Father Christmas is the traditional British name for a figure associated with Christmas. The term is also used in many English-speaking countries outside Britain. A similar figure with the same name (in other languages) exists in several other countries, including Wales (Sion Corn), Canada and France (Père Noël), Spain (Papá Noel, Padre Noel), Azerbaijan (Şaxta Baba), almost all Hispanic South America (Papá Noel), Brazil (Papai Noel), Portugal (Pai Natal), Italy (Babbo Natale), Ireland (Daidí na Nollag), Armenia (Dzmer Papik), India (Christmas Father), Andorra (Pare Noel), Romania (Moş Crăciun) Turkey (Noel Baba), Hungary (Télapó) and Bulgaria (Dyado Koleda, Grandfather Christmas ).
Although he has a quite different origin, in the English-speaking world, Father Christmas is now associated with the development in the United States of Santa Claus, and most people consider them to be different names for the same figure. In English Canada and French Canada, Santa Claus and Père Noël are the same character.
In England the earliest known personification of Christmas does not describe him as old, nor refer to him as 'father'. A carol attributed to Richard Smart, Rector of Plymtree from 1435 to 1477, takes the form of a sung dialogue between a choir and a figure representing Christmas, variously addressed as "Nowell", "Sir Christemas" and "my lord Christemas". He does not distribute presents to children but is associated with adult celebrations. Giving news of Christ's birth, Christmas encourages everyone to eat and drink: "Buvez bien par toute la campagnie,/Make good cheer and be right merry." However, the specific depiction of Christmas as a merry old man emerged in the early 17th century. The rise of puritanism had led to increasing condemnation of the traditions handed down from pre-Reformation times, especially communal feasting and drinking. 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".
Ben Jonson in Christmas his Masque, dating from December 1616, notes the rising tendency to disparage the traditional forms of celebration. His character 'Christmas' therefore appears in outdated fashions, "attir'd in round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, a high crownd Hat with a Broach, a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse", and announces "Why Gentlemen, doe you know what you doe? ha! would you ha'kept me out? Christmas, old Christmas?" Later, in a masque by Thomas Nabbes, The Springs Glorie produced in 1638, "Christmas" appears as "an old reverend gentleman in furred gown and cap".
During the mid-17th century, the debate about the celebration of Christmas became politically charged, with Royalists adopting a pro-Christmas stance and radical puritans striving to ban the festival entirely. Early in 1646 an anonymous satirical author wrote The Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisoning of Christmas, in which a Royalist lady is frantically searching for Father Christmas: this was followed months later by the Royalist poet John Taylor's The Complaint of Christmas, in which Father Christmas mournfully visits puritan towns but sees "...no sign or token of any Holy Day". A book dating from the time of the Commonwealth, The Vindication of CHRISTMAS or, His Twelve Yeares' Observations upon the Times (London, 1652), involved "Old Christmas" advocating a merry, alcoholic Christmas and casting aspersions on the charitable motives of the ruling Puritans. In a similar vein, a humorous pamphlet of 1686 by Josiah King 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.
This tradition continued into the following centuries, with "Old Father Christmas" being evoked in 1734 in the pamphlet Round About Our Coal Fire, as "Shewing what Hospitality was in former Times, and how little of it there remains at present", a rebuke to "stingy" gentry. A writer in "Time's Telescope" (1822) states that in Yorkshire at eight o'clock on Christmas Eve the bells greet "Old Father Christmas" with a merry peal, the children parade the streets with drums, trumpets, bells, (or in their absence, with the poker and shovel, taken from their humble cottage fire), the yule candle is lighted, and; "High on the cheerful fire. Is blazing seen th' enormous Christmas brand." A letter to The Times in 1825, warning against poultry-dealers dishonestly selling off sub-standard geese at Christmas time, is jokingly signed "Father Christmas".
In these early references, Father Christmas, although invariably an old and cheerful man, is mainly associated with adult feasting and drinking rather than the giving of presents. Since the mid-Victorian era however, Father Christmas has gradually merged with the pre-modern gift-giver St Nicholas (Dutch Sinterklaas, hence Santa Claus) and associated folklore. Nowadays in Britain the figure is often called Santa Claus but also often referred to as Father Christmas: the two names are synonyms. In Europe, the figure is usually translated as Father Christmas (Père Noël, Papá Noel, Padre Noel, etc.) rather than "Santa Claus" and is often said to reside in the mountains of Korvatunturi in Lapland Province, Finland.
