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Retro Crimbo 2012/ Legends: Father Christmas ~ Saint or Santa?

December 24, 2012

‘Twas the night before Christmas: a visual interpretation of the classic 1823 poem that’s the inspiration for Santa Claus (and his reindeer transport), yet the roots of Crimbo’s modern hero go back much farther

Time for a confession, folks – and not the I’ve-been-naughty-or-nice-this-year sort – rather the fact that, despite the cynicism and ill-feeling some feel towards the yuletide and its central player, the tubby, jolly chap with the long white beard, that – yes – that very merry icon has always been something of a must with me. Why else for the past few years would I have been – another confession here – writing a festive children’s novel in which he plays a critical role? Yes, for me, the sensational St. Nick certainly deserves a big, comfy armchair in front of the roaring fireplace in the ‘Legends‘ corner here at George’s Journal – and especially at this time of year.

What really underlines his legendary status for me, mind, is that, looking beyond him balancing an ankle-biter on his knee in a carboard grotto in a department store, he’s actually a universal, historical figure. You see, if my once-completed novel – and I – were ever lucky enough, it would be adapted into a movie (oh, well, of course, it would!), but who would play the stocking-filling feller himself? Well, I always envisaged Donald Sinden, but now that he’s seriously getting on, methinks (and because it would ideally be a big-budget Hollywood effort, naturally) Dick Van Dyke would be a fine substitute.

And that brings me to the nub of the matter. At almost any point or in almost any place in the last millennium you care to imagine, the subject of this post would have meant something to someone. And something different too. Whether he’s called Father Christmas (Britain), Santa Claus (America), Père Noël (France) or Saint Nicholas (his primary origin), or whether we see him as Donald Sinden or Dick Van Dyke or indeed anyone else, he’s always been around as Crimbo’s (more or less) human trademark – well, second only to that bloke Jesus, of course.

Conventional wisdom has it that the red coat-wearer’s introduction in his modern (or, today’s ‘traditional’) guise to boys and girls of all ages came in 1823, when the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas – or ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas – was anonymously published in the American town of Troy, New York (listen to a recently recorded version of it read by, yes, Dick Van Dyke by clicking on the bottom video clip below). It was later attributed to writer Clement Clarke Moore, although some claim it to have been composed by poet Major Henry Livingston Jr. (and that either drew great inspiration for the poem’s hero from a passage from 1809’s A History Of New York by celebrated scribe Washington Irving). Whoever wrote it, though, the poem quickly became enormously popular across the US – and as the 19th Century progressed the notion of ‘Santa Claus’ spread across the pond to both Blighty and Continental Europe.

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Saint nicked?: an icon of St. Nicholas from Lipnya Church, Novgorod, Russia, c. 1294 (top l); ‘Woden The Wanderer’ by Georg von Rosen, 1886 (top r); Thomas Nast’s ‘Merry Old Santa Claus’ from Harper’s Weekly, January 1 1881 (btm l); Father Christmas in green from a Christmas card, 1890-1910 (btm r)

Indeed, the name ‘Santa Claus’ actually predates ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, first appearing as it did in a New York-published book A New-Year’s Present, To The Little Ones From Five To Twelve (1821) as ‘Old Santeclaus’, a man on a reindeer-drawn sleigh delivering presents to children. But it was Clement Clarke Moore’s aforementioned poem that seems first to have suggested Santa and St. Nicholas are one and the same and introduced/ popularised his familiar paraphernalia: an utterly jolly demeanour, a pipe, a red coat and black boots,  a team of reindeer with Germanic-sounding names, a penchant for entering homes by descending chimneys and, most important of all, delivering gifts to kids during the night of Christmas Eve.

And key too to spreading Santa/ St. Nick far and wide was the artist Thomas Nast. His cartoon Merry Old Santa Claus, which appeared in the New York-produced magazine Harper’s Weekly over the 1880/81 festive season immortalised the chap according to the then near 60-year-old poem’s description. Furthermore, an 1866 work by Nast may have given rise to the notion Santa resides at the North Pole. Yet, Nast’s very first image depicting our man appeared in Harper’s Weekly way back in 1863 (at the height of the American Civil War), in which he was draped in a Stars and Stripes flag and held court surrounded by Yankee soldiers. Hmmm, good to know he’d grow in future not to discriminate against sides in wars – in short, he’d become an obvious pacifist, peace-loving emblem of Christmas.

But just why does our jolly hero specifically represent Christmas? Where’s the original Christian connection? This, dear readers, is where St. Nicholas comes in. Originally a 4th Century Greek bishop, Nicholas was beatified after his death and, over the centuries, became patron saint (with a feast day celebrated usually in early December) to nations and cities throughout the Balkans and Western Europe, as well as to groupings of people such as sailors, merchants, pawnbrokers, archers and, er, students and even thieves. Oh, and to children, of course.

