Father Christmas is an English folk figure who personified the CHRIST-MAS SEASON for centuries. Unlike SANTA CLAUS, Father Christmas originally did not distribute GIFTS. Instead, he represented the mirth, generosity, and abundance associated with the celebration of Christmas. Father Christmas has also been called King Christmas, Sir Christmas, or simply “Christmas.”
Some English folklorists trace Father Christmas back to the late Middle Ages; others believe he originated at a later date. Renaissance MASQUERS (maskers) sometimes enjoyed impersonating this symbol of the season. The famous English writer Ben Jonson (1572-1637) chose Father Christmas as the main character in his masque, Christmas His Masque (1616). Moreover, Father Christmas often served as the narrator in English MUMMERS’plays. He typically entered with a speech like the following:
In comes I, Father Christmas Welcome or welcome not. I hope old Father Christmas Will never be forgot.
Father Christmas always took on the form of an adult male. Some portrayed him as hale and hearty, while others depicted him as gray and wizened. These contrasting images may reflect the influence that other important folk figures, namely, FATHER TIME and the Roman god Saturn, had upon the invention of Father Christmas. According to the ancient Romans, abundance, equality, and conviviality marked the lives of Saturn’s subjects while the god reigned on earth. The Romans revived these ideals during SATURNALIA, the midwinter festival held in his honor. In later times these qualities became synonymous with the Christmas season. Eventually they took shape in the image of a large, robust man nicknamed Father Christmas. Popular images of Father Christmas usually showed him wearing a red or green robe with fur trimming and a crown of HOLLY, IVY, or MISTLETOE.
In his famous story A CHRISTMAS CAROL, the English writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870) presented his readers with a spirit who calls himself “the Ghost of Christmas Present.” This GHOST, however, strongly resembles Father Christmas. Dickens made the association more obvious by surrounding the ghost with emblems of Christmas plenty:
The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove, from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney. . . . Heaped up upon the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn. ... It was clothed in one simple deep green robe or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the gar-ment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free: free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air.
While Dickens favored the robust version of Father Christmas, others preferred to imagine him as a venerable old man. The elderly Father Christmas peered out at the world from behind a thick grey or white beard. Except for the fact that he did not carry a scythe, this robed and hooded figure closely resembled conventional images of Father Time. This association between Father Christmas and Father Time may well have sprung up because of Christmas’ place on the calendar. Scheduled just before the close of the old year and the beginning of the new, the arrival of the holiday tends to call attention to the passing of time.
During the nineteenth century the imported American Santa Claus began to appear in ENGLAND. Unlike Father Christmas, Santa Claus brought gifts to children rather than personifying the Christmas season. Moreover, he was vaguely related to the old, European ST. NICHOLAS (see also ST. NICHOLAS’S DAY). As Santa Claus became popular in England, his identity began to merge with that of Father Christmas. Eventually, Santa Claus all but erased the identity of Father Christmas as a separate and distinct folk figure. Father Christmas retained only his name, while his image and activities all but mirrored those of Santa Claus.