Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Father Christmas Is Older Than You Think

Are you one of the many people who leave a mince pie and a glass of port by the fireside for Father Christmas? Not forgetting Rudolph's carrot, of course. The tradition comes from times long past when Saxons left a meal for the Frost King or Winter King. Someone would dress up as the Frost King and be welcomed into homes, where he would sit near the fire and be given something to eat and drink. It was thought that by being kind to the Frost King, the people would get something good in return: a milder winter. This is how Father Christmas became associated with receiving good things.

The earliest Father Christmas appeared during ancient British mid-winter festivals. He wasn't known as Father Christmas then, of course, but as a general pagan figure who represented the coming of Spring. He would wear a long, green hooded cloak and a wreath of holly, ivy or mistletoe. It is the association with holly and mistletoe, and his ability to lift people's spirits, that we retain from this ancient Father Christmas.

This association was strengthened when the Vikings invaded Britain and brought their own midwinter traditions with them. The 20th through the 31st of December is known as Jultid - the time when the Norse God Odin takes on the character of Jul, one of his twelve characters, and visits the earth. The name lives on today as Yuletide.

During Jultid Odin, a portly, elderly man with a white beard and a long, blue, hooded cloak was said to have ridden through the world on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, giving gifts to the good and punishments to the bad. Our Father Christmas became fat like Odin and developed the ability to automatically know whether people had been bad or good. Also like Odin, Father Christmas could travel magically and be in lots of places in a short space of time.

The tradition of giving gifts comes from the Christian St Nicholas who was Bishop of Myra, in Turkey in the 3rd century AD, who would travel in his red bishop's robes and give gifts to the poor. He was believed to have been particularly kind to children.

Apparently, he was also very shy. Legend has it that one day, wanting to give money to a family in secret, he dropped some gold coins down the chimney, where they landed in a girl's stocking. St. Nicholas didn't 'arrive' in Britain until after the Norman invasion, and when he did arrive his story was quickly absorbed into the legend of Father Christmas. By this time, our Father Christmas had already been around for centuries!

The American name Santa Claus comes from Dutch settlers' stories about Sinter Klass, the Dutch name for St Nicholas, and how he gave presents to girls and boys.

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