The last one’s important here, as is the legend that became attributed to him that he’d leave coins in shoes that peeps would leave out for him – making him then, a secret gift-giver (similar to Santa then whom fills not shoes, but stockings that peeps leave out for him). Indeed, one legend has it that Nicholas saved three poor – and, thus, dowry-less – girls from a future of prostitution by dropping sacks of gold coins down their home’s chimney the night before each of them came of age. Hmmm, (taking the sexual overtones out of the myth), sound familiar?

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However, the notion of an old man gift-giver as a central figure during mid-winter festivals far pre-dates the Christianisation of Europe. The tradition can be traced back through European folklore to Odin (Old English: Wōden), one of the major Norse gods, whom would lead the ‘wild hunt’ during the mid-winter Yule festival of the pre-Christian German peoples (Yule also being the festival from which the warming ‘yule log’ was borrowed for Crimbo). Good old Odin also possessed an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir (a precursor to Santa’s eight-strong team of reindeer perhaps?).

Other European pre- ( and contemperaneous of) St. Nick winter festival gift-givers include the Central European Christkind (‘Christ Child’, whom was promoted by Martin Luther to lessen the Catholic/ Orthodox St. Nicholas’s popularity), the Norwegian Julenissen and Swedish Jultomten (elderly men/ dwarves/ gnomes, whom perhaps gave rise to Santa’s dwarfish physicality in ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas), the Danish Julemanden (the ‘Christmas Man’ who hails from Greenland – maybe why Santa comes from the North Pole?), the Finnish Jolupukki (er, a goat) and, of course, the British Father Christmas.

Aha, Father Christmas! Nowadays the oh-so Anglo-Saxon sounding chap is generally accepted as Blighty’s equivalent to Santa, or essentially the name us Brits use for him. Yet that most certainly wasn’t always so. Check out the fact the French gift-giver’s name (Père Noël) is an exact Gaulish version. And that ain’t all. A similar name is used for equivalent figures in cultures throughout Eastern Europe (including Bosnia, Serbia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania) as well as Spain and Latin America (Argentina, Brazil and Chile) and among Christian communities in Africa and the Middle East (Egypt, Iran and Syria). Although, traditionally in Wales he’s ‘Siôn Corn’ (Chimney John). Ah, the Welsh, eh?

All this isn’t a coincidence, mind you. For Father Christmas, traditionally speaking, is effectively a personification of Christmas itself, rather like, if you will, the personifications in literature, art and music of nations (for example, ‘John Bull’ for Britain/ England and ‘Marianne’ for France). Indeed, in past centuries his English version was alternatively known as Old Father Christmas and even Sir Christmas and Lord Christmas. As such then, the ‘English’ Father Christmas was never actually a gift-giver.

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Politically incorrect?: an old-school Coca-Cola ad (l) and the Dutch Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piets (r)

He was merely a jolly, bearded and elderly chap whose spirit reflected, well, the spirit of the festival with which he was associated and he was old to reflect the fact Christmas had been celebrated for centuries. Plus, he had much more a link to adult feasting than he was a St. Nick-esque benefactor for children, developing in the mid- to late 16th Century as a focal figure of opposition to the Puritan movement (which had its zenith when Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector following the English Civil War and, yes, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed).

His earliest mentions in English literature seem to date from a pair of 15th Century carols, while he also appears (very much as his festival’s personification) in Ben Johnson’s play Christmas His Masque (1616). Actually, to get a real hold on who he was, check out the classic seasonal novella A Christmas Carol (1843) and/ or its subsequent movie adaptations. For Charles Dickens‘ Ghost of Christmas Present is basically the old-fashioned Father Christmas – right down to the green (not red) trimmed coat he wears, which was the figure’s traditional garb until late Victorian times.

Inevitably then, as the late Victorian era gave way to the 20th Century and Santa became better and better known to the wider Western world, Father Christmas and Santa Claus slowly merged into one in the minds of millions of Crimbo revellers and gift-receiving, stocking-hanging and mince pie- and glass of sherry-leaving-out children. But all of that assumes that Santa Claus  (and/ or later Father Christmas) naturally inherited his mantle from St. Nicholas. How did that happen? After all, Santa Claus doesn’t exactly sound like St. Nicholas, does it? Well, no, but both sound a lot like Sinterklaas (or more formally ‘Sint Nikolaas’), which is the Dutch for St. Nicholas.

Standing out from the crowd somewhat when it comes to the modern take on the St. Nick/ Santa/ Father Christmas tradition, the Netherlands and Benelux countries still make a big deal out of celebrating Sinterklaas on his feast day (December 5), when his arrival in towns, dressed in red like a Christian bishop and with a staff, to give out presents to deserving children is often televised. Curiously, at least on the surface, Sinterklaas is accompanied not by pre-Christian, Northern European folklore-derived elves, but by blacked-up companions named Zwarte Piets (Black Petes).

