During the holiday season, I spend a lot of time dressed in old-fashioned clothes, singing, acting, and making merry as Father Christmas. The character has been part of our AFC mummers’ play since 2010, and part of the tradition of mummers’ plays probably since its inception. Several of the earliest surviving mummers’ play texts, dating to the 18th century, include Father Christmas, including the one at this link, from Truro in Cornwall, and the one here, from Islip in Oxfordshire.
But what about before that? Where did Father Christmas come from? Surprisingly, his emergence is tied up with a very serious and bitter “war on Christmas”: the attempt by the English government to abolish Christmas entirely in the 17th century (for more on this see “Christmastime in England: Prohibitions and Permissions,” by Clare Feikert-Ahalt, In Custodia Legis, 2017). It’s fascinating to explore the traces this very old history left behind in plays still being performed today.
So just who is Father Christmas? He is a traditional English personification of the Christmas season. Nowadays, most people in England associate him with Santa Claus, and Father Christmas is more or less the same figure as Santa. But that wasn’t always the case. Although being a bringer of gifts, like Santa Claus, is a part of his story, it’s not the main part until the late 19th Century.
The texts of mummers’ plays, traditional Christmas folk dramas acted in English-speaking countries, reveal that Father Christmas’s main features are venerable age, an anxiety about being forgotten, a desire to be welcomed, and a longing to facilitate abundance, feasting, and entertainment. Below are a few speeches that Father Christmas makes in mummers plays. (All but the last speech are in AFC’s James Madison Carpenter Collection, which is online at this link at the Ralph Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Each quotation has a link at the end to the full text. The five-digit number at the end of each quotation from the Carpenter Collection is the unique page number of the manuscript in the collection.)
In Comes Old Father Christmas
He comes but once a year
I hope your pocket’s full o’ money
And your cellar’s full o’ beer
(Wormingall, Buckinghamshire 02440)
In comes I Father Christmas
Christmas comes but once a year
When it comes it brings good cheer
Roast beef, plum pudding, and plenty good ole English beer
Good master and good mistress
I pray you are within
I’ve come this merry Christmas time
To see you and your kin
(Little Compton, Warwickshire 02785)
In comes I, Old Father Christmas
Welcome, or welcome not
I hope old father Christmas
Will never be forgot
I am not come here for to laugh or to jeer
But for a pocketful of money and a skin full of beer
To show some sport and some pastime
Gentlemen and Ladies in the Christmas time
(“West of England” 02956)
In comes I, Old Father Xmas, Xmas or Xmas not
I hope old Father Xmas will never be forgot
Roast beef, plum pudden, and mince pie
Never old father xmas likes that better than I
(Broadway, Worcestershire or Somerset, 02487)
Here comes I old Father Christmas
Welcome or welcome not
I hope old Father Christmas
Will never be forgot
I’ve not come to laugh nor jeer
But I’ve come to taste your beer
And if by chance your beer is done
I’ll have some Christmas cake or bun.
(St. Keverne, Cornwall 02983)
Here comes I, old Father Christmas;
Welcome, or welcome not,
I hope poor old Father Christmas
Will never be forgot!
My head is white, my back is bent,
My knees are weak, my strength is spent.
Eighteen hundred and eighty-three
Is a very great age for me.
And if I’d been growing all these years
What a monster I should be!
(Place unknown; published 1884)
Interestingly, most of the features of the character seen in these mummers’ plays seem to relate directly to Father Christmas’s emergence as a character in the 17th century. But first let’s look at when the character of “Father Christmas” did emerge. Some folklorists in the 1950s (including Christina Hole in this important book) mention a 15th Century Carol called “Hail Father Christmas, Hail to Thee” as the first evidence of the character, and you’ll find this claim all over the internet as a result. I think they’re mistaken, though. If true, this claim would have to derive from a primary source which should be easy to cite, but I have never seen a source cited. As I pointed out in this previous blog post, a repeated claim with no cited source is often a “red flag” that a claim is mistaken. Also, there IS a carol with the words “Hail Father Christmas, Hail to Thee”, which you can find online here. But it’s a 19th Century translation of a medieval Anglo-Norman carol—and only the translation mentions “Father Christmas.” Meanwhile, current standard works, such as the article on Father Christmas in Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud’s Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, make no mention of a 15th century “Hail Father Christmas” carol, which they certainly would if it were the first evidence of the name. So I think it’s fair to say that someone in the 1950s got confused and thought the translation was itself medieval, and a new, erroneous origin story for “Father Christmas” was born.
