Santa's Whiskers

Excerpt from Josiah King's The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas (1686), published shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England. Image: 
Many people continued to celebrate Christmas in private, and in his pamphlet "The Vindication of Christmas" (1652), John Taylor provided a portrait of how the old Christmas festivities were still being kept up by the farmers of Devon.{cke_protected_1}
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.


Father Christmas

Father Christmas is the traditional British name for a figure associated with Christmas. He was originally described as a large man with a beard, but not old, dressed in a fur-lined green robe, who visited houses and feasted with families during the Old English midwinter festival. He is the first to stand up against the Reformation.

In early references, he was not a giver of gifts to children nor did he go down chimneys. He was a Yuletide visitor, known as “Old Winter” or “Sir Christmas”, celebrating with adults from one home to another.

The first evidence of personifying Christmas into Father Christmas is a carol attributed to Richard Smart, who was rector of Plymtree (a small village in mid-Devon countryside a few miles from Cullompton, England) from 1435 to 1477. Meant to be sung, the carol is a dialogue between Sir Christmas and those who welcome him:

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!’

Another personification of Christmas appears in Ben Jonson’s court entertainment entitled “Christmas, His Masque” (performed at the English royal court at Christmas of 1616).  By this time the Reformation was attempting to get rid of holiday celebrations, and clearly this is a response. Christmas, together with his children: Misrule, Carol, Mince Pie, Gambol, Post-and-Pan, New Years Gift, Mumming, Wassail, and Baby Cake, protests against an attempt to exclude him from the holiday celebrations:

“Why gentlemen, do you know what you do? Ha! Would you keep 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 defense against Puritan accusations continued, as in The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas in 1658 and A Hue And Cry After Christmas in 1645. (From J. Simpson and S. Roud, The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford, 2001), pp. 119-20)

The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas is a tongue-in-cheek humorous pamphlet of 1686 by Josiah King. It presents Father Christmas as the personification of festive traditions pre-dating the puritan commonwealth. He is described as an elderly gentleman of cheerful appearance, "who when he came look't so smug and pleasant, his cherry cheeks appeared through his thin milk white locks, like (b)lushing Roses vail'd with snow white Tiffany". His character is associated with feasting, hospitality and generosity to the poor rather than the giving of gifts.

As debate intensified, those writing in support of the traditional celebrations often personified Christmas as a venerable, kindly old gentleman, given to good cheer but not excess. They referred to this personification as "Christmas", "Old Christmas" or "Father Christmas". At the time “Father” was a title sometimes given to older men worthy of respect. (OED Online, Oxford University Press, 30 December 2012).  

During this time Father Christmas was banned by the Puritans under Cromwell in the mid 1600’s. He went “underground” along with minced pies, Christmas games and the like. Occasionally secret publishers would print broadsheets (a sort of newspaper) with a verse about “Old Christmas”. He became the personification of everything the British people held dear about Christmas.

In the 1700’s he began to appear in the Christmas plays of itinerant players. In the middle of the play, he would appear, heavily disguised, shouting his challenge, “In comes I, Old Father Christmas. Be I welcome or be I not – I hope that old Christmas will never be forgot!”

​As with many customs associated with British Christmas, the tradition of Father Christmas remained, even when the saintly or religious elements were lost. He became a benevolent, jovial character, synonymous with the goodwill of Christmas.