Father Christmas often appears as a large man, often around seventy years old. He is dressed in a red suit trimmed with white fur, often girdled with a wide black belt, a matching hat, often long and floppy in nature, and dark boots. Often he carries a large brown sack filled with toys on his back (rarely, images of him have a beard but with no moustache). Urban myth has it that the red suit only appeared after the Coca Cola company started an advertising campaign depicting a red suited Father Christmas in the 1930s. However, the red suit was used long before, including by American illustrator Thomas Nast.
Father Christmas comes down the chimney to put presents under the Christmas tree or in children's rooms, in their stockings. Some families leave a glass of sherry or mulled wine, mince pies, biscuits, or chocolate and a carrot for his reindeer near the stocking(s) as a present for him. In modern homes without chimneys he uses alternative means to enter the home, such as a magical key that unlocks all doors. In some homes children write Christmas lists (of wished-for presents) and send them up the chimney or post them. He is often said to live at the North Pole.
Father Christmas appears in many English-language works of fiction, including J. R. R. Tolkien's Father Christmas Letters (written between 1920 and 1942, first published in 1976), the translation from the French of Jean de Brunhoff's Babar and Father Christmas (originally Babar et le père Noël, 1941), C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), Raymond Briggs's Father Christmas (1973), Debbie Macomber's There's Something About Christmas (2005), Robin Jones Gunn's Father Christmas Series (2007), Catherine Spencer's A Christmas to Remember (2007), and Richard Paul Evans's The Gift (2007).
- In 1977, The Kinks recorded the song "Father Christmas".
- In addition, in 1974, Greg Lake (of Emerson, Lake & Palmer) wrote and recorded the song, "I Believe in Father Christmas", which was released as a single in 1975.
- In their 1997 album Pop, U2 cites Father Christmas in the song "If God Will Send His Angels".
- J. Simpson and S. Roud, The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford, 2001, pp. 119–20
- Although an earlier Elizabethan play by satirist Thomas Nashe, Summer's Last Will and Testament (1592), includes a character personifying Christmas, he is atypically presented as a stingy nobleman who shuns festivity. Nashe is satirising Elizabethan gentry who avoid their traditional duty of feasting the poor at Christmastime.The play text online at Gutenberg.org
- At the time "Father" was a title sometimes given to older men worthy of respect: "...A respectful title given to an old and venerable man..." "father, n.". OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 30 December 2012 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/68498?rskey=kF677t&result=1>
- "Christmas, His Masque – Ben Jonson". Hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com. Retrieved 23 October 2012.
- Jean Macintyre (1992). Costumes and Scripts in Elizabethan Theatres. University of Alberta Press. p. 230.
- Nabbes, Thomas, The Works of Thomas Nabbes, Benjamin Blom, Inc, New York, 1968 available online at Google Books 
- J.A.R.Pimlott (1960). History Today 10 (12). http://www.historytoday.com/jar-pimlott/christmas-under-puritans
- "A Christmassy post | Mercurius Politicus". Mercuriuspoliticus.wordpress.com. 21 December 2008. Retrieved 1 April 2011.
- The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas"
- Round About Our Coal Fire, or Christmas Entertainments. J.Roberts. 1734.
- Dawson, William Francis (2007). The Project Gutenberg eBook, Christmas: Its Origin and Associations Project Gutenburg
- FATHER CHRISTMAS, "Christmas Geese", The Times (London, England) dated 24 December 1825, page 4. from The Times Digital Archive, accessed 22 December 2012.
- Diarist Barclay Fox refers to a children's party given on 26 December 1842 featuring 'venerable effigies' of Father Christmas and the Old Year; '...Father Christmas with scarlet coat and cocked hat, stuck all over with presents for the guests...' R. L. Brett, ed., Barclay Fox's Journal, Bell and Hyman, London, 1979
- "BBC – Father Christmas, green or red?". BBC News. 4 December 2009. Retrieved 1 April 2011.
- Coke denies claims it bottled familiar Santa image, Jim Auchmutey, Rocky Mountain News, 10 December 2007.
- "Santa's arrival lights up the Green".
- Christmas in America – A History By Penne L. Restad.