Given this, where DID the character of Father Christmas come from? This depends how specific we want to get. Personifications of Christmas did exist in the English language by the 15th century, as the carol called “Sir Christmas,” which you can see at this link, attests. This song is attributed to Richard Smart (or Smert), Rector of Plymtree, Devon (1435-1477), and vicar-choral at Exeter Cathedral (1428-ca. 1466), and is in British Library Additional Manuscript 5665, the Ritson Mansuscript. According to Simpson and Roud, other versions of personified Christmas included Yule, who was played by an actor in public processions in 16th century York, and lords of misrule known variously as “The Christmas Lord,” “Captain Christmas,” and “Prince Christmas,” who presided at feasts throughout England. But by the early 17th Century, there was still an important element missing that would transform the character of personified “Christmas” into “Father Christmas”: this was literal fatherhood or at least great age.
What turned personified Christmas into an old man and a father, and what made him so concerned with being forgotten, and with feasting? The answer seems to be the Protestant Reformation and consequent changes in popular attitudes to the holiday. Thus, one of the first versions of the character “Christmas” who was explicitly stated to be old and a father was represented by Ben Jonson in Christmas, His Masque (1610). In this play, Christmas is nearly rejected and kept away from court for seeming to be too Catholic:
Why Gentlemen, doe you know what you doe? ha!
would you ha’kept me out? Christmas, old Christmas?
Christmas of London, and Captaine Christmas?
Pray you let me be brought before my
Lord Chamberlaine, i’le not be answer’d else:
’tis merrie in hall when beards wag all: I ha’seene
the time you ha’wish’d for me, for a merry Christmas,
and now you ha’me; they would not let me
in: I must come another time! a good jeast, as if I could come more then
once a yeare; why, I am no dangerous person, and so I told my friends,
o’the Guard. I am old Gregorie Christmas still, and though I come out of
Popes-head-alley as good a Protestant, as any i’my Parish.
Although not called “Father Christmas,” Christmas in the masque is a father, and the masque itself is performed by his ten children, some of whom do address him as “father” in the text.
It was in the in the 1640s, in the context of even more serious Puritan attempts to outlaw Christmas, that the precise name “Father Christmas” emerged. In 1644, Christmas fell on a regularly-scheduled monthly fast day, and Parliament outlawed celebrating in favor of observing the fast; you can see that law here. In 1647, they abolished Christmas altogether, along with Easter, Whitsun, and all other holidays, as this law records. In this political climate, pamphleteers published tracts in which the case for and against Christmas was argued by fictional and allegorical characters, including Christmas himself.
In 1645, one of these pamphlets was published that contains the earliest reference I’ve ever seen with the name “Father Christmas.” Its delightfully long title was:
The Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisonment of Christmas On St. Thomas Day last, and how he broke out of prison in the holidayes and got away, onely left his hoary hair, and gray beard, sticking between two iron bars of a window. With an hue and cry after Christmas, and a letter from Mr.Woodcock, a fellow in Oxford, to a malignant lady in London. And divers passages between the lady and the cryer, about Old Christmas: and what shift he was fain to make to save his life, and great stir to fetch him back again. With divers other witty passages.
The title tells you more or less what’s in it, but you can read the text here. Most importantly, it contains these passages, which clearly call the character “old Father Christmas”:
“I Beseech you, for the love of Oxford, hire a Cryer (I will see him paid for his paines), to cry old father Christmas…”
“Honest Crier, I know thou knewest old Father Christmas.”
“And I am come to tell you what returne I can make you of the crying of old Father Christmas.”
Although the author of the Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisoning of Christmas didn’t seem to approve of Christmas, he did explain why so many others liked the old man:
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. He got Prentises, Servants, and Schollars many play dayes, and therefore was well beloved by them also, and made all merry with Bagpipes, Fiddles, and other musicks, Giggs, Dances, and Mummings.
We see from this passage that one of the reasons Father Christmas was beloved was because he gave vacation time (“play dayes”) to servants, apprentices, and students. This was clearly a crucial part of the holiday’s appeal, and thus a real concern for those who wished to abolish it; the 1647 legislation outlawing Christmas and other festivals (linked above) went so far as to instruct employers to give their workers the second Tuesday of every month off to make up for the lost vacation time, presumably to avoid worker unrest!
