Did Coca-Cola really strip Father Christmas of his green robes and replace them with red? We look at the evolution of the embodiment of Christmas, from the drunken spreader of merriment to a jolly gift giver.

Sir Christemas: a merry old chap

A carol written by Richard Smart, the Rector of Plymtree from 1435–1477, makes the earliest known English reference to a human embodiment of Christmas. The carol, however, describes him as neither old nor a father but as “Nowell”, “Sir Christemas” and “my lord Christmas”.

This Father Christmas was strictly an adult figure, giving out alcohol and encouraging people to “make good cheer and be right merry” in celebration of the news of Christ’s birth. To this day we still practise some of these old traditions, leaving out a sherry or whiskey to help Santa on his journey.

The rise of puritanism and subsequent prohibition of raucous ceremonies, however, saw good old Sir Christemas transform into a respectable old man who partook in festivities but did not condone excess. It was at this point that the name Father Christmas first came into use.

Santa
1875 Christmas Day Canadian Illustrated News cover, featuring the traditional British Father Christmas. Image via Novia Scoti
 

In Ben Jonson’s 1616 play, Christmas his Masque, a more recognisable character emerges wearing long stockings, a close doublet, a high-crowned hat and a long thin beard. Then in Thomas Nabbe’s 1638 play, The Springs Glorie, a Father Christmas could be seen wearing a furred gown and cap.
 

"Santa is really the only cultural icon we have who's male, does not carry a gun, and is all about peace, joy, giving, and caring for other people. That's part of the magic for me."

— Jonathan Meath, TV producer and professional Father Christmas

 

Father Christmas the symbol of the resistance

When Puritans attempted to ban Christmas altogether during the mid-17th century, Father Christmas became a symbol of the resistance.

Many authors depicted him imprisoned, or as a defiant drunk, exhibiting his distaste for the Puritan hatred of excess.

As Father Christmas increasingly became a symbol of anti-Puritanism, he also became a gift-giver, though still one strictly associated with adult celebrations.

By the 1840s however, this had begun to change. The legend of Father Christmas began to merge with the story of Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century saint with a reputation for giving gifts to the needy.
 

Father Christmas
Image via Drew Fuller

 

Did Coca-Cola change Father Christmas' robes?

Late Victorian England often depicted Father Christmas wearing green as a sign of the returning spring, and a symbol of old English midwinter festival.

Contrary to popular belief, Coca-Cola did not create the red Santa Claus we all accept today. The story goes that they replaced his green robes with red, to match their branding, and hired commercial illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create a series of memorable images we still recognise today.

Although Coca-Cola did create a more consistent image of today's Father Christmas, he had been spotted donning his red outfit as early as 1906. Red and green have always been synonymous with the season, representing the red berries on evergreen trees. 

Haddon Sundblom Coca-cola representation of Santa Claus
Haddon Sundblom representation of Santa Claus 1931
 

Santa Claus vs Father Christmas

The American Santa Claus, while representing the same festive figure, actually has very different origins to our Father Christmas.

Santa is an amalgamation of Saint Nicholas, Greek bishop Myra and the god Odin. Many of our own legends surrounding Father Christmas are now of American origin.

In the UK today, the myth of Father Christmas claims that he lives in the North Pole with a factory of elves and his trusty reindeer. These animals pull his sleigh, packed with toys for all the world’s children, across the globe every Christmas Eve.

He makes a stop at each house, climbing down the chimney to deliver gifts under the Christmas tree, always stopping for a bite of a mince pie or a sip of brandy.

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