10th December, Old Father Christmas
Please welcome Old Father Christmas, also known in times past, as Grandfather Christmas, Old Christmas or even simply Old Winter.
Nowadays, with the global domination of American commercial culture, this fellow, Britain’s Father Christmas and Santa Claus, an import from the US, have become virtually synonymous and almost indistinguishable. But let me tell you – gentle readers – that once upon a time they were quite distinct from each other.
As you will all know, Santa Claus is a Anglicised corruption of “Sinterklaas,” the Dutch for St Nicholas, brought over to the States by immigrants from the Low Countries in the seventeenth century (when New York was called Nieuw Amsterdam). There he fused with the British Father Christmas and became Santa, losing his bishop’s robes on the way. The Victorian poem “A Visit From St Nick,” by Clement Clarke Moore, did much then to embellish this character and, in 1931, the Coca Cola company gave him their red and white livery which he wears to this day.
Old Father Christmas, on the other hand, is a much more ancient figure. Pagan in origin and an embodiment of arcane Mid-Winter revelries, he is made up, in part, of the Norse god Odin and the Roman gods Jupiter (Jove) and Saturn ( whose great feast, Saturnalia, was at this time). He is no gift-bearer (Christmas presents almost never featured in Yuletide celebrations before the Victorian period) but was instead the personification of festive cheer, feasting, warmth and merriment – so very welcome in the bitter, bleak, icy Winter months. He has a longer beard that his American counterpart and wears long gowns and a hooded robe, often fur-trimmed ( and almost never red!) – as opposed to Santa’s soft-drink-branding tie-in tunic and pants suit. He is big, and he is merrie – he is, in essence, the Ghost of Christmas Present, as portrayed by Dicken’s in “A Christmas Carol.” As for transport, he has many ways of getting about. Sometimes he would arrive on a white horse, bells a-jingling, sometimes a white donkey, or, as here, a white goat! In parts of the country, the tradition was that he came out from the North a-stride a great white goose!
During the Commonwealth in the sixteen fifties, the Puritans banned celebration of Christmas, deeming it an orgy of pagan idolatry (they were not, I suspect, far off). One of the earliest surviving images of Father Christmas is a subversive pamphlet published in 1653. Old Winter approaches a border or city wall where a soldier on guard says, “Keep out, you come not here,” to which the old man (here sporting long robes and a very fetching broad-brimmed felt or fur hat) counters, “O Sir, I bring good cheere.” Behind him stands a country peasant who says, “Old Christmas Welcome, do not fear.”
Ladies, Gentlemen, I hope and trust that you will all make Old Christmas very welcome in your hearts and homes, because the world would not suffer any from a little more merriment and good cheer!
Illustration copyright © Paul Bommer