Written by Heather Elvidge
Santa is hard at work now, preparing for his marathon dash on Christmas Eve. With his red suit and white beard, everyone recognises the jolly old elf – yet surprisingly there are rivals for his job.
He does it so well, that we hardly remember how recently Santa took on the gift-giving business. He was given the position in the 1870s by two New Yorkers, author Clement Moore and illustrator Thomas Nast, who turned a saint into a goblin with a sprinkling of Nordic folklore.
Their creation did something new; he focused attention on the home, children and gifts. Shopkeepers and toy makers were delighted. The festive celebrations were no longer solely religious, or aimed at adults.
In Britain the previous gift-bringer was Old Father Christmas, whose roots went back a long way. Victorian illustrations show a bearded man in a long, hooded robe that could be green, blue, brown, or white. He carried a wassail bowl, Yule log, or fir tree, symbols of the season, and wore a crown of holly. Sometimes he was shown with heaps of food and drink – the adults’ perfect Christmas.
The future’s green
Old Father Christmas and Santa Claus represent two versions of the secular Christmas. One is about goodwill, generosity, maybe eating too much and getting a bit merry. The other has become tainted with the pressure to spend, a kind of madness that seems to get worse each year. Yet like our forebears we seem to need a personification of the season, a magical creature full of vigour and life. Luckily, two contenders already exist.
In Santa’s family tree there’s a real person, a fourth-century Bishop of Myra named Nicholas. Revered in his lifetime as a miracle-worker and giver of gifts to the needy, Nicholas became a popular and well-loved saint. He’s the patron saint of children, Russia, sailors, single girls and pawnbrokers, among many others. Over 400 English churches are dedicated to him.
In Europe St Nicholas still rides out on his feast day, December 6, to deliver presents to children who’ve been good during the year. Accompanying him are various mischievous characters, whose original purpose was to chastise the undeserving.
Recently Saint Nicholas, in medieval bishop’s robes, has been appearing in churches in Britain and the US to remind young and old of the true spirit of Christmas. The message is, Santa isn’t bad, but St Nicholas is better.
Old Father Christmas has been revived too – this time, with the spotlight on his green credentials. There’s a hint of Old Yule, northern patron of the medieval feast, and a dash of Father Frost, the Russian forest spirit. Sometimes his skin is green, recalling the Green Knight of Arthurian legend.
The mysterious fable of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – part ghost story, part thriller – was written down around 1400. The Green Knight is strange indeed. His clothes, hair and skin are green and so is his horse; he wears no armour but carries a green axe and a branch of holly.
Fortunately, the new Green Father Christmas seems a cheery sort, but his robe is emerald green and he wears a crown of holly. That jolly old elf had better watch out.