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Two vintage illustrations of Father Christmas; in one he carries many toys and plays the fiddle; in the other he carries a Christmas tree.
Two Victorian cards showing Father Christmas during his transition toward looking like Santa Claus. Images are in the public domain.

Christmas Cousins: Father Christmas and Santa Claus

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In my last post about the origins of Father Christmas in the 17th century, I mentioned that most English people today barely distinguish between Father Christmas and Santa Claus. This merger of the two characters is a 19th century development, and was largely complete by the turn of the 20th century. Three hundred years after he was dreamed up, Father Christmas, a figure of abundance, joviality and nostalgia primarily associated with adult feasting and drinking, came to be merged with a children’s gift-bringer with magical powers of flight. He also came to adopt Santa’s look: a red coat with white fur trim. Just how did this happen? Let’s find out!

Father Christmas sits in an armchair with food and drink set before him on the floor. He is dressed in a fur-trimmed robe and cap. The image is sepia toned, so we do not know the colors of the robe. Outside a door we see armed men with pikes approaching to arrest him.
Josiah King used this image as the frontispiece for the 1658 and 1678 editions of his pamphlet The Examination and Trial of Old Father Christmas.

I’ll begin by noting that an association with gifts wasn’t entirely alien to the earliest versions of Father Christmas, nor was a fur-trimmed robe.  In the first pamphlet to mention the character by the name “Father Christmas,” whose text you can read at this link, he is described as a bringer but not a giver of gifts:

But yet some other markes that you may know him by, is that the wanton Women dote after him; he helped them to so many new Gownes, Hatts, and Hankerches, and other fine knacks, of which he hath a pack on his back, in which is good store of all sorts, besides the fine knacks that he got out of their husbands’ pockets for household provisions for him.

The gist of this seems to be that, as a personification of Christmas itself, he provides the opportunity for men to give gifts to women—sometimes even their wives! His pack is not a sack of toys given freely, but a peddler’s pack from which he sells gowns and hats to men to give to their wives or to “wanton women,” keeping the money to make merry himself.  While this is a different idea from that of Santa’s pack of toys, it does establish an iconographic and conceptual connection between the characters as old men carrying packs filled with gifts.

A woodcut showing two men on either side of an old man with a long beard. Fuller description in the caption.
In the 1653 cover art for The Vindication of Christmas, the plot is quickly summarized. A parliamentary soldier threatens Christmas, reaching for his sword with the admonition “Keep out, you come not here.” Father Christmas sadly tells him “O sir, I bring good cheere.” A passing farmer reassures him “Old Christmas welcome: Do not fear.” Father Christmas is dressed in an old-fashioned long gown.

Depictions of Father Christmas from the 17th century tend to show a gentleman in clothes that were out-of-fashion or old-fashioned; this was in keeping with the character’s function as a throwback to merrier days. So Ben Jonson in Christmas his Masque (1616) dressed his Old Christmas in out of date fashions: “round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, a high crownd Hat with a Broach, a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse.”  Similarly, the cover of The Vindication of Christmas (above) shows the old man in a gown—which had fallen out of fashion for men 20 years before—and the younger soldier and husbandman in more current clothes. Josiah King shows him similarly attired in his works of 1658 and 1678 (top right). This suggests that Father Christmas was given a robe with fur trim because it was a gentlemanly but out-of-fashion garment in the mid 17th century.

A man dressed as Father Christmas acts in a mummers play, surrounded by spectators. More detail is in the caption.
This illustration by Robert Seymour (1798 – 1836) from The Book of Christmas (1836) by Thomas Kibble Hervey is entitled “Mummers.” It shows a hunchback Old Father Christmas with a very long beard acting in a mummers’ play. It is perhaps based on the traditional lines “my beard is long, my back is bent.” He wears a long robe and holly wreath and carries a sprouting staff.

