The Face of Christmas Past
While the modern "Santa Claus" is essentially American, one U.S. tradition never took off in Britain—designating him "Kriss Kringle." Instead, Britons call him "Father Christmas." Father Christmas did not merge with Santa until around the 1870s. He was not a jolly, rotund elf, nor was he associated with presents or even children. People viewed him not as actually existing (like St. Nicholas) but rather as the personification of the season (like "Father Time"). That did not spare him the wrath of the Puritans.
"Santa" in a doublet and garters?
The earliest reference to a personified Christmas figure was the 15th-century carol "I Am Here, Sir Christëmas.” The carol's theme is not the figure himself (who is merely "welcomed"), but rather the carolers' joy that a "maid" (i.e. virgin) has borne the Christ-child. It climaxes by urging all to "Make good cheer and be right merry/And sing with us now joyfully, Nowell."
He reappeared in 1616 when the play Christmas, His Masque by Benjamin Jonson was performed at the Royal Court. In this play, the figure is called "Old Christmas" and "Captaine Christmas" and is not dressed in red or green fur and hood: "He is attir'd in 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." He emphasizes that he is a good Protestant, decrying claims of "Popery"!
Another masque, The springs glorie (written by Thomas Nabbes in 1638), set in "the Mansion of Christmasse" during snow-covered winter, presents "Christmasse" and "Shrovetide" entering. "Christmasse" is described as "an old reverend Gentleman in a furr'd gowne and cappe." He is attired this way simply because of the weather. The presentation of "Shrovetide" alongside "Christmasse" shows that the Christmas figure was not seen as objectively existing but was merely a personification.
Christmas on trial
In 1645, during the Civil War, most of England was under Puritan rule. The Puritans vehemently opposed anything that was "heathenish" or smacked of "Popery." They banned the celebration of Christmas on these grounds (although the charges are questionable). Indeed, the Puritan-dominated Parliament delighted in sitting on Christmas Day. Parliamentary troops picketed churches on Christmas to prevent anyone from commemorating it as a religious day. They also objected to the frequently drunken and anti-social revelry sometimes accompanying its celebration (much like New Year's Day in our time).
An anonymous tract entitled An Hue and Cry after Christmas was issued in 1645 protesting the ban on Christmas. It continued the practice of personifying the season for the purpose of vindication, referring to "old Father Christmas" as a "very old, grey-bearded Gentleman, called Christmas" whose hair was "as white as snow" and who was "full and fat." He apparently wore Episcopal robes—"consecrated Laune sleeves"—with "a pack on his back, in which is good store of all sorts." According to this particular work, his visit actually caused husbands to buy new clothes for their wives! His presence caused not children, but rather apprentices, servants, and students to be merry.
Another protest against the Puritan ban on Christmas emerged in 1653. Called The Vindication of Christmas, it referred to the personified figure as "Old Christmas" or "father Christmas," presenting him as slim and tall, with a long (though not bushy) beard, and wearing a robe (though not fur). The work climaxed with "Christmas" pleading: "Love one another, as my Master loved you: relieve the oppressed: call home exiles: help the Fatherless: cherish the Widow, and restore to every man his due." A Christmas sermon indeed!
After the restoration of the monarchy, The Examination and Tryal of old Father Christmas (written by Josiah King in 1686) depicted "Christmas" on trial for superstition and idolatry. He is an elderly, white-haired/bearded, dignified, serious figure dressed in a gown. "Christmas" asserts his biblical Protestantism: "I am corruptly called Christmas, my name is Christ-tide, or time. And though I generally come at a set time, yet I am with him every day that knows how to use me." A precursor of Dickens's Ghost of Christmas Present? Or perhaps a message to our own age about how "Christmas spirit" should be present throughout the year!
"Christmas" maintains that his presence summons people to godly charity and thanksgiving to their Lord: "We are commanded to be given to Hospitality, & this hath been my practice from my youth upward: I come to put men in mind of their redemption, to have them love the other, to impart with something here below, that they have receive more & better things above; the wise man saith, There is a time for all things, & why not for thankfulness?" A defense witness proclaims, "For Christmas I have thus much to say for antiquity, he hath been well received by the best reformed Churches above nine hundred years, and was highly reverenced in the primitive purity many hundreds years before Popery was hatched; nor can this Festival be a suggestion of Antichrist (as some object) for what advantage can it be to Antichrist that our Saviour should have his birthday celebrated …?" Old Christmas leaves the trial exonerated.
Gratitude, not greed
Works presenting "Old Christmas" asserted that his presence brought good cheer, but they frequently cautioned against stressing the material aspects of his season. One example is John Taylor's The Complaint of Christmas (1631): "Therefore England, beautifull, fruitfull, and yet blessed Land, take heed lest thy Gluttony, Pride, and Excesse, Covetousnesse, Bribery, and Extortion, have that Adamantine force to pull downe Heaven's Judgements on thee as they did on Sodome." Christmas pleads with England to be devout: "Heaven is bountifull and patient, bee thou penitent and thankfull."
In 1652, attacking Puritan opposition, Taylor issued Christmas in & out, or, Our Lord & Saviour Christ's birth-day. "Father Christmas" resists accusations of "Popery" by revealing his true name: Christ sent or Christ's Day. "Christmas" insists his day "is kept in a thankfull remembrance" of Christ's "blessed incarnation," and that Christ "is the Prince of Peace, and his peace you will never have that do unthankfully dispise & neglect to solemnize the day of his most blessed Nativity."
It is not historically accurate, therefore, to associate "Father Christmas" purely with material concerns. Father Christmas was essentially a spiritual figure who emphasized the saving import of Christ's birth. He called people not simply to mutual "goodwill" but to the thankful worship of God. Perhaps Christians in English-speaking countries should revive this personified Christmas figure, distinguishing him from Santa, since he is not as theologically questionable and reminds people of the reason for the season—Jesus!
Anthony McRoy is a Fellow of the British Society for Middle East Studies and lecturer in Islamic studies at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, U.K.