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The History of Santa Claus: Father Christmas & the Birth of the Modern Santa
In our previous articles, we have explored how the historical figure of St. Nicholas and the Germanic and Dutch folklore traditions have contributed to the history of Santa Claus. In our final article, we’ll take a look at the rise of the modern Santa Claus figure as influenced by the British portrayal of Father Christmas.
Father Christmas dates back at least as far as the 17th century in Britain. Pictures of him from that era portray him as a large, cheerful—even jolly—bearded man dressed in a long, green, fur-lined robe. He personified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, and was reflected as the “Ghost of Christmas Present”, in A Christmas Carol, a great genial man who takes Scrooge through the bustling streets of London on Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace.
It was in the great melting pot of America that the modern figure of Santa Claus was truly born. Immigrants from the Netherlands, Germany, Scandanavia, and France brought the folklore surrounding St Nicholas and Sinterklaas them, where these traditions merged with the British character Father Christmas to create the character known to Britons and Americans as Santa Claus.
The 19th century saw further changes to the portrayal of Santa Claus. In 1822 Clement C. Moore composed the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas, published as The Night Before Christmas as a gift for his children. Until Moore’s famous poem, much of the folklore surrounding Santa had not been solidified, but this established Santa as a merry, chubby, white-bearded man in a red suit whose sleigh was pulled by reindeer, and who entered by the chimney to leave presents in the children’s stockings.
However, A Visit from Saint Nicholas specifies Santa as “a right jolly old elf,” and he was frequently portrayed as an elf until American cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted Santa Claus in his modern form in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The story that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole may also have been a Nast creation. A color collection of Nast’s pictures, published in 1869, had a poem also titled “Santa Claus and His Works” by George P. Webster, who wrote that Santa Claus’s home was “near the North Pole, in the ice and snow”.
The history of Santa Claus is a long one, full of many transformations and tidbits gleaned from various cultures. But as long as there has been some type of Santa figure, whether it be Odin or St. Nicholas or Father Christmas, he has been the epitome of this season, a generous and good-hearted man.