A his­tor­i­cal search for traces of how St. Nicholas became Father Christ­mas and how this devel­op­ment shapes our mod­ern idea of Christmas.

Lit­tle dolls, tin sol­diers or a rock­ing horse? What­ev­er you wish for” is what the 19th cen­tu­ry children’s song ‘What does Father Christ­mas bring?’ sug­gests. Nowa­days it is impos­si­ble to imag­ine the vari­ety of wish lists all across the globe. Gift­ing tra­di­tions based on the cel­e­bra­tion of Jesus Christ’s birth have devel­oped all the way from Nor­way to Egypt, Peru to Sin­ga­pore. These coun­tries may have dif­fer­ent bonds with Chris­tian­i­ty, how­ev­er, one promi­nent sym­bol of mod­ern Christ­mas cul­ture unites them all: the round-bel­lied old man wear­ing a red coat, accom­pa­nied by rein­deer and a large sack, cheer­ful­ly smil­ing broad­ly. Chil­dren love him for his lim­it­less kind­ness, even if the thought of the pun­ish­ing rod may seem like it is drag­ging out the wait­ing peri­od pre­ced­ing the dis­tri­b­u­tion of the Christ­mas presents. Hop­ing to unwrap the newest smart­phone, despite all the lit­tle sins of this year, bare­ly any child in this west­ern world is dis­ap­point­ed by Father Christ­mas. No won­der the num­ber of church­go­ers on Christ­mas Eve is declin­ing, con­sid­er­ing all this mer­cy. The sto­ry of Father Christ­mas also reflects the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­is­tic postmodernism.

I come from Antalya
In the Turk­ish Dem­re the Nicholas can still be found today

It all start­ed long ago in the East­ern Roman Empire, more specif­i­cal­ly with­in the region today known as Turkey. Con­stan­tine the Great was the first Roman emper­or who con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty in 312. A few years after, pos­si­bly in ear­ly Decem­ber, a man nowa­days regard­ed as the most well-known saint of the Catholic Church died: Saint Nicholas of Myra. Many leg­ends tell of his life. They include res­ur­rect­ing the dead, calm­ing sea storms and avert­ing famine. One night he gives sacks of gold to three vir­gins who were almost pushed into pros­ti­tu­tion due to their fam­i­lies’ pover­ty — a first indi­ca­tion of the ori­gins of gift­ing at Christ­mas. In his bur­ial church in Patara (today: Dem­re), pic­turesque­ly locat­ed in the pop­u­lar hol­i­day region of Antalya, the mor­tal remains were stored until the 11th cen­tu­ry. When the Seljuks con­quered Ana­to­lia from the east, the Byzan­tine Empire also pushed back Chris­t­ian influ­ence in the region. Alarmed Ital­ian sailors brought the relics of their patron saint across the Mediter­ranean to Bari, where they are still kept in a basil­i­ca today. French nuns pre­sum­ably first start­ed putting small gifts into hung woollen socks for chil­dren on the eve of his memo­r­i­al day, 6th of Decem­ber, in the 12th century.

The rod is calculated
A Fres­co of the holy Saint Nicholas in his bur­ial church in Demre

Mar­tin Luther him­self is cred­it­ed with plac­ing the gift-giv­ing tra­di­tion of St. Nicholas on Christ­mas Day in the wake of the Ref­or­ma­tion. Luther dis­cred­it­ed the wor­ship of Catholic saints as an apos­ta­sy. Inter­ces­sion should only come from Christ him­self and only the Christ Child should bring the gifts. Even today, iron­i­cal­ly in many Catholic regions of Europe, the angel­ic child fig­ure plays an impor­tant role in the giv­ing of presents. Nev­er­the­less, in the cen­turies that fol­lowed, the sym­bol of Father Christ­mas spread across the globe. In Rus­sia, Father Frost came accom­pa­nied by the Snow Maid­en, in the Nether­lands by Sin­terk­laas, who has retained links to his his­tor­i­cal ori­gins through Chris­t­ian sym­bol­ism to this day. In the 19th cen­tu­ry, greet­ing cards were made in Thuringia, with mod­ern red and white San­tas as the motif. His attrib­ut­es: Cheer­ful­ness and good­ness, but also puni­tive sever­i­ty, in the form of a wood­en rod, some­times car­ried by his ser­vant Ruprecht. Thus, the edu­ca­tion­al ideals of Euro­pean moder­ni­ty grad­u­al­ly stripped Christ­mas of its reli­gious foun­da­tions. Father Christ­mas, dis­tanced from the ascetic, Bible-believ­ing and seri­ous-look­ing St. Nicholas, no longer cared about the after­life, but exe­cut­ed his judge­ment on the deeds of chil­dren every year in the liv­ing rooms of Cen­tral Europe.

