For many Englishmen, the Yuletide would not be complete without Father Christmas. Although many Americans may simply regard Father Christmas as a British variant of Santa Claus, Father Christmas actually predates the American character of Santa Claus by a good deal. In fact, Father Christmas was around before there was even a United States of America.
In fact, Father Christmas has been around for so long that no one can be certain when the character came about. It is possible that he owes something to the god called Wóden by the Angles and Saxons who invaded Britain and thus created England, the god called by the Vikings Óðinn. In Old Norse sources, Óðinn has an appearance quite similar to that of the later Father Christmas. He has a long, grey beard and wears a wide brimmed hat and a cloak. In some legends, Óðinn even appears as a gift giver. In the Volsunga Saga, it is Óðinn who gives Sigurðr the marvellous horse Grani. According to Saxo Grammaticus, in his Gesta Danorum, Óðinn granted Harald Wartooth immunity to all wounds. The similarity between Óðinn and Father Christmas may go farther than gift giving. Among Óðinn's many names was Jólnir, a name derived from Old Norse Jól. Jól in Old English was Géol, our modern word Yule. It would then appear that the Vikings associated Óðinn with the holiday of Jól, and it seems safe to say that the pagan Angles and Saxons believed the same of Wóden. While Father Christmas is associated with Christmas, then, Wóden may have been associated with Géol or Yule, the holiday whose customs would survive in Christmas in much of northern Europe.
Of course, it is difficult to say whether Father Christmas owes anything to Wóden or not, despite their similarities. He could have simply evolved out of the medieval tendency towards personification and allegory. After all, it was during the Middle Ages that such personifications as the Grim Reaper (perhaps the most popular personification of Death) and Dame Fortune evolved. And it is during the Middle Ages that the first printed reference to a personification of Christmas is made. In a 15th century Christmas carol, often credited to Richard Smart (the Rector of Plymtree in Devon from 1435 to 1477). The carol is essentially a dialogue between a figure called "Sir Christmas" and a group who is welcoming him.
By the time of the Tudors, Yuletide festivities were often presided over by a figure variously called "Captain Christmas," "Sir Christmas," or "Lord Christmas." By the time of James I, the personification of Christmas was popular enough that playwright Ben Johnson made him the centre of his Christmas his Masque (from 1616). Thomas Nabbes would not only feature Father Christmas in a masque, The Springs Glorie (from 1638), but he would give us our first illustration of Father Christmas. He was portrayed as an old man wearing a furred cap and coat.
The Puritans tended to regard Christmas as a pagan holiday and actively discouraged its celebration, even going so far as to ban the celebration of Christmas in 1644. This simply resulted in those in favour of the celebration of the holiday going even further in personifying Christmas. An example of this was a pamphlet, published in 1645 in reaction to the Puritan ban on Yule, called An Hue and Cry after Christmas. An Hue and Cry after Christmas portrayed Christmas as "...an old, old, very old greybearded gentleman..." who "...used to appear in glittering gold, silk and silver, in the court, and in all shapes in the theatre in White Hall..." Even after the holiday was reinstated, many Englishmen felt the need to protect both the holiday and its personification. The Examination and Tryall of Old Father Christmas by Josiah King was published not long after the celebration of Christmas returned to Great Britain. As the title would indicate, in King's satire Father Christmas is placed on trial for inciting the folk "..to drunkennesse, Gluttony, and unlawful Gaming, Wantonnesse, Uncleanness, Lasciviousness, Cursing, Swearing..." King not only defended celebrating Christmas with joy and fun, but in the process he popularised the name of the personification of Christmas as "Father Christmas."
While the name of the personification of Christmas more or less became set in time as "Father Christmas," his appearance would vary right up to the Victorian Era. Ever since Thomas Nabbes had first done so, Father Christmas was almost always portrayed as old and bearded. Beyond that, however, his appearance could vary wildly. He might appear as an old man in a long, hooded coat or as a gigantic figure crowned by holly. It was during the Victorian Era that Father Christmas's appearance would become more consistent. He would appear as an old man in a long, furred, hooded coat of green and, more often than not, accompanied by holly.
Further changes to Father Christmas would come from across the Pond. As most people are aware, in the United States there had evolved a gift giving figure called Santa Claus. The poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," also known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," would set the appearance of Santa Claus in years to come. The poem paints a picture of an old, bearded, pipe smoking, round man dressed all in fur. American political cartoonist Thomas Nast would have an even greater impact on the appearance of Santa Claus. He first illustrated jolly, old St. Nick for the 1962 holiday edition of Harper's Weekly. Nast popularised the image of Santa Claus as a rotund, jolly old man dressed in furred clothing. It would not be long before the American figure of Santa Claus would influence the English figure of Father Christmas.
Indeed, by the 1880s Father Christmas was more often portrayed as being dressed in red than in green. Holly appeared less frequently in illustrations of Father Christmas as well. Previously, Father Christmas was seen as presiding over adults' celebration of Christmas. After the 1880s, however, he became a gift giver the same way that Santa Claus was, bringing presents to little children. It would not be long before Father Christmas would be thought of as living at the North Pole and driving a sleigh.
As a figure who has played a large role in the British celebration of Christmas for centuries, Father Christmas quite naturally appears in pop culture.In Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present would seem to be based on the imagery of Father Christmas. The Ghost of Christmas Present is described as a huge man with a red beard wearing a fur lined, green robe. Father Christmas himself figured in a story "Old Father Christmas" by Victorian writer Juliana Horatia Ewing. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote letters to his children as "Father Christmas," later published as The Father Christmas Letters. In the letters Tolkien created his own mythos for the old man (the elvan Tengwar script, featured in Lord of the Rings, first appeared there). Tolkien's friend, C. S. Lewis, also included Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first book in The Chronicles of Narnia. In 1973 Raymond Briggs published the graphic novel Father Christmas, which presented a radically different view of the character. Briggs would publish a sequel, Father Christmas Goes on Vacation, in 1975. Both graphic novels would provide the basis for the 1987 animated film Father Christmas. Father Christmas has also played a role in numerous television show episodes, from Keeping Up Appearances to Red Dwarf. Naturally, Father Christmas has played a role in songs as well. The most famous may well be The Kinks' "Father Christmas," in which a bloke playing Father Christmas finds himself mugged by street toughs. Another song centred around Father Christmas is "I Believe in Father Christmas," Greg Lake's protest against the commercialisation of the holiday.
The character of Father Christmas has existed in some form for centuries. And while today he is often considered synonymous with Santa Claus, I am not sure that is a good thing. Father Christmas has a history all his own quite separate from that of the American Santa Claus. As a result, he has a charm all his own as well. Indeed, while it would be hard to picture Santa Claus presiding over adult revelry, complete with eggnog and mistletoe, it is easy seeing Father Christmas doing so. While I quite naturally love Santa Claus (after all, living in the States I grew up with him), I also love the original Father Christmas before elements of old St. Nick were incorporated into his character. For that reason I think it would be best if we simply allowed Father Christmas to be his own man, quite distinct from Santa.