As any excited small child will tell you, Father Christmas wears a red-and-white outfit.
But take a look at our picture – a postcard from the Scarborough Collections dating, probably, from around the turn of the last century. It’s clearly him – those intriguing sacks bulging with toys give the game away – but he’s wearing a rather tasteful shade of taupe.
There are many stories around why red and white have become fixed in our collective consciousness as his colours. One popular one is that American soft drinks giant Coca Cola used the colours in an ad campaign in the 1930s, and such is their cultural power, they’ve become accepted ever since.
Another links the colour to the fly agaric toadstool – the red one with white spots which appears in many a fairytale. Potently hallucinogenic, fly agaric was popular with Siberian shamans who liked to use it for recreational purposes, and would tour their communities, dressed in red-and-white robes, handing out the mushrooms door to door from a large sack.
And then, of course, there was the original St Nicholas, a Turkish bishop in the third century AD. Wearing red robes, he travelled around giving gifts to the poor, especially children. But he was apparently very shy, so would often drop gifts down a family’s chimney, where they would land in a stocking below. A likely story.
In this country we had our own Father Christmas. He’s believed to have represented the coming of spring, so wore hooded fur robes and a wreath of evergreens – holly, ivy and mistletoe. Also known as King Winter, he was welcomed into households with open arms, as kindness to him could help ensure a milder winter.
And the Vikings had their stories of Odin, who, at the end of December, became the white-bearded Jul (Yule) and visited the earth in a blue hooded cloak handing out gifts.
So, our modern Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, or St Nicholas, or whatever you want to call him, seems to be a highly complex melting pot of many global traditions.
At Scarborough Museums Trust this Christmas, we’ve plumped for the old English tradition of a green Father Christmas. He’ll be receiving visitors in his coastal-themed grotto at the Rotunda Museum on Saturdays 7 and 14 December from 10am to 4pm. Entry to the Rotunda is free on both days for both adults and children. Entry to the grotto is £3 per child (including Christmas present).