Folklore, religion and revelry have combined over the centuries to create the festive figure so central to our celebrations today, writes Ettie Neil-Gallacher


Ettie Neil-Gallacher looks back through history to find that Father Christmas has served as a reason for festive indulgences for centuries.

From keeping carp in a Czech bathtub to shooting ptarmigan for the Icelandic table, Ettie Neil-Gallacher looks at festive traditions and customs across the continent.

Philippa Davis shares her tips on how to cook the perfect goose this Christmas.


It’s fitting that our image of Father Christmas is of a portly old cove bursting out at the seams, because he is in fact two figures squeezed into one vast festive red onesie. Until the late 19th century, Father Christmas and Santa Claus were quite separate ideas. For while Father Christmas was borne of the English allegorical personification of the festive season of Sir Christëmas, which first appeared in a 15th-century carol, he was predated by several centuries by the European Christian figure of St Nicholas – or Sinterklaas, as the Dutch called him.

The cult of St Nicholas developed in Europe after his relics were brought to Italy in 1087. But St Nicholas himself was very different to his cosy descendent; far from being a rotund, genial old softie, he was a slim, adamantine polemicist from Patara in Asia Minor in modern-day Turkey, who as Bishop of Myra was imprisoned in Constantinople for his faith, under the Great Persecution of the Emperor Diocletian, only to be released by Constantine.

But he wasn’t simply a proselytising firebrand. Stories of his good works abound but three in particular persist. Firstly, there is the story of his restoring to life three youths who were cruelly butchered, dismembered and pickled by an innkeeper; he is also credited with saving sailors from a raging storm; and perhaps the most famous and influential act attributed to him was that of his donating money anonymously to save three daughters from a life of prostitution or slavery by dropping bags of gold down the chimney of their father’s house, whereupon they landed in the girls’ stockings as they dried. From the last of these, it doesn’t require a tremendous leap of imagination to see how St Nicholas became associated with the giving of presents.

By the end of the 12th century, the feast of St Nicholas was widely celebrated across Europe on 6 December in both the Christian and Orthodox traditions, and had become the day associated with presents. Customs varied according to country and region, but there were certain shared features: shoes or stockings would be left either by the fireplace, outside bedrooms or outside the front door on the night of 5 December, to be filled with sweets or small presents by St Nicholas.

But the Reformation brought certain challenges. The earnest Protestantism that swept much of the continent didn’t sit well with a figure so easily identifiable with the Catholic veneration of saints as St Nicholas.

So, for example, in Germany, presents were left by the Christ Child instead. And it was felt that there was a need for punishment as well as reward, so St Nicholas morphed into a grumpy sidekick, initially called Knecht Ruprecht and later Belsnickel (a variation on the saint’s name), who carried coal or sticks instead of sweets, or even a small switch with which to mete out punishment to those who’d fallen short of the requisite moral standards.

The sidekick took on various forms across Europe, with a varying degree of threat. In other parts of Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, St Nicholas was accompanied by the Krampus (whose name was derived from the word for claw): a horned, demonic figure who carried a whip or a large switch, and wore a basket on his back in which to carry off badly behaved children to hell, or to be drowned or eaten.

But such menacing detail was never part of the British Christmas tradition. While our European brethren had long been in thrall to St Nick and his less-friendly sidekick, we were just beginning to get our festive act together – and there wasn’t going to be anything unsettling about it. It should perhaps come as no surprise to any keen observers of British mores that we’re an indulgent lot, fond of a party and a jar. Our nascent Father Christmas was a party animal rather than a benevolent giver of presents. Sure, there was good reason for it – the birth of Christ and all that – but the focus was on having a good time. It’s small wonder that when we first encounter Sir Christëmas, in a 15th-century carol by Richard Smart, the Bishop of Plympton, while he announces the birth of Christ, hot on the heels of this news comes the encouragement “to make good cheer and be right merry”.

What evolved from this was that the figure who personified Christmas was associated more with entertainment for adults, perhaps best exemplified by the Lords of Misrule in England and the Abbots of Unreason in Scotland, who essentially acted as Tudor and Stewart masters of ceremony in grand house parties during the festive season. The idea for this grew out of the French, 12th- and 13th-century Feast of Fools on 1 January, in which a low-level cleric was allowed to assume a more lofty role. The accompanying celebrations brought the Church into disrepute, so it became a more secular event and wild, drunken, anarchic revelry took place in its name, under the direction of Prince Christmas or Captain Christmas or the Christmas Lord, where roles were reversed and conventions flouted.

And it wasn’t just the Lords of Misrule who orchestrated poor behaviour at home. In a very British fashion, the revelry sometimes went too far in the streets as well. York was home to the annual Yule Ridings festival, where the procession included a man dressed as Yule who would carry meat and cakes, and cast nuts into the crowd. In 1572, this was cancelled after more decorous denizens were outraged by behaviour deemed “verie rude and barbarouse”.

