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Part 1 of 2
Many changes were occurring within the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. One of the most pivotal occurred on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. This date is marked by some as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The rise of Protestantism throughout Europe – spread by the teachings of Luther, John Calvin and John Knox, among others – had a profound effect upon the veneration of Saint Nicholas. Protestant teachings emphasizing personal responsibility in salvation – prayer, bible studies, good works – lead to a diminishing of the importance of the Catholic saints. The Puritan movement was one off-shoot of this movement.
As a result, Christians throughout Europe stopped worshiping Saint Nicholas Indeed, the Puritan movement in England and colonial America passed laws to abolish the celebration of Christmas for a time – it was to be a working day like any other. The fact that both groups had to pass laws to that effect demonstrates that their religious fervor was not shared by all.
But Christmas – and Saint Nicholas – would not be legislated out of existence. Although the feasting and veneration of Catholic saints were banned, people had become accustomed to the annual visit from their gift-giving saint and didn't want to forget the purpose of the holiday. So in some countries, the festivities of St. Nicholas' Day were merged with Christmas celebrations, and although the gift-bearer took on new, non-religious forms, he still reflected the saint’s generous spirit.
In England, they favored Father Christmas, who was not related to the church. He evolved out of the Roman god Saturn, who was worshipped in England after the Romans invaded in AD 43, as well as the legends of later conquerors.
In 600, the Saxons which invaded and settled Britain had the custom of giving human characteristics to the weather elements, welcoming the characters of King or Lord Frost, Lord Snow etc. to their homes in the hopes that the elements would look kindly on them. They would dress an actor in a pointed cap and cloak or cape, and drape him with Ivy, bringing him into their midst, and bidding him join their feast. He was to represent the Season, and would be treated with all respect, and drink toasts to him.
(In 800, the Vikings brought with them their beliefs in the Northern deities and Elementals, and their main god Odin, who in the guise of his December character came to earth dressed in a hooded cloak, to sit and listen to his people and see if they are contented or not. It was said that he carried a satchel full of bounty which he distributed to the needy or worthy. He was portrayed as a Sage with long white beard and hair.)
Father Christmas was portrayed as a large man who wore a scarlet robe lined with fur and a crown of holly, ivy, or mistletoe.
For a "look" at Father Christmas, consider the Ghost of Christmas Present through the eyes of Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol:
Ben Jonson's play, Christmas, his Masque, was first presented at the Court of King James in 1616. Here, Christmas is represented by an actor, and his entourage consists of Cupid, Venus, and his children:
Christmas himself was described as being attired "... in round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, a high crownd Hat with a Broach, a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white Shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse, and his Drum beaten before him."
But in 1645, Christmas was banned in England by Cromwell’s Long Parliament and the Puritans, and the traditional mummers plays were visited by Father Christmas – rather than Saint Nicholas -- who issued a taunting challenge to the government. "In comes I, Old Father Christmas, Be I welcome or be I not, I hope that Christmas will ne'er be forgot."
A Broadsheet appeared in 1645 on the streets of London, taunting the Government by a humorous political 'scandal' about the conviction and imprisonment of Christmas, and the Hue and Cry after his escape therefrom.
Charles W. Jones, at page 321 relates that in England the Puritans could not end customs of St. Nicholas’ feast day, however stringently legislated against. However, the Puritans caused significant disruptions of traditions. John Evelyn wrote in his diary on 25 December 1652 (and also in 1653): "Christmas Day, no sermon anywhere, no church being permitted to open, so observed it at home."
The Roundheads were uncompromising; they delighted in holding Parliament on Christmas Day. The following remarks were recorded on the floor of Parliament 25 December 1656:
The Reign of Charles II in 1660 restored the holiday. (He would play another role in the history of Santa Claus, which we’ll observe in a few pages.)
In 1678, a book was published in London entitled THE EXAMINATION AND Tryal of Old Father Christmas. Not surprisingly, he was exonerated.
From the 17th - 19th century it was the country mummers plays which kept Father Christmas alive in Britain. With the 'cleansing' of religious popery, it is interesting to note that the saintly bishop was replaced by the half pagan impersonation of the Element or Season of Christmas.
The transformation of Saint Nicholas into Father Christmas occurred first in England, then in countries where the Reformed Churches were in the majority, and finally in France, the feast day being celebrated on Christmas or New Year's Day.
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