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Father Christmas


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The earliest evidence for a personified ‘Christmas’ is a carol attributed to Richard Smart, Rector of Plymtree (Devon) from 1435 to 1477 (Dearmer and Williams, Oxford Book of Carols (1928), no. 21, 41–3); it is a sung dialogue between someone representing ‘Sir Christmas’ and a group who welcome him, in a way suggestive of a visiting custom:Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell!‘Who is there that singeth so?’‘I am here, Sir Christmas.’‘Welcome, my lord Sir Christmas,Welcome to us all, both more and less,Come near, Nowell!’

Sir Christmas then gives news of Christ's birth, and urges his hearers to drink:‘Buvez bien par toute la compagnie,Make good cheer and be right merry.’

There were Yule Ridings in York (banned in 1572 for unruliness), where a man impersonating Yule carried cakes and meat through the street. In Tudor and Stuart times, ‘Lords of Misrule’ called ‘Captain Christmas’, ‘The Christmas Lord’, or ‘Prince Christmas’ organized and presided over the season's feasting and entertainments in aristocratic houses, colleges, and Inns of Court. A personified ‘Christmas’ appears in Ben Jonson's court entertainment Christmas his Masque (1616), together with his sons: Misrule, Carol, Mince Pie,Gambol, Post-and-Pan, New Year's Gift, Mumming, Wassail, and Baby Cake. He protests against an attempt to exclude him:Why, gentlemen, do you know what you do? Ha! Would you have kept me out? Christmas, Old Christmas, Christmas of London, and Captain Christmas? … Why, I am no dangerous person … I am Old Gregory Christmas still, and though I am come from Pope's Head Alley, as good a Protestant as any in my parish.

Why, gentlemen, do you know what you do? Ha! Would you have kept me out? Christmas, Old Christmas, Christmas of London, and Captain Christmas? … Why, I am no dangerous person … I am Old Gregory Christmas still, and though I am come from Pope's Head Alley, as good a Protestant as any in my parish.

The need to defend seasonal revelry against Puritan accusations of Popery became more urgent some decades later. Pamphleteers continued the device of personifying Christmas, as in The Examination and Tryall of Old Father Christmas (1658) and An Hue and Cry after Christmas (1645). Echoing this tradition, Father Christmas acts as presenter in many versions of the mumming play, with such opening lines as:In comes I, old Father Christmas,Be I welcome or be I not?I hope old Father ChristmasWill never be forgot.

The Victorian revival of Christmas involved Father Christmas too, as the emblem of ‘good cheer’, but at first his physical appearance was variable. He had always been imagined as old and bearded (in a masque by Thomas Nabbes (1638) he is ‘an old reverend gentleman in furred gown and cap’), but pictures in the Illustrated London News in the 1840s show him variously as a reveller in Elizabethan costume grasping a tankard, a wild, holly-crowned giant pouring wine, or a lean figure striding along carrying a wassail bowl and a log. One famous image was John Leech's illustration for Dickens's Christmas Carol (1843), where the gigantic Ghost of Christmas Present, sitting among piled-up food and drink, wears exactly the kind of fur-trimmed loose gown of the modern Father Christmas—except that it is green, matching his holly wreath.

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Subjects: literature.


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