But Christmas wasn’t personified as an old man until Ben Jonson’s play, Christmas, His Masque, was performed for the Royal Court in 1616, although it was derided by his contemporaries as more mummery than masque. In it, Christmas is accompanied by his 10 children, themselves symbolising festive traditions, including Misrule, Carol, Minced-Pie, New-Year’s-Gift, Mumming, Wassall and Offering.

However, the Puritans were gathering their joyless forces to commit crimes against Christmas that would make even the most hardened Scrooge blanch. Finding no Biblical justification for festive merrymaking, and detecting the rank stench of Popish idolatry in many aspects of Christmastide, between 1644 and 1659, alongside many other things that made life bearable, Christmas and all its trappings were banned. The Royalists did their best, and even those sympathetic to the Puritan cause thought this a hob-nail boot step too far. Gone were the religious services, the food, the parties – and the nascent Father Christmas himself. In 1645, a pamphlet called The Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisonment of Christmas was published, in which the writer pleaded Christmas’ case: a woman asks the Oxford town crier where “old father Christmas” has gone. She is told that, “The poor old man… was arraigned, condemned, and after conviction cast into prison amongst the King’s Souldiers; fearing to be hanged.”

The idea of Father Christmas as an old man was reiterated in 1658 by Josiah King, who not only used his name for the first time but also depicted him as a white-haired elderly gentleman. In the political climate of the time, he was on trial for his life in King’s The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas.

The Restoration of 1660 brought with it much jollity, including the resumption of Christmas festivities, and Father Christmas became a staple element for the ensuing couple of centuries. But he continued to bear little resemblance to our modern conception, still being almost entirely associated with adults and parties, not children and presents. Ronald Hutton observes, in Stations of the Sun, that attitudes towards him were quite different, too: “he was not treated with much respect, being generally a burlesque figure of fun”.


But as with so much of modern life, a great deal of what we associate with Christmas tradition emerged in the Victorian era. The Victorians set great store by family life, so the avuncular, hard-partying Father Christmas needed to evolve to remain relevant in a more family- and home-centric society. It was no longer appropriate that he was all about revelry; perhaps a morally-upright society needed a more identifiably Christian figure – such as the one that had been popular in Europe for much longer than Father Christmas had been in Britain.

What’s not clear is exactly when the two figures merged. Or, indeed, whether Sinterklaas reached America before he reached Britain. What does seem probable is that the Dutch brought Sinterklaas with them when they set up the colony of New Amsterdam (modern-day New York). The Dutch were particularly enthusiastic about Sinterklaas. At Christmas markets, someone would dress up in the red robes of a bishop; he was depicted as a tall, bearded man dispensing small tokens.

The Dutch hadn’t given up on the idea of him as a giver of gifts, and as they ventured abroad they took their tradition of a man dressed in red robes dispensing small offerings at Christmas time with them. While they might have brought their native tradition to America, it was journalists and writers who spread the word, keen as they were to foster familial festive feeling in a deliberate attempt to steer society away from drunken indulgence and remind them of the goodness with which Christmas should be redolent. The first mention we have of Sinterklaas in an American publication came in a New York newspaper in 1773. Then, in 1809, writer Washington Irving wrote a satirical work called A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, where Dutch immigrants regaled each other with tales of Sinterklaas flying over the city and depositing presents down chimneys.

The ideas became embedded in popular culture in 1821 with Clement Clarke Moore’s seminal The Night Before Christmas, in which Santa Claus is a big, bearded, jovial old man. The illustrations were later provided by Thomas Nast, and it was these drawings that entrenched the images we still recognise and replicate.

In a sort of reverse migration, America then exported their concept of Santa Claus back across the Atlantic. In Britain, American Susanna Warner’s hugely popular Carl Krinkin or The Christmas Stocking was published three times in the mid-1850s, and the figures featured as separate characters, with Father Christmas appearing in a mummer’s play while Santa Claus brings presents. But by the end of the 19th century, the two figures were all but interchangeable. For the British, then in the grip of Victorian morality, it was easy to swallow the idea of a benevolent figure of Christian origin entering the family home in a generous, bountiful fashion.

It would seem that the British have cherry-picked those elements of Father Christmas/Santa Claus mythology that seem to resonate most closely with the national character. We have eschewed the religious overtones of Sinterklaas in favour of embracing a magical giver of gifts. We’ve certainly retained Sir Christëmas’penchant for a party. And any of us lamenting the tawdry commercialisation of Christmas, and blaming our allies across the pond, would do well to remember that long before Coca-Cola ads ploughed across our screens, pumping the vaguely ominous and ominously vague secular chant that ‘holidays are coming’ into our lives, Father Christmas had served as a reason for some seriously questionable festive indulgences for centuries.