He's a man of legend and there are so many stories about him. He even has a dark side. So, how much do we know about the origins of the "jolly old elf"?
His real-life home is widely disputed; the man known as Saint Nicholas didn't reside in Finland. He was, in fact from Myra, an ancient Greek town in present-day Turkey. As the story goes, was born into a rich family and known for his charity. It wasn't until the Middle Ages when his popularity skyrocketed. According to Mark Forsyth's book, A Christmas Cornucopia, he was the patron saint of more than 100 professions, as well as children, orphans, those in financial need, and so much more. Long story short, the guy would have won every popularity contest! So, it really isn't surprising that this very real man set the groundwork for the legend that we've all grown up with.
The tradition of giving gifts was originally December 6th. A Reformation in Holland tried hard to ban him, but Saint Nicholas and his tradition thrived. It was even brought to present-day New York in the 1600's by sailors from Amsterdam. Their patron saint -- you guessed it!
Hop in the Delorean, gun it to 88, and jump to the early 1800's, (1804 to be exact) when the New York Historical Society named Saint Nicholas its patron saint. The activities of the society were recorded and sensationalised by Washington Irving. It's popularity led to many traditions associated with our beloved Santa Claus today, like stockings and performing the only B&E that is okay with everyone via the chimney.
Santa Claus or Father Christmas
Let's get this dispute out of the way real quick! They are basically the same! According to his legend, Father Christmas was, in fact, an Englishman who became a personification of the season. Christmas is obviously celebrated as both a religious holiday and a festival, so Father Christmas was the guy who oversaw the feasting and everything that comes with the merriment surrounding the festival. He seems like a pretty fun guy if I'm honest. So when he appeared in pamphlets protesting the Puritans attempt to abolish all things merry (what is it with these people?!?), he appeared as an old man with a beard and quite fat and jolly. His appearance makes sense as beards keep you warm when it's cold and if you're the guy overseeing all the fun stuff like eating and partying, you're probably going to be showing a few extra pounds and have that lovely I-may-have-had-a-bit-too-much-to-drink rosiness to your cheeks. These are all the physical attributes you'd want for such a person!
In the 19th century, Charles Dickens adapted the original idea of Christmas from partying to more of a family celebration and a time where gifts were exchanged, being presented by Magi to Jesus (The Three Wise Men). These factors and so many more* laid the foundation for a certain Mr. Claus from the United States. So, if you want to get technical, there's barely a difference. Father Christmas seems like a bit more of a good time and Santa Clause is a more of a family guy. But the two both embody this festive season perfectly. After reading all this interesting stuff, if I had to pick between the two...Father Christmas seems more like my kind of guy. So this year instead of cookies and milk on Christmas Eve, maybe a minced pie and whiskey! 😉
*Washington Irving wasn't the only one to contribute to the personification of Santa Claus. During the 19th century a variety of poems and stories added to certain facts that are still remembered about him today. A poem from (1869) placed his workshop at the North Pole and my favorite story as a child, Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore, named all of Santa's reindeer (sans Rudolph). It also shifted the date that gifts were given from December 6th and New Years Eve (in Britain) to Christmas Eve. Rudolph was comissioned in a coloring book by Montgomery Ward Department Store in Chicago in 1939 for their customers. Robert L. May was responsible for the "poor Ruldoph" story with him being bullied for his shining red nose. May's brother-in-law wrote the famous song about it and in 1964 a movie was made which was one of my favorites to watch growing up. And that red suit? Just another element created for a commissioned painting at The New York Historical Society.