On 23 December 1951, the Catholic clergy at Dijon organised an execution of Santa Claus. An image of him was hanged from the railings of the cathedral and then burned in front of several hundred Sunday School children. Santa Claus arouses strong feelings.
The Anglo-American Santa Claus or Father Christmas has come to dominate the modern Christmas. You can find him in the department stores of Tokyo and Singapore as well as New York and London. But who is he? His characteristics were set out by Clement Moore in his poem, A Visit from Santa Claus, published in 1823 in the Troy Sentinental: he was “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf”; he arrived on a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer; and came down the chimney with a sack of toys for children.
Essentially he’s a composite figure: a bit of St Nicholas, an element of the old English personification of Christmas and quite a lot of pagan mythology. It has even been suggested that this figure at the heart of our mid-winter feast draws on shadowy memories of shamans of central Asia, who were believed to be able to fly after eating the red and white fly agaric mushroom and entered yurts via the roof. At any rate, he’s very different to Saint Nicholas, an ascetic figure on a white horse.
Santa through the ages
1) Christmas is cancelled
Attempts were made to ban Christmas under the mid-17th century Commonwealth, which held that there was no Biblical mention of the date of Christ’s birth and that the festival gave rise to feasting, drinking and bawdy behaviour. “Old Christmas” is told to keep out by a Cromwellian soldier. The personification of Christmas was known as Old, Sir or Captain Christmas.
2) A heroic drinker
Victorian images of Old Christmas, the pre-modern spirit of Christmas, vary from a jovial, almost Dionysian, figure, a Lord of Misrule dispensing alcoholic good cheer, to a lean and gaunt aged man, rather akin to Old Father Time athough he, nevertheless, still brings warmth and refreshment.
3) Wheezy bringer of gifts
If Clement Moore described Santa Claus in words, it was his fellow American, the illustrator, Thomas Nast, who fixed the appearance of this spirit of Christmas until well into the 20th century. His drawings for Harper’s Weekly which he began in 1863, show Santa as much like Moore’s “jolly old elf” though in his later work he settled on a portrayal closer to that which has now become traditional: a large jovial white-bearded figure, dressed in a red suit with a matching cap.
4) Father Christmas goes to war
By the late 19th century, Father Christmas, as he was called in Britain, had become a central figure in Christmas festivities, even depicted delivering presents to British troops serving in Afghanistan.
5) He’s the real thing
What has become the definitive image of Santa Claus was created from the 1930s to the 1960s by Haddon H Sundblom in his many adverts for Coca Cola. He exudes warmth and kindliness, has a luxuriant white beard and wears a long red jacket trimmed with white fur and fastened with an enormous belt and long leather boots. He is, however, secular and somewhat sanitised like the modern Christmas itself; there’s still an echo of the Lord of Misrule in his “Ho ho ho” but the pipe has gone and instead of holding a flowing bowl he drinks Coca Cola.
6) These boots are killing me
Although the modern Christmas is an Anglo-American creation, the British Father Christmas dresses differently to the American Santa. He wears a long red habit trimmed with white fur and a hood rather than the red suit and cap favoured in America. Increasingly the British Father Christmas was replaced by the American Santa Claus.
7) US Santa’s not welcome
The Anglo-American Santa is not always welcomed in European countries by those who cherish their own customs and versions of seasonal visitors. The Dutch Saint Nicholas is not popular with traditionalists in the Netherlands. The municipal authorities of Assen were not tolerant of one Santa who went there in 1994. As reported in the Sunday Times on 4 December, the police ran him out of town.