Culture Heritage Learning

Santa Claus A.K.A. Father Christmas

15th December 2020 by Scran | 0 comments

03110067Santa Claus (also known as Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Santy or simply Santa) is a folk hero in various cultures who distributes gifts to children, traditionally on Christmas Eve. Each name is a variation of Saint Nicholas, but refers to Santa Claus.

Father Christmas is a well-loved figure in the United Kingdom and similar in many ways, though the two have quite different origins. Nowadays, Father Christmas is used as a more formal name for Santa Claus. Father Christmas is present in Italy (“Babbo Natale”), Brazil (“Papai Noel”), Portugal (“Pai Natal”), Romania (“Moş Crăciun”), Germany (“Weihnachtsmann”), France and French-speaking Canada (“Le Père Noël”) and South Africa.

In popular mythology, Santa lives at the North Pole – or in Lapland. Many children write letters to Santa each year revealing what they would like to receive as gifts. It is also usual to leave a treat for Santa and his reindeers on Christmas Eve. It can be quite exhausting getting down all those chimneys!

Saint Nicholas

02555625Santa derives from European folk tales based on the historical figure Saint Nicholas, a bishop from present-day Turkey, who gave presents to the poor. This inspired the mythical figure of Sinterklaas, the subject of a major celebration in the Netherlands and Belgium (where his alleged birthday is celebrated), which in turn inspired both the myth and the name of Santa Claus.

In many Eastern Orthodox traditions, Santa Claus visits children on New Year’s Day and is identified with Saint Basil whose memory is celebrated on that day.

Depictions of Santa Claus also have a close relationship with the Russian character of Ded Moroz (“Grandfather Frost”). He delivers presents to children and has a red coat, fur boots and long white beard. Much of the iconography of Santa Claus could be seen to derive from Russian traditions of Ded Moroz, particularly transmitted into western European culture through his German folklore equivalent, Väterchen Frost.

Development of the Santa Image

09634040The plump figure in the fur trimmed suit is a relatively recent image developed through the 19th Century.

In 1809, Washington Irving published A History of New York, by “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” a work that poked fun at New York’s Dutch past (St. Nicholas included). Irving revised his History of New York in 1812, adding details about Nicholas “riding over the tops of the trees, in that self same waggon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.” In 1821, a New York printer named William Gilley issued a poem about a “Santeclaus” who dressed all in fur and drove a sleigh pulled by one reindeer.

On Christmas Eve of 1822, another New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote down and read to his children a series of verses; his poem was published a year later as “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”. This is the first naming of Santa’s reindeers and one of the first published accounts of access by chimney. It also sets the tone of a fat, jolly figure.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

“Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

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 pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of 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 bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”

Nast, Sundblom & Coca Cola

02101206In 1863, Thomas Nast – a caricaturist for Harper’s Weekly – developed his own image of Santa. Nast drew his figure with a “flowing set of whiskers” and “all in fur, from his head to his foot.” Nast drew Santa in many sizes from miniature to large. His 1881 “Merry Old Santa Claus” drawing is close to the modern-day image.

Thus, the Santa Claus figure we know today, although not yet standardized in size perhaps presciently to allow chimney access, was everywhere by the late 19th century. At the beginning of the 1930s, the Coca-Cola company wanted to increase sales during winter. An illustrator named Haddon Sundblom created the figure of a larger than life, red-and-white garbed Santa Claus for them. And since then, illustrations have followed the formula of a larger than life, rotund, red-suited, bewhiskered jolly man.

Images © Glasgow University Library, National Museums Scotland, The Victoria & Albert Museum, The Scotsman Licensor Scran

It’s Panto Time! Oh, no it isn’t. Oh, yes it is!

4th December 2015 by Scran | 0 comments

Alec Finlay Pantomime DameIt’s that time of year when the pantomime or ‘panto’, as it is commonly known comes to town. This peculiarly British form of theatrical entertainment is usually based on a fairy tale or nursery story. It involves music, slapstick comedy, topical jokes and audience participation.  The well-worn phrases, ‘Behind you!’ and ‘Oh no, it isn’t!’ have been shouted by panto-goers for generations. Many theatres in towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom offer some form of annual pantomime.  (Oh, yes they have!)


