising force; he was no longer a fool for adult entertainment, but a divinely-endorsed instructor for children - how else was there to convince children that good deeds are rewarded in Heaven, than by physically rewarding good behaviour on Earth?

Accordingly, by the 20th Century, Father Christmas began turning up in department stores, schools, and public gatherings, promoting a Christian system of virtuous reward. He also became the public face of Coca Cola, with his traditional cloak of varying colours (including red) now being fixed as red through the unstoppable power of capitalism.

However, despite his rehabilitation into Christian usefulness, he still was liable to accusations of paganism. In 1951, a young priest in Dijon, France decided to burn an effigy of Le Pere Noel in front of 2,000 children, claiming he was doing God's work. In brilliantly French style, locals responded by hoisting a man in a Santa suit onto the roof of the cathedral to taunt the priest, while a second Santa mounted a scooter and veered around the town square, harassing anyone who agreed with the priest. It's this brilliantly unnecessary extremism from both sides that makes me proud to be half-French.

So, in a nutshell, that's a broad sweep of some of the confusion. Stay tuned for Part Three, when I'll be waffling on about the weird and wonderful ways British people chose to celebrate Christmas over the centuries. And yes, before you ask, there will be a farting jester...


What's Hot