In the eighteenth century, Father Christmas became a character in the mummers’ plays I quoted extensively in my last post.  In those plays, he is mostly concerned with feasting, entertaining, and making sure he is remembered. Illustrations of Father Christmas from the first half of the nineteenth century show him as an old man with a garland of holly leaves on his head, often carrying a staff, a log, or even a whole sapling. Some scholars have suggested that his overall appearance was inspired by the era’s penchant for medievalism, reflected in novels like Scott’s Ivanhoe. In that case, he may be based partly on such older pageant figures as the Wild Man and the Green Man, who also carried large staffs and wore garlands of leaves. In such illustrations, Father Christmas was surrounded by food and wine, wearing either the robe we’ve already seen, or a voluminous cloak. (Such illustrations were part of the inspiration for my own Father Christmas attire!) See the images above and below for examples.

Three images of Father Christmas. On the left he stands in a wassail bowl, with food and drink falling out of his voluminous sleeves and a sprouting staff in his hand. In the middle he carries the wassail bowl, with a yule log strapped to his back and a staff in his hand. On the right he he holds up a goblet in a toast. In all three images he wears a looge gown or cloak and a crown of holly leaves.
Illustrations of Father Christmas from the Illustrated London News. On the left is 1842, by an unknown illustrator. In the middle is 1848 and on the right is 1843, both by ‘Alfred Crowquill’ (Alfred Henry Forrester).

It was in the Victorian era that Father Christmas underwent two successive transformations.  First, as Christmas itself became a child-centered holiday, Father Christmas became a companion to children and a bringer of children’s gifts. As color illustrations become the norm, we can see that Father Christmas has no standard colors at first, and can be seen dressed in green, gold, brown, purple, or blue, with a green figure perhaps the predominant one. Many illustrations on 19th century Christmas cards, in fact, were reused in different colors! Although Father Christmas often wears a hood, it’s common for him to still also wear a holly or yew garland on top of it.  He is usually shown carrying toys for kids rather than food or drink for adults, but this was not universal.

On the left, Father Christmas wears a purple coat and cap with brown fur trim. and stands next to a Christmas tree. In the center he wears a gold gown, a light blue coat, and red trousers and cap, and carries a Christmas tree over his shoulder. On the right he wears a brown hooded robe and carries a tree and a pack of toys.
Three Victorian Christmas cards by unknown illustrators. They are in the public domain.

Sometime around the 1860s, the mythology of Santa Claus arrived in Britain, including the details that he traveled in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. This version of Santa Claus had developed in America as an amalgamation of German and Dutch traditions about Saint Nicholas, a famous gift-giver and Patron Saint of children.

Three versions of Father Christmas in green. Two wear a hood with a holly garland on top of it. The third wears a fur cap.
Three Victorian Christmas Cards by unknown illustrators. They are in the public domain.

At first, the two characters of Santa and Father Christmas remained distinct in English culture. Susan Warner, in the 1864 children’s book Carl Krinken: His Christmas Stocking (published in both the US and Britain), features both Santa Claus as the bringer of gifts and Father Christmas making his house visits with a mummers’ play.  Warner describes Father Christmas:

A picture of the book "Letters from Father Christmas" by J.R.R. Tolkien. The cover illustration shows Father Christmas in a red suit trimmed with white fur, a similar hood, and a huge sack of toys.
Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien. “Shelfie” by Stephen Winick

His hair was perfectly white, and so was his beard, which reached down to his waist. On his head was a crown of yew and ivy, and in his hand a long staff topped with holly berries; his dress was a long brown robe which fell down about his feet, and on it were sewed little spots of white cloth to represent snow.

In the 1870s, the characters of Santa and Father Christmas began to merge.  In the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Simpson and Roud point out: “By 1883, a French visitor to England states, as a matter of common knowledge, that [Father Christmas] comes down chimneys and puts toys and sweets in stockings.”

Around the same time, Father Christmas’s attire came to mimic that of the American Santa Claus as popularized by German-born American artist Thomas Nast: a red suit and hood (or floppy cap) with white fur trim.  Simpson and Roud state: “His authentic attire is a loose, hooded red gown edged with white; however, he now often wears a red belted jacket and floppy cap imitated from Santa Claus.” In fact, it seems fairer to say that the “loose, hooded red gown edged with white” is a transitional phase between the more varied colors of Father Christmas in earlier days, and the Santa-like figure known today.