Taste the Feeling

With the rise of Amer­i­ca as a glob­al eco­nom­ic pow­er, Father Christ­mas also under­went a final and sig­nif­i­cant trans­for­ma­tion that con­tin­ues to shape our atti­tudes towards Christ­mas to this day. In the mon­ey rush of the 1920s, shrewd mar­ket­ing strate­gists looked for new ways to boost sales of a cocaine-infused soft drink that had fall­en dur­ing the win­ter months. They hired car­toon­ist H. Sund­blom to illus­trate the asso­ci­a­tion between Father Christ­mas and Coca-Cola, which he man­aged to do very well, espe­cial­ly because of the colour analo­gies. Thanks to his artis­tic skills, the rumour that the com­pa­ny invent­ed Father Christ­mas has per­sist­ed until now. After decades of glob­al adver­tis­ing cam­paigns, almost every child in the world wants to receive presents from the pot-bel­lied X‑mascot. In addi­tion, in times of dig­i­tal con­sump­tion, it only takes two clicks for a let­ter to arrive at the Christ­mas post office at the North Pole. Mean­while, the helpers in the Christ­mas fac­to­ries are being sent to load the rein­deer sleighs faster. There are still so many eager­ly wait­ing chil­dren whose wish­es need to be ful­filled. No one likes chil­dren being sad at Christ­mas. Their crav­ing for the lat­est enter­tain­ment tech­nol­o­gy is fed by the mix­ture of adver­tise­ments and the mate­ri­al­is­tic need for wealth of the par­ents who com­mu­ni­cate between the almighty Father Christ­mas and them. By mak­ing them­selves his assis­tants, they repro­duce the myth of an old white man watch­ing over the tem­ple of consumption.

Who still believes in Father Christmas?

When we col­lec­tive­ly asso­ciate the Christ­mas sea­son with exu­ber­ant con­sump­tion, we play into the cards of big cor­po­ra­tions and pay homage to Father Christ­mas, their rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Even if his smile has often been hid­den in recent years for rea­sons of infec­tion con­trol, dur­ing the Advent sea­son his pres­ence is omnipresent in pub­lic spaces. And even if there is some­thing like thought­ful­ness in the liv­ing rooms, when we are sit­ting togeth­er with our frag­ile fam­i­lies in can­dle­light and are eager to see how much love is wait­ing under the elec­tric Christ­mas tree, he is there in the form of gift and choco­late wrap­ping, in poems, songs and proverbs. He is the man­i­fes­ta­tion of the brief moment of hap­pi­ness of mate­r­i­al need sat­is­fac­tion, some­one who is there wait­ing for one in the dis­tance. Because of his almost lim­it­less knowl­edge of our desires and his abil­i­ty to turn them in con­crete actions, he is wor­shipped like a prophet, and not only by chil­dren. But due to the depri­va­tions of recent years, a change seems to be grad­u­al­ly tak­ing place. In order to avoid both the annu­al gift stress and a viral ill­ness, a Father Christ­mas is request­ed less fre­quent­ly by shops. Besides, the Christ­mas busi­ness is increas­ing­ly shift­ing to the inter­net. The post­men are so rushed and under­paid that any long­ing for the excit­ing Christ­mas mail cre­ates a bit­ter after­taste. With all the over­abun­dance of con­sumer goods, chil­dren seem to be becom­ing more indif­fer­ent to their gifts. They also realise that there is no real fes­tive spir­it if only half the fam­i­ly is allowed to be there and the warmth oth­er­wise cre­at­ed is miss­ing. But this gift can­not be unwrapped and held in one’s hands. It is a dif­fer­ent form of Christ­mas, free, self­less and shape­less. Strength­en­ing inter­per­son­al bonds with­out mak­ing use of mate­r­i­al aids requires moti­va­tion and ini­tia­tive, but is more sus­tain­able in return. Per­haps the cur­rent calls for fru­gal­i­ty are a chance to redis­cov­er com­fort with­in the family.

Text: Lennart Kreuzfeld
Trans­la­tion: Car­la Gra­ham
Pic­tures: Lennart Kreuzfeld, PxHere
Illus­tra­tio­nen: William Lion­nel Wyl­lie (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0; commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Father_ Christmas_1887_RMG_PV2502.jpg; Cred­it: Nation­al Mar­itime Muse­um, Green­wich, Lon­don, Caird Col­lec­tion; cropped), unbekan­nt (commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:1914_Santa_Claus.jpg), unbekannt/Rawpixel (CC BY-SA 4.0, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vintage_ Christmas_illustration_digitally_ enhanced_by_rawpixel-com‑8.jpg)

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