A Few Panto Facts

  • The word pantomime comes from the Greek ‘pan’ meaning ‘all’ and ‘mimos’ meaning ‘imitator’
  • ‘Cinderella’, ‘Aladdin’, ‘Dick Whittington’ and ‘Snow White’ remain the most popular pantomimes performed today
  • The popularity of some pantos has waxed and waned over time. Shows, such as ‘Goody Two Shoes’, ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, popular in the early to mid-20th century, have now virtually disappeared
  • Others shows have had to adapt to survive: the story of ‘Babes in the Wood’, for example, is often integrated into the pantomime ‘Robin Hood’
  • ‘New’ pantomimes include ‘Peter Pan’, written by the novelist J M Barrie. This was first staged at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London in 1904 but is considered by purists to not be strictly pantomime material

The Roots of Modern Panto

The roots of modern pantomime lie in ancient Roman mime and draw heavily on medieval theatre, the tradition of Italian Commedia Dell’Arte and the British Music Hall. The recognisable structure of the modern pantomime is built around a strong story line in which good battles against and overcomes evil. In the theatre, the pantomime villain traditionally enters from stage left, known as ‘the dark side’, and the hero enters from stage right. This echoes morality plays of the middle ages in which the entrance to ‘heaven’ was stage right, and the entrance to ‘hell’ was stage left.

Singing and dancing, key elements in the pantomime form, evolved from the craft of the travelling Commedia Dell’Arte artistes in the 16th century. These ‘players’ entertained audiences throughout France and Italy by playing masked stock characters in comical situations. These characters can still be recognised in modern pantomime. They included ‘Harlequin’ the hero, ‘Columbine’ his true love, ‘Pantaloon’ the protective father and ‘Pulchinello’ the clown. (Pulchinello provided the inspiration for the puppet, Mr Punch of Punch and Judy fame.) Commedia Dell’Arte also employed comic chases and ‘business’. When performed for British audiences this style of physical theatre became known as slapstick. It remains a key component of the modern pantomime. (The word slapstick is taken from the sound made by Harlequin’s magic wand, a slapping noise created for theatrical effect.)

A New Popular Entertainment

In the early-18th century, John Rich, best-known for his staging of John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’, coined the term ‘pantomime’, when he introduced an entertainment at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in London. It was a bawdy hybrid of dance, music, spectacle and Commedia Dell’Arte and featured the familiar figure of Harlequin at its centre. This new genre of accessible entertainment was immediately popular. It led to the esteemed actor and theatre manager, David Garrick, staging his own ‘pantomime’ at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. By the 1770s, the first recognisable pantomime by modern standards, ‘Jack the Giant Killer’, was being performed at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Others followed: ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (1781), ‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp’ (1788) and ‘Cinderella’ (1804).

The Pantomime Dame

Joseph Grimaldi set the standard for the pantomime clown. He first appeared in 1800. He developed the tradition of gender cross-dressing in pantomime, creating the characters of Queen Rondabellyana in ‘Harlequin and the Red Dwarf’ and Dame Cecily Suet in ‘Harlequin Whittington’. Men dressing as women harked back to earlier days of the theatre when the profession was considered unfit for women and female roles were played by men. Later influences from the Victorian Music Hall firmly established the role of the Pantomime Dame. The most famous of these was Dan Leno, one of the most popular comedians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He played ‘Mother Goose’ at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1902, bringing ‘stage business’ and comedy songs to the role.

Principal Boy

Pantomimes also introduced the principal boy, a role usually played by a girl dressed as a boy. By the 1950s, the role began to be taken up by popular male stars of the day, such as Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde. Today the trend has moved back to the role being played by women.

The Panto Impresario

From the 19th century and through into the 20th century, pantomime was produced and promoted as a popular artform by a series of theatre impresarios. Augustus Harris was considered the ‘Father of Modern Pantomime’. He introduced popular music hall stars into his productions at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in the 1870s. These were lavish affairs and went on to tour around the country. In the 1930s and 1940s, Francis Laidler became the ‘King of Pantomimes’. He produced shows at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford, which also went on to tour nationally. In the 1950s and 1960s, Derek Salberg was famed for his productions which ran at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham. Today, many pantomimes across the country are produced by a company called Qdos.

Panto Today

The modern pantomime continues to adapt to survive. The genre remains peculiarly British. Some shows have run in countries such as Canada and Australia, but with limited success. Today’s productions endeavour to combine tradition with novelty, drawing on modern trends and topicality to engage audiences. Pantomime remains a thriving business in theatres across the country, attracting popular stars for runs of six to eight weeks and providing healthy box office revenues.

Images © Hulton Getty, Glasgow University Library, The Scotsman Publications Ltd, Alan Wylie  | Licensor Scran