By the early 20th century, the merger of Santa and Father Christmas was complete. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas (a book made up of real illustrated letters he wrote to his children from 1920 until 1943) has a Father Christmas who lives with elves at the North Pole, makes or obtains toys all year, and delivers them through the chimney at Christmas by a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. He dresses in a red coat trimmed with white fur. In other words, he is more like Santa Claus than like traditional Father Christmas. He even signs some of his letters “Father Nicholas Christmas,” making it clear that Tolkien knew he was combining Father Christmas with Saint Nicholas.

Tolkien’s first drawing of Father Christmas in 1920 (featured on the book cover in my “shelfie” above right) has the old man in a hood. Soon, however, Tolkien’s Father Christmas took on Santa’s cap along with the rest of his persona, and most of Tolkien’s illustrations feature a cap, often falling off as Father Christmas runs, rides his sleigh, or shakes his fist at the ceiling while his sidekick, the North Polar Bear, causes a flood.

Father Christmas knocks at the door. He has a white beard, a red hood, and a red coat trimmed with white fur. He has a broom under his arm.
George Baker drew this image of Father Christmas from a mummers’ play in the 1930s. It is in AFC’s James Madison Carpenter Collection.

Interestingly, in mummers’ plays, too, Father Christmas’s attire developed into something much like a Santa Claus outfit.  Illustrations of mumming from the nineteenth century, such as Robert Seymour’s above, show an old man with a holly garland and a staff. But George Baker’s drawings of mummers in the 1930s, which are in the AFC’s James Madison Carpenter collection, have Father Christmas in a red robe or coat trimmed with white fur and belted with a black belt. Just like Tolkien, Baker sometimes drew Father Christmas with a hood, as in the picture at right, but sometimes drew him with a red cap trimmed with white fur. In both cases he looked like Santa.

Still, despite his change of attire, because the texts of the plays are slow to change, the character of Father Christmas in mummers’ plays remains a figure associated with adult feasting, not children’s gift-giving. Roast beef, plum pudding, mince pie, and beer are the things he brings with him–or, sometimes, takes away!

As I showed in my last post, the Father Christmas of the mummers’ play retains echoes of the tumultuous period in which he was born, the period around the English Civil War in the 17th century. There is little trace of these elements of his story in the modern, Santa-style version of the character.

In fact, one of the only places you’ll encounter a traditional-style or old-fashioned Father Christmas, with all those layers of history, is in a mummers’ play. That’s one of the reasons we chose to include Father Christmas in our versions of the play. And although I took a cue from Tolkien and placed Father Christmas at the North Pole this year (for plot reasons), we usually hold true to Father Christmas’s older roots in our play. There are no reindeer and no sleigh, and Father Christmas never worries about delivering presents!

As you can see below, I’ve selected a more old-fashioned look for my version of Father Christmas. I wear a holly garland and a cloak, and carry a long staff (which I’ve put down for this photo), rather than wearing “Santa Claus red” and carrying a sack of toys. In making these choices, we AFC mummers are doing our bit to keep alive the memory of an older character, with an older look, than you’ll find in most other venues.

As Father Christmas himself would say:

Welcome, or welcome not
I hope Old Father Christmas will never be forgot!

Read more about mumming, including the texts of our plays, in Folklife Today’s previous mumming posts…at this link!

Stephen Winick wearing a holly crown and cloak, holding a sign that says "I AM NOT SANTA CLAUS."
The author as Father Christmas, 2018. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, with the sign text modified by the author to illustrate this blog.



Comments (2)

  1. Welcome!
    No, never!
    Thank you for a fascinating read.

  2. a nice journey through some of the tangled threads of a folkloric universe- someday we may have a beautiful wall hanging worthy of all the weavers of Belgium-keep at it. Is there a father Christmas cocktail?

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