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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