In recent years the names Father Christmas and Santa Claus have become interchangeable. What seems to be relatively unknown, however, is that they were actually two completely separate people.
Santa Claus is American, and originated from Sinter Klaas; the Dutch name for St Nicholas. St Nicholas was a 4th Century Greek bishop known for helping the poor and was particularly kind to children. Legend has it he met a poor man who was on the brink of selling his own daughters into slavery. Under the cover of darkness, the saint anonymously threw three bags of gold down the chimney to provide dowries for the girls. The gold landed in their stockings, which were drying by the fire.
Father Christmas is British, and the earliest depictions appeared during ancient mid-winter festivals. He didn’t yet have the title of Father Christmas and was a general pagan figure who represented the coming of spring. He would wear a long, green hooded cloak and a wreath of holly, ivy or mistletoe.
When Britain fell under Saxon rule, Father Christmas took on the characteristics of the Saxon Father Time, also known as King Winter. Someone would dress up as King Winter and be welcomed into homes, where he would sit near the fire and be given something to eat and drink – like leaving out mince pies and whisky for Father Christmas.
When the Vikings invaded Britain, they brought their own midwinter traditions with them. The 20th through to the 31st December was known as Jultid – the time when the Norse God Odin takes on the character of Jul, one of his twelve characters, and visits the earth. The name lives on today as Yuletide.
It’s not entirely clear how St Nicholas made his way to America to become Santa Claus, but it is suggested it was through the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, which later became New York. In 1809 Washington Irvine’s History of New York claimed that old Dutch families still told tales of Sinter Klaas on St Nicholas’s Day of how he would fly over the city in a wagon and climb down chimneys to deliver presents.
In 1821 an anonymous illustrated poem called ‘Old Santeclaus with Much Delight’ introduced Santa’s red coat, reindeer and sleigh, and put his arrival on Christmas Eve rather than St Nicholas’s Day. Two years later Clement Clark Moore reinforced the legend in his poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ – better known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’.
Historians think that Santa Claus first arrived in England in 1864, when he featured alongside Father Christmas in a story by American author Susanna Warner. By the 1880s Santa Claus had almost completely merged with Father Christmas and was popular across all parts of the country.
The Victorians brought a new kind of Christmas to England which focused on families and gift giving. Generous, jolly and dedicated to children, Santa Claus was the ideal character for their new version of Christmas, he just needed to adopt a familiar name.
And so, Santa Claus and Father Christmas became one. Although they are similar today, and tend to be interchangeable, Father Christmas and Santa are in fact two separate, yet equally festive beings.