“….the beautiful, unspoiled Mediterranean town of Patara is the birthplace of the bearded gift-giver, who we look out for with such excitement on Christmas Eve. Or rather, the birthplace of the third century Christian saint whose life of kindness and miraculous do-goodery created a legend which has evolved down the centuries, and given us the Santa Claus so familiar to us now…..”
I have taken the above extract from this site, which tells us of St. Nicholas’s birthplace. Our present-day festival of Christmas originated with him, but what do we really know of this saint? You’ll find a lot of information here.
Early Englilsh illustrations clearly show that he is still a version of the saint, but his halo and holy garments have gone as he begins to morph into someone different. Perhaps he’s now representing England’s Sir Christmas? (see below)
But Christian festivals so often have roots in much older pagan celebrations, Christmas having perhaps really commenced as a pagan winter festival. According to this article our Christmas figure came to us in the fifth and sixth centuries by the names King Winter, King Frost or Father Time. Did he? Well, it’s not impossible, but to me he does seem to have made a detour through a Christianised version of Bacchus. And the site also lists Norse gods, so he has an impressive family tree!
Looking at the two previous illustrations, I have to see Bacchus in both of them!
Anyway, while St Nicholas remained himself in Europe, what happened to him in England? “….The English Father Christmas seems to have had an entirely separate origin from Sinterklaas, being a personification of Christmas and a Yule-tide visitor – not a gift-giver – rather than a version of St Nicholas….”
By the 15th century he’d evolved into Sir Christmas here in England. If you go to this site you will read that “….the earliest evidence for a personified ‘Christmas’ is a carol attributed to Richard Smart, Rector of Plymtree (Devon) from 1435 to 1477….” which is sung between someone representing ‘Sir Christmas’ and a group who welcome him as follows:
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
’Who is there that singeth so?’
’I am here, Sir Christëmas.’
’Welcome, my lord Christëmas,
Welcome to us all, both more and less
Come near, Nowell!’
The Puritans of the seventeenth century strove to rid England of this (to them) highly unwelcome character, but they didn’t succeed. He was here to stay.
And so Sir Christmas gradually became a jovial, white-haired gentleman dressed in green, although perhaps not until the Victorian era. I’d like to think he was earlier, but there doesn’t seem to be any definitive proof. We certainly didn’t have the present-day Santa Class type of figure. I have to say I prefer the look of him in the old green attire.
Then “….In the 1930s a certain American soft drinks company decided Santa should be dressed in red as part of a marketing campaign and that has stuck….” The rest, they say, is history….