Monday 24 December 2012



Santa Claus by Essie Fox

Before taking up writing novels I worked as a commercial illustrator, often selling to greetings cards companies, and the Santa Claus shown above was one of my favourite Christmas designs.

Even in those days I took inspiration from the Victorians - such as in the use of a border of 'scraps'. However, before Queen Victoria's reign there were no commercial Christmas cards – that tradition only really beginning after the introduction of the Penny Post, when Sir Henry Cole had the bright idea of printing up thousands of images which were sold in his London art shop and priced at one shilling each. What an industry that enterprise began!

Sir Henry Cole's first commercial Christmas card

As far as my own jolly gentleman would have been concerned, well, hardly anyone in England then would even have known his name. And yet by 1870 almost every child would recognise the sleigh that was drawn by reindeer, and the stockings full of precious gifts - if only an orange or apple to eat - as a present from Father Christmas.

Illustration by John Leech from Dickens' A Christmas Carol

The two names - Santa Claus and Father Christmas - have now become interchangeable, but their origins are quite different. Father Christmas, on whom Dickens based his Christmas Present was derived from an old English midwinter festival when Sir Christmas, Old Father Christmas, or Old Winter was depicted as wearing green; a sign of fertility and the coming spring. Hence homes were often decorated with mistletoe, holly and ivy. But this visitor did not bring his hosts gifts or climb down their narrow chimneys. He wandered about from home to home, feasting with the families and bringing everyone good cheer; as celebrated in this medieval carol:-

'Goday, goday, my lord Sire Christemas, goday!
Goday, Sire Christemas, our king,
For ev’ry man, both old and ying,
Is glad and blithe of your coming;

The image of Christmas Present with which we are more familiar now is that of Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas, who 'arrived' in America in the seventeenth century when Dutch settlers imported their own Sinter Klass. And it was in America, in 1822, that Clement Clare Moore wrote a poem for his children which went on to have such a remarkable and enduring influence:-

'He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his sack.
His eyes how they twinkled! His dimpled how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up in a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed like a bowl fully of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, - a right jolly old elf –
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.'

A Visit from Saint Nicholas (now more popularly known as The Night Before Christmas) described the old man’s appearance in detail - and this is what children today will know. His image and 'traditions' are beautifully illustrated in the woodblock print below. Published in 1866 in Harper’s Weekly magazine, it was created by Thomas Nast, and based on personal memories from his own happy childhood in Germany.

Santa and His Works by Thomas Nast



Caroline Lawrence said...

Essie Fox, you talented thing! I love your Santa!

And we used Leech's illustration for our Christmas cards this year, inspired by Simon Callow's superb one man Christmas Carol at the Arts Theatre just around the corner from Orion House.

Have a very Merry Christmas and a best-selling New Year!

adele said...

How wonderful to have such a talent! Thanks for sharing it and please post lots more of your own drawings/paintings/illustrations here in the New Year. Merry Christmas to you and everyone who visits today!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Wonderful post Essie. And as Adele says... What talent!
Your card reminded me of favourite ones my mother-in-law saved and hung up each year. Some going as far back as the first year of her marriage. I looked for them after reading your post and they have somehow disappeared. Maybe to turn up somewhere unexpected. Who knows? I hope they weren't turfed out after she died. I expect al my 'treasures' will land up in the bin too. I long for a set of architect's drawers to store all the paper and bits and pieces and images I collect. It seems you're a collector too.
A Happy festive season to all.

Sue Bursztynski said...

What a wonderful Santa, Essie! I love that wink and the the other eye. It's a fascinating background story, too.

Essie Fox said...

Thank you for the lovely comments. I'm sorry I'm so late with this, but have been in the internet-free wilds of Herefordshire. Hope you all had a wonderful Christmas.

Penny Dolan said...

Happy Christmas to you all too! Such talent and such a merry face and twinkly eye on your Santa.

During the last year I did a simple adaptation of A Christmas Carol and particulary noticed that Dicken's Father Christmas has those green robes.

Such a cheerful post. Thanks!

Ms. said...

Dear Essie I'm very late in responding to this wonderful blog because I was away and saved it for my return. I spent time with my own virtual Victorians up in Massachusetts right through the New Year...where a traditional, if rag worn parlor still exists, and Victorian flourishes are everywhere, long liberated from the emotional constraints of the period by the descendant generations (my friends). There were cats in every corner, and much traditional feasting (but no flaming pudding). I want to wish you a fine New Year and thank you for this cheery post.