Stepping back in time to the origins of Father Christmas

We can trace stories of Father Christmas back hundreds of years

Santa Claus has evolved over the centuries - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Victorians may have a lot to answer for in terms of the gift-bearing Father Christmas character dressed in red we know and love today - but the idea of celebrating around the winter solstice goes back into the mists of time.

Here former primary school teacher Laura Steele, from education resource experts PlanBee, takes a look into the past to find out about the story of Christmas past.                                                                                                                                                         

Wiinter festivals and rituals had long been celebrated around the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, to celebrate the end of winter and welcome the arrival of spring, often featuring a figure dressed in green with a wreath made of holly, ivy and mistletoe, to represent the coming of the new season.

In the 5th and 6th Centuries, the festive character was known to the Saxons as Father Time, or King Winter and it was the tradition to dress up as this figure to be invited into neighbours' homes to eat and drink by the fire. The belief was that kindness shown to Father Time, would make the winter milder.

When the Vikings settled in Britain in the 9th Century, they held midwinter celebrations and it was said that the Norse god Odin disguised himself as a character called "Jul", who wore a blue-hooded cloak and brought gifts to the good and punishments to the bad.

Father Christmas, or Old Man Winter, first appeared in Tudor times when he was seen as a figure linked to adult entertainment, such as feasts and games. He was depicted as a large man dressed in green or red robes whoCembodied the festive spirit of good cheer. 

After the Puritans prohibited the celebration of Christmas in 1644, the concept of Father Christmas fell out of favour until it was revived in the Victorian era. By the 19th Century, family life was seen as much more important, and Christmas became a time for children as well as adult celebration.  Father Christmas was then known as a bringer of gifts.

The question then arose as to whether Santa Claus was the same as Father Christmas. Although the two figures are pretty much one and the same today, the origins of Santa Claus were very different, harking back to St Nicholas, a bishop who lived in the 4th Century in what is now Turkey.

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He is reputed to have helped a poor family by secretly dropping a bag of gold down the chimney for them to find, landing in a stocking that had been hung to dry by the fire.

By the 12th Century, the legend of St Nicholas was well-known across Europe and the tradition of giving children gifts on the evening of December 5, the day before St Nicholas’ Day, became popular.

In the Netherlands, markets selling toys and treats became popular and people dressed up in red bishop’s costumes to impersonate St Nicholas, whose Dutch name was Sint Nikolaas which evolved into the nickname Sinterklaas. It was said that Sinterklaas would pass through locked doors or climb down chimneys to leave presents in shoes and stockings.

The story of Sinterklaas travelled to North America via Dutch settlers in the 17th Century, and his name was adjusted to Santa Claus.

By the 19th Century he had become the festive character we are familiar with today, thanks to an illustrated poem from 1821  which described Santa’s red coat, reindeer and sleigh, and changed the evening of gift-giving from December 5 to the 24th.

Two years later Clement Clark Moore wrote the now-famous poem that we know as "Twas the Night before Christmas" in which Santa was recast as a jolly old man, rather than a bishop, and by the 1880s, Santa Claus and Father Christmas had all but merged into the same festive figure in Britain.