Father Christmas is unique in that he is a pop culture icon who instantly recognizable across the world and yet didnâ€™t he didnâ€™t come out of a book, a cartoon or a movie. Whether you call him Santa Claus, Papa NoÃ«l, Kris Kringle or even Old Saint Nick, Father Christmas is ubiquitous throughout European history. This iconic character has even made it as far abroad as Australia, America, Japan and Brazil in recent centuries â€“ indeed, in 2015 the entire world knows Santa. The question is does the world know where Santa came from?
Unlike Captain America, Batman and other childhood icons, Father Christmas was once a real person. Nicholas of Myra, as he was known until his death in December 343 AD, was the man behind the legend of Saint Nick. Nicholas of Myra was a Turkish monk who gave away his inherited wealth to travel the countryside, tending to the sick and poor. The most famous legend of Nicholasâ€™ deeds is probably the story of how he saved three sisters from being sold into slavery and prostitution. He paid their dowries and helped them on the way to marrying the people they wanted to marry. This gesture made him famous across the continent, and by the time he died Nicholas was a veritable hero of the people.
This level of fame lasted for over 1000 years, with a Yuletide â€˜boy bishopâ€™ ceremony popular throughout the medieval era. In this ceremony the church youths performed the functions of their elders, effectively running their parishes for the day. 300 years later during the Renaissance era in Europe, Sinter Klaus (also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker) had become the patron saint and protector of more peoples than any other. However, his popularity among the people had started to dwindle, causing the church to reinvent Saint Nicholas slightly, naming him Father Christmas, PÃ¨re NoÃ«l and Kris Kringle across the continent.
While Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, prostitutes, bakers and even Greece, Father Christmas is most certainly focused on being the patron saint of children. His reinvention in the 1600s focused on his generosity, becoming the go-to legend for boosting Christmas cheer. His old monkâ€™s habits were swapped for the fur-lined blue, green and white robes that were popular with the then-modern people. This mysterious pop-icon would then visit Europeâ€™s poorest children, leaving them small gifts of food, sweets or money to reward them for a year of hard work (if youâ€™re looking for yule tide ideas for Christmas then a gift generator may do the trick to help choose what is needed in this day and age vs the last 2000 years). This was around the time that Father Christmasâ€™ tradition of leaving coal for naughty children came into being, though the evidence suggesting why this happened is scant at best. The general assumption is simply that it was a scare tactic to encourage good behavior as the last thing that a kid would want is a lump of dirty coal when they could be getting sweets and money.
This version of Father Christmas endured for several centuries, right up until the 1900â€™s when Santa underwent yet another wardrobe change. Some people attribute Santaâ€™s current reds and whites to the fact that these are ecclesiastic colors, though scholars argue that these arenâ€™t the colors that pious Saint Nicholas of Myra would have worn. The generally held belief here is that Coca-Cola redrew Santa in their own vision in the 1930s, and the weight of the companyâ€™s advertising has restructured the way we see Santa as a result.
When you look back over the last 1700 years, Saint Nick certainly has come a long way â€“ and weâ€™re not just talking about his move from Turkey to Lapland/the North Pole. While there are many fictionalized parts to the Santa story â€“ the flying reindeer and the sleigh for example were invented in the 1823 poem â€œA Visit from St. Nicholasâ€ (the one that starts with â€œâ€˜Twas the night before Christmasâ€¦â€) â€“ the legend is certainly based on fact. Even to this day Saint Nicholas of Myra is revered across the world for his generosity and altruism. Though he may not be alive and well today, his memory has inspired generosity for almost two millennia. It almost makes you wonder how much Santa will have changed by the 2000th anniversary of his death in 2343. Will the sleigh endure, or will Santa roll with the times and find a more conventional way of air travel? Only time will tell.
Image via Susanne Nilsson