When I was growing up there was no Santa Claus. There were Christmas cards, presents and paper decorations which dangled from the ceiling. There was a Christmas tree hung with baubles and foil-wrapped chocolate treats, with an angel on the top. There was Silent Night, Good King Wenceslas, the Holly and the Ivy and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. There was A Christmas Carolby Charles Dickens, with the three spirits who visit Scrooge in the night, including the Ghost of Christmas Present, jolly and expansive and dressed in green with a wreath around his head like some pagan god of old. But there was no Santa Claus.
Santa Claus came to England in the 1960s along with Coca-Cola and adverts on the TV. Before that we had Father Christmas, a slightly different character. Santa Claus originates in the Catholic countries of Europe, as Saint Nicholas, while Father Christmas is more local. He was born in England as the Royalist response to the Puritan ban on Christmas in the Commonwealth years, from 1644-1660.
During those years shops were forced to stay open on Christmas Day, special Christmas food, such as Christmas cake and plum pudding, was banned, as was the decoration of the home, the singing of carols and the performing of plays. Thomas Mockett, Puritan rector of Gilston in Hertfordshire, argued that Christmas had been a Catholic plot to convert the masses using “riotous drinking, health drinking, gluttony, luxury, wantonness, dancing, dicing, stage-plays, interludes, masks, mummeries, with all other pagan sports.” In 1647 an Ordinance for Abolishing of Festivalswas passed by Parliament, which banned Christmas altogether.
Clever Royalist pamphleteers, knowing how important Christmas was to the people, tied the fortunes of Christmas to the fortunes of the monarchy, and a new character was born. Father Christmas, as the personification of the Christmas season, wore a wide-brimmed hat and a long open robe with sleeves. In his Vindication of Christmas, Royalist poet John Taylor writes: "I was in good hope that so long a misery would have made them glad to bid a merry Christmas welcome. But welcome or not welcome, I am come…" The final verse of the poem is well known: "Lets dance and sing, and make good cheer/For Christmas comes but once a year."
In 1658 Josiah King published The Examination and Tryall of Old Father Christmas in which Father Christmas appears as a white-haired old man who’s on trial for his life based on evidence laid against him by the Commonwealth. Father Christmas’s council states his defence: "Me thinks my Lord, the very Clouds blush, to see this old Gentleman thus egregiously abused. If at any time any have abused themselves by immoderate eating, and drinking or otherwise spoil the creatures, it is none of this old man’s fault; neither ought he to suffer for it; for example the Sun and the Moon are by the heathens worship’d are they therefore bad because idolized? So if any abuse this old man, they are bad for abusing him, not he bad, for being abused." The jury finds for Father Christmas, and he’s acquitted.
In 1660, Charles II was restored to the throne. Although Christmas had been officially banned, it never disappeared completely. Many people continued to enjoy the traditional festivities behind closed doors, but with the restoration of the monarchy the laws banning Christmas were repealed and a new era of open enjoyment began. Thus began the reign of Father Christmas in the British psyche.
Prior to Father Christmas, the figure most associated with the season was The Lord of Misrule. John Stow in his Survey of London, 1603, gives a description: “In the feast of Christmas, there was in the king’s house, wheresoever he was lodged, a Lord of Misrule, or master of merry disports, and the like had ye in the house of every noble man, of honor, or good worship, were he spiritual or temporal.” Many people employed a Lord of Misrule, including the Mayor of London, and a number of local sheriffs.
His job was to “make the rarest pastimes to delight the beholders.” He was responsible for arranging the Christmas entertainment, including masques and processions, plays, and feasts. He was selected by lot from amongst the peasantry and during the period of his reign he held court and was given homage by the revellers. A common tradition in western Europe was to drop a bean, a coin or some other token into a pudding or cake. Whoever found the object would become the King (or Queen) of the bean. Christmas was a time of ritual inversion, where the higher officials, including the king, were expected to wait on the servants. The equivalent in Scotland was known as The Abbott of Unreason.
The role seems to have been derived from the institution of the mock king of the Roman Saturnalia, which took place from December 17-23 in the late classical period, and which had much in common with our modern Christmas. Just like Christmas there was gift-giving, partying, feasting and role reversal, where the masters provided service for their slaves. Candles were lit to encourage the return of the sun over the solstice period. The King of Saturnalia presided over the festivities, issuing absurd orders, such as "Sing naked!" or "Throw him into cold water!", which had to be obeyed by the other guests. The cry “io Saturnalia!” was heard throughout the realm, starting after the public banquet on December 17th and continuing throughout the season.
Another figure who may have had a part to play in the creation of Father Christmas is Odin, one of the leading gods of the Viking and Germanic peoples in the pre-Christian era. Odin was particularly associated with Yule. One of his many names recorded in the Icelandic sources is Jolnir, which means The Yule One. One of the Norse sagas refers to Yule as “a time of greatest mirth and joyance among men." There was a huge party to which vast amounts of beer was brought. The party would last several days and nights and continued until the last of the beer was consumed. Greenery was brought indoors, candles lit, songs sung and a Yule log set light to, which was kept burning for the whole period.
Odin presided over the season. He was the god of wisdom, healing, death, royalty, the gallows, knowledge, war, battle, victory, sorcery, poetry, frenzy, and the alphabet. He appears as a one-eyed man with a long, white beard, wearing a cloak and a wide-brimmed hat, who rides on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, leading the legendary Wild Hunt through the midwinter skies. Could this be the origin of Santa Claus’s Christmas journey?
What all of these festivities have in common is their association with mid-winter, and the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. This must’ve been an immensely important time to our ancestors and a number of prehistoric monuments are aligned to it, including Stonehenge in Wiltshire and Newgrange in Ireland. Stonehenge is aligned to sunrise at the summer solstice and to sunset at the winter solstice. Newgrange is best known for the illumination of its passage and inner chamber by the rising sun on and around the winter solstice. Above the entrance to the passage there is an opening called a roof-box. On mornings around the winter solstice a beam of light penetrates the roof-box and travels up the passage and into the chamber. As the sun rises higher, the beam widens so that the whole chamber is bathed in light.
The word “solstice” means still sun. The rising sun moves across the horizon over the course of the year, from north to south and back again. At its most extreme position, around the two solstices, it appears to stand still. In the winter this must’ve been a time of dread for our ancestors. Not only does the sun appear stuck, unmoving, on the horizon, but the length of the day is significantly shortened and the night extended. It appears as if the sun is dying, as if the light might never return. It’s only after the third day after the solstice, on December 24th, that the sun visibly moves on the horizon and the day lengthens again. This might account for the significance of December 25th, as the birth of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. The whole Christmas story might be a solar myth about the rebirth of the sun.
The winter solstice is marked in a number of cultures, including in Iran, Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Tajikistan where it is called Yalda, and in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, where it is known as Dongzhi. Almost all the mid-winter festivals include the burning of candles and the lighting of fires, which suggests a form of sympathetic magic, lighting fires on earth in order to encourage the sun’s return.