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Nowadays this practice may seem rather inappropriate, even xenophobic or racist, but the origin of the Zwarte Piets is worthy of divulging. The tradition of the Sinterklaas feast, in an anticipating-the-birth-of-Jesus sort of way, is all about good (light, represented by his white beard) overcoming evil (black, represented by the ‘skin tone’ of his minions), thus the Zwarte Piets were originally supposed to represent Moorish non-Christians taken under Sinterklaas’s wing (owing to the tradition coming from Catholic Spain) and later they came to represent African slave boys Sinterklaas was supposed to have saved from the Dutch/ Belgian colonies. All a little odd to an Anglo-Saxon mindset maybe, but logical nonetheless.

Logical too, of course, was the rise and rise our familiar Crimbo figure that is the modern Santa experienced during the 20th Century. Initially, at least, one monolith of a company in particular can be thanked (and/ or blamed) a great deal for this: Coca-Cola.

So identified with the sugar (and one-time cocaine-)fuelled soft drink was our hero that some – especially in the States – not only believe the company was responsible for creating his red costume, but also for creating him. Fortunately, that’s not true, of course. But it is true that thanks to ad artist Haddon Sundblom’s interpretation of the jolly chap, originally conceived and used by Coca-Cola in the 1930s, the image of him we’re all oh-so familiar with became the eternal one. Indeed, Sunblom’s original effort is still used by Coca-Cola to this day. Lesser known is that earlier still another soft drink manufacturer White Rock Beverages used images of Claus to advertise both mineral water (1915) and ginger ale (1923).

Although, Santa/ Father Christmas’s persona as a benevolent giver, despite – one may cynically observe – regularly coming to appear as a Christmas-period promotional tool in department stores and in their sponsored parades (especially for Macy’s in New York City), was aided by the dressing up of fundraising volunteers in his now traditional red-robed garb to collect donations from charitable peeps on street corners. And this thoroughly selfless, utterly self-sacrificing interpretation (along with all the reindeer-owning, sleigh-riding, gift-giving and North Pole-inhabiting acoutrements) was the one that TV and Hollywood writers, producers and directors were only too happy to give us when casting him as the hero and/ or kindly paternal figure in many family-friendly, seasonal-market-aimed productions.

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Santa on screen: Edward Woodward’s Ghost of Christmas Present in 1984’s A Christmas Carol (top l); Rankin-Bass’s version in 1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town (top m); David Huddleston in 1985’s Santa Claus: The Movie (top r); Tom Allen in 1994’s The Santa Clause (btm l); ‘Weirdy Beardy’ in 1999’s Hooves Of Fire (btm m); and James Cosmo in 2005’s The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (btm r)

Arguably as much as Coca-Cola did earlier (and, yes, later) in the 20th Century, in the second-half of that century, television and film have immortalised old Santa for millions around the globe; although he first appeared on screen in, yes, 1898 (see top video clip above). Essentially, the Rankin-Bass animators (1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town), the people behind the cinematic Superman (1985’s Santa Claus: The Movie), Disney (1994’s The Santa Clause and its sequels) and oh-so many more have presented us with same figure.

More recent screen interpretations have tried different things – turning him into a grumpy bloke of British suburbia (1991’s Father Christmas), making him tackily but lovably trendy (1999’s Hooves Of Fire) or presenting him in the guise of Narnia author CS Lewis’s supposedly Anglo-centric ‘Father Christmas’, whom doesn’t wear scarlet but still gives gifts (2005’s The Lion, The With And The Wardrobe) – yet they’ve still mined the familiar and popular version of Claus, if turned it up at the corners for variety’s sake.

To this day, the most original, interesting and enduring screen take on Santa (see middle video clip above) is one that dates back as far as 1947. The presentation of the character as the playfully ambiguous is-he-or-isn’t-he-really-Santa? Kris Kringle in the Hollywood classic Miracle On 34th Street mixed the reality of Claus as a commercial commodity for cosmopolitan department stores with him as something altogether more innocent, truer and purer. A kindly old man do-gooder who offers a little peace and goodwill for peeps at a particularly stressful time of year.

And, when you come down to it at amid all the soot at the bottom of the chimney, it’s for this reason that, despite him being year-on-year, ever increasingly associated with (for a better way of putting it) capitalist greed, the white bearded one always appeals, delights and fills joy in the hearts of children of all ages this time of year.

As US  Santa performer from Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jonathan Meath put it in a November 2011 interview with Yankee Magazine: “Santa is really the only cultural icon we have who’s male, doesn’t carry a gun, and is all about peace, joy, giving, and caring for other people. That’s part of the magic for me, especially in a culture where we’ve become so commercialised and hooked into manufactured icons. Santa is much more organic, integral, connected to the past, and therefore connected to the future. I like that representation of Santa because I’m not a Coca-Cola Santa. I’m much more of a Santa of the woods, a Santa of the snow, a Santa of the solstice.” Quite so. And if that doesn’t fill your tummy, nay, your heart with a deep, rumbling ‘ho ho ho!’ then nothing will. Happy Christmas to all – and to all a good-night…!

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