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The Upside Down: Why We Should Raise a Glass to the Real Father Christmas

John Mitchinson explores the attributes of the character that long pre-dates ‘Santa Claus’

Old Father Christmas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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‘Tis the season. I often get asked if I’m ‘making a list’ at this time of year and always try to answer graciously. It’s the beard I suppose, and perhaps the aura of jollity I like to project as the year runs into its buffers. 

As it turns out, beards and jollity long pre-date the character of Santa Claus. They are attributes of the old Father Christmas, who has a long and interesting tradition of his own – one which has very little to do with children and gifts and everything to do with feasting, merriment and good cheer. 

The earliest written reference we have to a personification of Christmas is the medieval carol Sir Christèmas, attributed to Richard Smart, the rector of Plymtree in Devon from 1435 to 1477. There’s not much in the way of physical description, but the eponymous Sir Christèmas urges us all to “buvez bien, par toute la compagnie (“drink well, throughout all the company” / make good cheer and be right merry). 

What’s not to like? 

This sets the tone for the next 300 years, in which Lord Christmas, Sir Christmas, Father Christmas, or even Captain Christmas becomes an emblem of the old hospitality and celebratory spirit, and notably at odds with the rise of Puritanism.

In Ben Jonson’s Christmas, His Masque staged at court in 1616, Christmas has to break his way past the guards, in order to put on a show (Jonson’s working title was Christmas, His Show) reminding the court of the value of “a right Christmas, as of old it was”. 

He is dressed as an old-fashioned country gent – with a doublet and hose, a “high-crowned hat”, white shoes and a “long thin beard”. He’s accompanied by his 10 children, who give a pretty good idea of what a traditional Jacobean Christmas held in store: Carol, Misrule, Gambol, Offering, Wassail, Mumming, New-Year’s-Gift, Post and Pair (a popular dice game), Minced-Pie and Baby-Cake.  

The Upside Down: Why We Still Celebrate Christmas with Dickens

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He is quick to reassure the audience “I am no dangerous person… and though I come out of Pope’s-head alley, am as good a Protestant as any in my parish”.

However, despite Jonson’s best efforts, ‘Father Christmas’ soon found himself at the centre of the 17th Century’s pamphlet wars, accused of personifying the worst excesses of popish ritual.

In The Examination and Tryall of Old Father Christmas of 1648, the royalist pamphleteer Josiah King portrays Father Christmas as an old, white bearded man put on trial by the Commonwealth. The charge sheet is long: “Christmas, thou art here indited… that thou hast from time to time, abused the people of this Common-wealth, drawing and inticing them to Drunkenness, gluttony, & unlawful Gaming, Wantonness, Uncleanness, Lasciviousness, Cursing, Swearing, abuse of the Creatures, some to one Vice, and some to another; all to Idleness”. 

He pleads “not guilty” and his counsel points out: “All that I can say for this old man is, that he is a very kind and loving man; inoffensive to all: a hater of strife, a lover of harmless mirth”. That sounds more like our guy and the jury duly acquit him. As he himself reflects: “And though I generally come at a set time, yet I am with him every day that knows how to use me.” 

That is a sentiment which chimes closely with the revival of Christmas celebrations at the beginning of the 19th Century. 

In his historical poem of 1808 Marmion, Sir Walter Scott captures the same sentiment:

England was merry England, when            

Old Christmas brought his sports again.

‘Twas Christmas broach’d the mightiest ale;

‘Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;

A Christmas gambol oft could cheer

The poor man’s heart through half the year.

This somewhat nostalgia-tinged vision animates Thomas Hervey’s popular The Book of Christmas, an allegory in the Jonson mould, full of splendid illustrations by John Seymour that portray Old Father Christmas, complete with full beard, fur robes, and a holly wreath, riding out on a Yule goat, while holding a basket of victuals and a wassail bowl. 

Dickens, of course, would take this even further in 1843 in A Christmas Carol, where the splendid Ghost of Christmas Present, bare-chested, swathed in a green cloak and perched on top of a mountain of steaming comestibles, is clearly a deluxe version of old Father Christmas.

But his pre-eminence wouldn’t last. 

In the 1850s, Santa arrives in England from America – a new superhero perfectly suited to a new festival based on, as the historian Ronald Hutton puts it, “children, bounty and charity”. The rest of the story you know.

But some of us keep the old faith. I like to think Raymond Briggs was channelling it when he created his grumpy, hard-working Father Christmas who hates the weather, resents his job, but relishes every mouthful of his “lovely grub”.  

The real old Christmas spirit. 

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