26 December 2020


Tom A. Jerman. Santa Claus Worldwide, A History of St. Nicholas and Other Holiday Gift-Bringers. McFarland, 2020. 

You’ve probably seen a lot of comment recently that this is the first year since the time of Oliver Cromwell that Christmas has been cancelled and all the pubs have been closed on order of Parliament. One of the sidelights of this book has been to show just how wrong this idea is. 
Under Cromwell’s Protectorate, the Puritans did indeed ban the celebration of Christmas, claiming that there was no Biblical authority for such a celebration, and the Bible did not say on which day Christ was born. But they insisted that it should be treated as any other day, and to emphasis the point made it law that the pubs (inns or taverns) should remain open on 25th December. Ah, the good old days! 

The other surprising information the book presents is that Santa Claus and Father Christmas are two entirely different figures with different histories, even though they now seem to have been combined into one generic Mid-Atlantic gift bearer. 

It’s pretty well understood that the celebration of Christmas, as distinct from the Nativity, is one manifestation of a long succession of mid-winter solstice events, marking, with fire, lights, food, drink and often riotous celebrations, the point at which the calendar turns and a new year and new life begins to return. In the northern hemisphere at least. 

Jerman looks at the Roman Empire’s celebration of Saturnalia in southern Europe, and the Nordic celebration of Jul, in the north, and similar pagan winter celebrations in eastern Europe. These were usually centred around the main pagan god, being Saturn and Mithras in the south; Odin or Woden in the north. 

As Christianity spread northwards from the Mediterranean, religious figures saw it as being opportune to overlay the Christian narrative onto the pagan practices, and in particular the creation of a Christianised gift-bringing figure to replace the pagan gods. In northern Europe St Nicholas provided a convenient figure, his feast day being closest to the winter solstice, which under the Julian calendar fell on the 5th/6th December, and in much of Europe this is still a traditional day for giving presents. 

Although the gift-giver was Christianised, many of the accompanying stories and characters reflected their pagan origins. These included figures such as Knecht Ruprecht, a companion of St Nicholas who was the saint’s ‘disciplinary helper’ charged with punishing those who had behaved badly and did not deserve their gifts. This was considered a role unduitable a saint. 

After the Reformation, the character of St Nicholas changed in the countries which had adopted Protestantism, and the idea of saints handing out presents was considered Catholic and even pagan. This led to the creation of what Jerman calls ‘faux-Nicholases’, such as Sinterclaas in the Netherlands, Weihnachtsmann in Germany, Pelznikel, Krisskringel, and Santa Claus, but not Father Christmas. 

He is a bit of an outlier. The Reformation in England did not at first involve any great change in church doctrine or practice, and largely involved the return of ecclesiastical power from a European authority to English control. (Now where have I heard of something else a bit like that recently?) It did not immediately call for the rejection of the Catholic saints, and the celebration of Christmas in England carried on much as before the break with Rome. 

The first mention of ‘Father Christmas’ in England was in the mid 1400’s, where he appears quite independently of the European gift-bringers, appearing in mummer’s-plays as a characterisation of the Christmas festivities. The growth of a ‘purer’ form of Protestantism, which led eventually to the banning of Christmas celebration during the time of the Commonwealth, meant that after the Restoration he provided an almost political figure to represent the rejection of Puritan austerity. His first pictorial representation is in a political woodcut of 1652, where he is depicted as a bearded, robed figure, between a Parliamentary soldier telling him to leave, and a peasant proclaiming “Old Christmas, welcome; do not fear”. 

The American Santa Claus evolved separately through the Sintaklaas and Kriskindl figures introduced into America by the early Dutch and German settlers. Jerman is at pains – and great length – to dismiss the idea that the modern Santa Claus was a creation of nineteenth century writers such as Washington Irving, Clement Moore and his ‘Night Before Christmas’ poem; and the drawings of Thomas Nast, and was an established feature of American Christmas celebrations much earlier. 

The history of the Christmas gift-bringers in long and complicated, full of strange byways and bizarre characters such as the Krampus and the Catalonian shit-log (yes, really) and sometimes these characters family trees get rather confused and complicated. But strange byways of history and characters are what any Fortean or Magonian would hope for, and this book supplies them in abundance. – Richard Samuels.

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