Sunday, December 7, 2008

Father Christmas

While St. Nicholas was catching on in Europe, Father Christas was evolving in the British Isles. Unlike his gift-giving counterpart, however, Father Christmas was a personification of the season, depicted in a green robe with a holly wreath around his head, surrounded by food and drink.

The Vikings believed their father god, Odin, had a different aspect for every season. At the winter solstice, he was an old man dressed in a long coat with flowing white hair and beard who secretly visited among his people to determine their contentment. From the autumnal equinox to Beltane, Odin rode across the skies in a wild hunt on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir. Children would leave carrots, straw and sugar in their boots by the fireplace for the magical horse to eat.

At the winter solstice, the most elderly man in the village would dress in furs and drape himself with ivy. “Old Winter” would go from house to house, carrying the spirit of the season with him. To extend him hospitality meant good luck in the new year.

For the Celts, this was the time of the Oak King and Holly King. But there is another image upon which Father Christmas is based. The Green Man personified the everlasting qualities of nature. Popular among cultures before the Romans (to them he was Viridios which means verdure), images of the Green Man adorn many Medieval churches in England. He is depicted with ivy—the sacred symbol of rebirth in pagan as well as Christian traditions—wreathing his head and growing out of his mouth and ears. Or he is covered in oak leaves, the most sacred of trees to the Druids.

Modern Times
The earliest references to Father Christmas can be found in a carol written by Richard Smart, the rector of Plymtree in Devon, sometime in the mid-15th century:

Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
’Who is there that singeth so?’
’I am here, Sir Christëmas.’
’Welcome, my lord Christëmas,
Welcome to us all, both more and less
Come near, Nowell!

Ben Johnson described Sir Christmas in Christmas His Masque (1616) as clad in round hose, long stockings, doublet, high-crowned hat with a broach, long thin beard, ruffles, white shoes, a scarf and cross-tied garters. In 1638, “Christmasse” was depicted as “an old reverend Gentleman in a furr'd gowne and cappe…” (The Springs Glorie by Thomas Nabbes).

Meanwhile, In America, Sinterklaas was taking hold. In 1809—the year the New York Historical Society named St. Nicholas patron saint of New York City—Washington Irving wrote of him as a rotund, pipe-smoking Dutchman in a broad-brimmed hat and baggy breeches. But it was Clement Clark Moore who gave us our modern image of jolly old St. Nick in his 1822 poem, T’was the Night Before Christmas. Then, in 1863, an American artist by the name of Thomas Nast painted him clad in a red suit instead of the traditional long, flowing green robe.

With the rise in popularity of Sinterklaas in the United States, and the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert, Father Christmas’ spirit-of-the-wildwood attributes and ties to nature gradually faded away. Today he is synonymous with St. Nick and Santa Claus.

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