A Brief History of Father Christmas and His Many Names

Updated June 9, 2021
History of Father Christmas

From Father Christmas to Santa Claus, take a look at how this folkloric figure arose out of various historical legends and literature as well as see about all othe different ways that people celebrate him around the world.

How Father Christmas Came to Be

Despite how they're often used interchangeably during modern festivities, the historic distinctions between Father Christmas and Santa Claus are rather distinct. Having arisen out of English folklore during the 16th century and featured in theater productions during the period, the character of Father Christmas reflected the historic holiday's focus on adults rather than on children. The merriment and cheer he brought signified the celebrations that adults would engage in at the end of the year. It wasn't until the Victorian period, when ideas surrounding Christmas traditions really came to the fore that this idea of Santa Claus overtook the Father Christmas figure.

This Santa Claus style evolved as the 19th century turned into the 20th, and mass manufacturing helped create enough cheaply made goods to launch the conventional child-centered Christmas season. Unfortunately, you don't see many contemporary depictions of Father Christmas during the holidays anymore, but that doesn't mean that there aren't vestiges of the myth that appear in the languages of people from around the world.

Old Father Christmas

Global Perspectives on Father Christmas

While people in the United States generally celebrate Christmas with Santa Claus, in other parts of the world, Father Christmas remains the iconic holiday figure of choice. This multicultural status includes a variety of different native aliases for the man of holiday cheer, though most of them are just native translation of the man's name. Some of these international titles include:

  • Afghanistan - "Baba Chaghaloo" (Father Christmas)
  • Brazil - "Papai Noel" (Father Christmas)
  • Chile - "Viejito Pascuero" (Old Man Christmas)
  • China - "Shengdan laoren" (Christmas Old Man)
  • Croatia - "Djed Mraz" (Father Christmas)
  • Czech Republic - "Je?í?ek" (Santa Claus)
  • Denmark - "Julemanden" (Father Christmas)
  • Ecuador - "Papa Noel" (Father Christmas)
  • Egypt - "Baba Noël" (Father Christmas)
  • France and French Canada - "Père Noël" (Father Christmas)
  • Germany - "Weihnachtsmann" (Christmas Man)
  • Hungary - Mikulas (St. Nicholas)
  • Iraq - "Baba Noel" (Father Christmas)
  • Indonesia - "Sinterklas" (St. Nicholas)
  • Ireland - "Daidí na Nollag" (Father Christmas)
  • Norway - "Julenissen" (Christmas Gnome)
  • Pakistan - "Christmas Baba" (Father Christmas)
  • Peru - "Papá Noel" (Father Christmas)
  • Philippines - "Santa Klaus" (Father Christmas)
  • Portugal - "Pai Natal" (Father Christmas)
  • Russia - Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost)
  • Sweden - "Jultomten" (Father Christmas)
  • Switzerland - "Samichlaus" (Santa Claus)
  • Turkey - "Noel Baba" (Father Christmas)

Pagan and Secular Influences on Father Christmas' Title

Despite his purported English origins, Father Christmas represents an amalgamation of different regional influences. While his name might remain the same from country to country, his story doesn't always. The Germanic goddess, Frau Holda, has a reputation for giving children gifts and protecting children's souls, while the Norse god, Sleipnir, would fill children's shoes with food and treats should they leave them out for him. Similarly, Le Befana, an Italian legend, supposedly flew on her broomstick to gift children with sweets. Here, it's incredibly apparent that Father Christmas doesn't represent one figure, but rather he was given traits from different cultures around the world to manifest in the man many people know today.

Old Father Christmas

Colonialism Affects Naming Around the World

Among the many lasting impacts that European colonialism had on the world, Father Christmas' names are perhaps the most unusual ones. For many of these countries, there wasn't any conception of such a figure, and European colonizers brought their cultural practices onto these 'exotic' landscapes, impressing their superiority among the native people - oftentimes forcing them to abide by their customs. However, as time passed and many of these countries gained their independence, remnants of these occupations can be found in their cultural practices and linguistics. Take Indonesia, for example; the largely Muslim country was colonized for many years by the Dutch, who brought their stories of Sinterklaas to the region, where he is still celebrated today.

Letters From Father Christmas

If you're fascinated by Father Christmas and his unique history, you may want to pick up a copy of the 1976 book Letters From Father Christmas. This charming children's book was written and illustrated by J. R. R. Tolkien between 1920 and 1942. An English writer, poet, and professor, Tolkien is best known as the author of fantasy classics The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Letters from Father Christmas consist of various responses which Tolkien had prepared in response to the letters that his children wrote to Father Christmas each year. Whimsical characters such as elves, goblins, a snowman gardener, and a polar bear who acts as Santa's assistant add a charming touch to each tale.

Different Names, Same Holiday Cheer

It's fascinating to be able to look at your own cultural practices through the lens of someone who lives across the globe. Oftentimes, these experiences are characterized by their differences, but in terms of the history of Father Christmas and the legend that surrounds him, more than likely these experiences are defined by their similarities. After all, he may have a different name from country to country, but his purpose remains the same throughout every one.

A Brief History of Father Christmas and His Many Names