When I was growing up, Santa Claus didn't exist.
Father Christmas ruled in my house and the homes of countless families across the UK. Santa was an American and we didn't see him on our side of the pond, except in imported made-for-TV movies where he looked quite a lot like our Father Christmas but usually spoke with a strange accent rather than the deep, mellifluous British accent that obviously the real Jolly Old Elf would have.
Even today, I call him Father Christmas, which confuses most people over here in Canada. They look at me as if I'm much, much older than I seem -- and they wonder why I'm using terms that must have disappeared from common usage in the Dark Ages.
But on my frequent trips back to the UK during the festive season, I've noticed how Santa Claus has crept up on Father Christmas, thrown a pressie sack over his head and taken over in the Christmas nomenclature stakes. And that's sad. It's worth remembering, though, that Father Christmas has changed dramatically over the years -- and he's not always been the kindly, pressie-dispensing bauble-hugger I like to imagine.
The red-suited fella first popped-up in UK winter tales in the 1600s, a grassroots response to Puritan demands for an end to pagan Yuletide partying. He wasn't really linked to children at this time; he was simply a guy who knew how to make merry with good food and drink. The locals, struggling through yet another bleak midwinter, were more than happy to embrace him and the bacchanalian approach he embodied.
He disappeared into obscure folklore and lesser-known Christmas plays for the next couple of hundred years, only to re-emerge in the mainstream Victorian spotlight when many of the modern-day festive traditions we now follow -- Christmas trees and seasonal cards, for example -- began. During this period, gift-giving at Christmastime started to dominate and Father Christmas became the bringer of seasonal treats for all.
This is where Santa Claus enters the equation. The American idea of the Jolly Old Elf had been developing independently during the 1800s, appearing in poems, short stories and Christmas cards and being depicted with reindeer, a cherubic face and a penchant for chimney-squeezing house breaking. Many of these ideas crossed the Atlantic during this period, fusing the UK and American ideas into one big roly poly red-robed legend.
Santa Claus and Father Christmas slowly became one, with the former's traits dominating. But while the older ideas about F.C. fade and the cultural eminence of S.C. prevails, I know who I'll be talking-up this season. Long live Father Christmas!