Three days left of the Christmas season: plenty of time to squeeze in a few thoughts about a well-known, well-nourished figure with a jolly laugh who chooses the narrowest and most uncomfortable route into our houses to stuff a bunch of outsize stockings with toy engines, teddy bears and easy peelers. Now, I don’t know about you, but while I’ve had to accept, for some time, a certain existential ambivalence about the dear old fellow, of one thing I was certain: what Father Christmas wears.
Until, that is, a few years ago, when my teenage children shattered my illusions. That traditional suit – you know, the scarlet one with white cuffs that match Santa’s snowy beard, huge belt buckle across his tremendous tum – is apparently not traditional at all, but the result of a cynical advertising campaign by Coca Cola in the 1930s, forever associating the plump, jolly, big-hearted Santa Claus with the fizzy drink. Until then, Santa had boasted a lean, trim figure, clothed in a long, green robe.
Well, there was only one answer to that. Utter nonsense. Teenagers think they know everything. Father Christmas/Santa Claus is depicted wearing red because he’s always worn red. Look at Christmas cards, films, book illustrations, department stores (all post 1930s, I admit). My mind flew back to my German childhood in the 1960s … and uncovered a memory till then suppressed.
On 6th December every year, Nikolaus, accompanied by his servant, Knecht Ruprecht, visited my primary school. While Ruprecht, lugging a sack bursting with goodies, wore brown or black, I forget which, his tall, thin master had on a long robe of dark – green. At the time I was far too excited by his distribution of sweets and Lebkuchen to wonder at the colour. Perhaps also, the (sadly, rather poorly printed) illustration of Nikolaus (right) in my reading book, Mein erstes Buch, had prepared me for just about any other colour than the one expected.
My children, it seemed, were right. Germany in the 1960s would have been relatively unaffected by Coca Cola advertising; here was Santa Claus (or St Nikolaus) as he had probably been portrayed for hundreds of years. Green may have pagan connotations, linking the 4th century St Nicholas with the ancient midwinter Yule festival, celebrated throughout Europe.
In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), the ghost of Christmas Present has much in common with the figure of Father Christmas: a jovial, generous spirit, surrounded by delicious food and drink.
Yet John Leech’s famous illustration shows him not in scarlet and white, but in a green robe, crowned with a holly wreath. And as for the blue-clad Nikolaus in my reading book… in 19th century Germany, a tradition of the Weihnachtsmann grew up, with the ‘Christmas man’ wearing the colour most associated with the coldness of winter. Santa’s coat could be many colours, it seemed. Just not red.
Ha, I didn’t give up that easily. A trawl of the internet revealed the following:
1. In 1821, William B Gilley published The Children’s Friend: A New-Year’s Present to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve. Containing an anonymous poem, Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, this small paperback was illustrated with eight coloured lithographs, in which one can almost see Santa evolving into today’s familiar figure, since while one illustration shows him dressed in green, two others have him in bright red, trimmed with white fur (below).
- In 1823, the far more famous Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore portrays Santa Claus as the cheery, red-cheeked, well-rounded figure instantly recognisable today: ‘He had a broad face and a little round belly, That shook, when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly. He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…’
- In 1843, the Cornish Quaker and diarist Barclay Fox described a family party which included the ‘venerable effigy of Father Christmas, with scarlet coat & cocked hat, stuck all over with presents for the guests.’
So while Coca Cola may have done much to spread this particular image of Santa, we should cut the multinational company some slack (not a sentiment one sees often these days). Father Christmas had been steadily reddening on both sides of the Atlantic for nearly a century before their advertising campaign began.
The tubby, rosy-cheeked gentleman in scarlet and white robe and black boots, driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer, is the Real Thing after all.
Phew. I’m glad that’s sorted. Happy New Year!
(Adapted from a post first published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)