St Nicolas – he has so much to say, he needed his own post. The prototype for holiday gift-bringers – unless you count Odin the Yule-father but that’s just too much to deal with – St Nick has had so many changes it’s hard to keep track of all the stockings he’s filled.
So who is this guy who’s supposed to come into houses the night of Dec 24th and leave things, this reverse burglar? He’s got numerous aliases, so that’s suspicious. Let’s name them, just for kicks:
Kris Kringle, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Sir Christmas, Captain Christmas, Gregory.
Kris Kringle – Edmund Gwenn plays the part impeccably in Miracle on 34th Street but he may be too old for the part. Kris Kringle is a corruption of the German Krist Kindl – Christ Child. The word was also loaned out as Christingle, a children’s mass on Christmas Eve taken from the Moravian custom of the 18th C. But all-in-all it’s a good sounding name. Or, if you could hear it, the sound of frost growing and retreating on a windowpane – krissss kringle!
Santa Claus – St Nick’s American nom de guerre is loaned out from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Like Stuyvesant Square in New York City, this piece of Netherlander lore is firmly packed inside American culture. While we as kids believed with all our hearts that Coca Cola invented his fat face, white beard and red suit, it isn’t true. However, their artist – Haddon Sundblom – did inject Scandinavian elements like the drooping tasseled hat into the vision already created by Clement Clark Moore’s A Visit from St Nicolas.
Most illustrations of him in Moore’s poem are captioned “Santa Claus” instead of St Nicolas. L Frank Baum created a whole new life for him in the Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. A little lost babe taken in by a fairie, Santa – or Neclaus as Baum writes it – grows into a generous man not only giving toys but inventing them too. Huh.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, the name reached England in the 1870s. Hanging up stockings was already an old custom. This new fellow caused some confusion around it. One observer thought it was “Santa Cruz, the Holy Cross”. Another writes in 1879, ‘On Christmas Eve … some mythical being called Santiclaus will fill the stocking … From what region of the earth or air this benevolent Santiclaus takes flight I have not been able to ascertain.’
Father Christmas – as English as John Bull, Father Christmas was traditionally associated with feasting rather than gifting. He comes more from a personification of Yule, or midwinter, than St Nicolas. The figure of Yule himself stems from Odin who flew about the earth on the Winter Solstice bestowing good cheer.
Ben Jonson, playwright and Shakespeare superfriend, wrote a Christmas play for the royal court in 1616 – Christmas his Masque – where Christmas laughs off being left out of the season’s fun. ‘Christmas, Old Christmas, Christmas of London, and Captain Christmas’, as he calls himself. ‘I am Old Gregory Christmas still, and though I am come from Pope’s Head Alley, as good a Protestant as any in my parish.’
Presiding over festivals and seasonal entertainment, Father Christmas became the face of a backlash against the Puritan fight to cancel Christmas. The Puritans saw the season and all its trimmings as a Papist plot to rule England through misrule. That’s right. Many of America’s founders hated Christmas.
Victorians loved him. To them he was a sort of Falstaff of better personal character, pouring wine in Elizabethan dress-up. His image was soon greatly informed by the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. If you ever see him in a loose green robe, that’s the Christmas spirit right there.
And to answer my own question, Father Christmas has many sons. As Ben Jonson names them: Misrule, Carol, Mince Pie, Gambol, Post-and-Pan, New Year’s Gift, Mumming, Wassail, and Baby Cake. As many as Santa’s reindeer including Rudolph. I bet it’s Wassail who has the red nose.