A similar pamphlet of 1658, Josiah King’s The Examination and Tryall of Old Father Christmas (read it at this link), is the first time the name “Father Christmas” is used in a title. But a pamphlet of 1653, which uses the name interchangeably with “Christmas” and “Old Christmas,” seems to have been more influential on the later character. The Vindication of Christmas or, His Twelve Yeares’ Observations upon the Times, which you can read here, presents a Christmas who has been an outcast for twelve years returning to England, visiting both the countryside and London. The English Civil War has just ended. The twelve years in question have been times of massive unrest, open warfare, and Puritan ascendancy. Christmas wanders the war-torn country, encountering unscrupulous misers, people too poor to make merry, and others who cannot welcome him. At one point, in a moment that’s like a sad counterpoint to his triumphant “In comes I” of the mummers’ plays, he says rather pitifully, “Sir, my name is Christmas; and I come onely to make merry with thee.”
The Vindication of Christmas is full of ideas that resonate with the speeches familiar from mummers’ plays. Describing the Puritan control of the country, Christmas states:
There were some over-curious hot zealous Brethren, who with a superbian predominance, did do what they could to keep Christmas day out of England; they did in divers places preach me for dead in Funeral Sermons, and labour’d tooth and nail to bury me alive in the grave of oblivion, by infusing an heretical opinion into the hearts of the people, to wit (or with little wis) that plum-pottage was meer popery, and roast beef Antichristian.
At another time, he worries about whether he will be remembered and made welcome:
It is a lamentable and too long a story to relate in what a pitifull quandary I have been in any time these twelve yeares, when we came into this lamentable, pitiful, dejected, and headlesse countrey: I was in good hope that so long a misery would have made them glad to bid a merry Christmas welcome. But welcome or not welcome, I am come.
At one point, he is given beer, but finds it curiously weak, and is told by a helpful smith:
Alas father Christmas our high and mighty Ale, that would formerly knock down Hercules, and trip up the heels of a Gyant, is lately strook into a deep consumption, the strength of it being quite gone with a blow which it received from Westminster, and there is a Tetter and Ringworm called Excize, doth make it look thinner then it would do.
(The gist of this is that Parliamentary taxes are making beer so expensive that it must be watered down to make it stretch farther.)
At the end of the pamphlet, Father Christmas finds a small farming community in Devonshire, which had been plundered by both armies in the Civil War, but where the people were nevertheless generous. “As soon as they spied me,” he says, “they saluted me with much love and reverend courtesie.” He ends the tale with the lyrics of a carol, which begin:
Lets dance and sing, and make good chear,
For Christmas comes but once a year:
Here we find some important roots of our Father Christmas from the mummers’ play, including several individual lines, but also some of his general background. It’s clear from this work that Father Christmas is portrayed as old and run-down partly because he emerged when celebrating Christmas was itself old-fashioned and frowned upon (as well as suspiciously Catholic). He’s worried about being forgotten, and about whether he will be welcome, because when he was born as a character, those in power did not welcome Christmas, while those who welcomed him were forgetting what a Merry Christmas was like, or even giving Christmas up for dead. There were even people who were trying to ensure that he WAS forgotten, to “bury him alive in the grave of oblivion.” He is preoccupied with plum pudding and roast beef because he emerged in a time of deprivation, war, and famine, when such feasts were frowned upon as extravagances, and celebrations where they were eaten deemed Catholic or “unchristian.” He longs for “good ole English beer” because at the time of his creation even good ale was a mere memory.
Though the deprivations of the 1640s and 1650s faded from memory, it seems the character of Old Father Christmas in the folk plays collected by James Madison Carpenter in the 20th century retains poignant reminders of that difficult time. It turns out Father Christmas is not just a figure of jollity, but more importantly a figure of nostalgia for a merrier past before a painful Civil War. He reminds us to be merry when we can, and AS merry AS we can, like the Devonshire farmers in 1652, who were generous and jolly even in poverty. And, in the words of the Somersetshire mummers’ play that Carpenter had in his collection, he reminds us that:
There is time for work, and there is a time for play
A time for to be melancholy, and for to be gay
A time for to be thrifty and a time for to be free
But, sure enough, at Christmas tide we all may jovial be