Santa Claus ate Father Christmas. It happened quite suddenly. Well, it took about a decade, but that’s suddenly in cultural terms. Over the course of the 1870s the venerable British figure of Father Christmas was consumed by an American interloper.
Father Christmas (first recorded in the 14th century) was the English personification of Christmas. Just as Jack Frost is a personification of the cold and the Easter Bunny is a rabbitification of Easter, so Father Christmas stood for Christmas. He was an old man (because Christmas was ancient) and he was plump (because Christmas was a feast). But Father Christmas did not give presents, did not come down the chimney, had nothing to do with stockings or reindeer and did not live at the North Pole. All that stuff was Santa, and Santa was a New Yorker. Indeed, he’s pretty much entirely the invention of a single organisation: the New-York Historical Society.
Ultimately, Santa Claus goes all the way back to an obscure third-century chap called Saint Nicholas of Myra, who had a reputation for gift-giving. The result of that was that the Dutch used to give their children presents on St Nicholas’s day, which is the sixth of December. Their children would leave their shoes on the windowsill overnight and in the morning St Nicholas would have left little presents in them. It was the Dutch tradition that excited John Pintard, who was founder and head of the New-York Historical Society. Everybody knows that New York had once been New Amsterdam and Pintard’s mission in life was to re-Dutch the place.
Pintard started a campaign to revive the habit of giving presents on St Nicholas’s day. He printed pamphlets and tried to have Nicholas made patron saint of New York, and generally made himself a little ridiculous. That’s when Washington Irving, also a member of the New-York Historical Society, stepped in. He produced a spoof history of New York that lampooned Pintard’s campaign. He had Saint Nick arriving with the earliest settlers and flying around in a ‘sky-wagon’ hurling down people’s chimneys presents that somehow ended up in children’s stockings.
It was all meant to be a joke. Washington never meant any of it to be taken seriously. It was immediately taken seriously. The book was a bestseller, a tradition was born out of all but nothing, and a few years later a third member of the New-York Historical Society called Clement Clarke Moore wrote a little poem for his children that began with the world-changing words, ‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house…’
Those words did change the world, because it was Clarke Moore who moved St Nicholas’s visit from the sixth of December to the 24th. That poem is the reason that Santa comes at Christmas. It also helps explain how — when Santa came to Britain and ate Father Christmas — the British started giving Christmas presents, too.
In ‘A Christmas Carol’, when Scrooge sees the light and decides to use his savings to celebrate Christmas, he takes a turkey to the Cratchits’, but doesn’t buy anything that we would recognise as a proper present. That’s because the British barely gave gifts at Christmas, instead we gave them at new year. They weren’t entirely unknown, well off families might buy a child a toy and Dickens’s eldest daughter remembered being taken to a toyshop on Christmas Eve when she was little in the 1840s. But there were no stockings, and when she got a bit older, Dickens stopped buying her presents.
What’s really strange about Santa, though, is that he was the first trickle in the flood of American exports that would continue for the next 80 years or so. For most of the 19th century America had been a cultural importer. One might even say that they suffered from cultural cringe (although that term was invented for Australia by an Australian). American’s urban architecture was imitation European architecture, American literature — as practised by Hawthorne, Bierce or Poe — was imitation European literature, and the less said about American painting and classical music the better.
But Santa marked a new age: the beginning of the American invention of the modern world. The first true skyscraper was the Home Insurance Building in Chicago in 1885, astonishing not just as a feat of engineering but as a feat of cultural confidence. This was a building unlike anything in Europe, and Americans didn’t care, for America had entered its great period of introspection and creativity: creating the aeroplane, the mass-produced auto-mobile, jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll, Hollywood, westerns, hamburgers and blue jeans. All were born in a period when America wasn’t gazing across the Atlantic asking us whether this was the right thing to do. In 1926, Henry Ford almost invented the two-day weekend — not to conform to an international standard but because he thought it would be profitable. America was economically protectionist, politically isolationist, and culturally it didn’t give a star-spangled damn, except when forced almost against its will into joining two world wars.
But I digress. The story of Christmas is one of constant invention, reinvention and forgetting plus a great deal of cultural exchange. The Americans may have sent us Santa but Charles Dickens was sent the other way. Dickens perfected the science of Christmas by making it a family affair. As he depicts it, Christmas is all very snug because the curtains are closed and the door is fastened. This would have shocked people in previous ages. In the early 17th century, for instance, the lord of the manor’s door would be open on Christmas Day so that all the villagers could come and eat his food. It sounds like the invention of rosy-spectacled historians but this really happened. Indeed, it was considered so important for social cohesion that James I actually banned noblemen from remaining in London over Christmas, because it might have stopped them doing their noble gastronomic duty.
If there’s one thing that writing a book on Christmas traditions teaches you, it’s that there never has been a true Christmas (except perhaps the first one). Traditions have come and quite as swiftly disappeared. Some day, many years from now researchers may be looking back at the quaint, true traditions of Black Friday and the John Lewis Advert (a peculiar but exquisite art form, much like a renaissance masque, with no dialogue and a recurring theme of incurable isolation momentarily assuaged by gift-giving).
And as for the true Christmas traditions? Well, truth has never truly understood the Christmas spirit. The true Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas of Myra. He truly lived. He truly died. His body is still interred in the Italian City of Bari. So if what you want from Christmas is a little bit of truth (and I don’t recommend it) or if you simply have a particularly annoying child who’s bored with Santa’s Grotto, you can take them to see Santa’s grave.
Mark Forsyth’s latest book is A Christmas Cornucopia.