BY ESSIE FOX
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