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Origins: The Legend of Father Christmas

Updated: Jan 1, 2024

Rosy cheeks, white beard and a giant jolly belly, Santa Claus has become as synonymous with Christmas as mince pies, presents, and turkey. While almost exclusively believed in by children, Father Christmas has a long history stretching back to the third century and, although he is perhaps not the first that jumps to mind when asked to name a mythical figure, he remains one of our most popular legends.

The story of Father Christmas begins around the third century, when a man named Nicholas became Bishop of Myra, a Roman town in what is now Turkey. Nicholas was a Bishop in a time when Christians were being persecuted and forced to revoke their faith. So rather than being ‘jolly,’ Nicholas had a reputation for fierceness, defending his faith and his fellow believers. In his life he spent many years in prison, before the Roman Emperor Constantine came to power and the practice of Christianity became prominent.

Nicholas was canonized as a saint, becoming St Nicholas, the patron saint of children and sailors. While these two aspects are his most famous, he is also known as a patron saint of Russia, merchants, and unmarried girls.

One thing that St Nicholas was known for was his kindness, in particular towards young people. In his most famous legend, (though one which is usually sanitized for children) St Nicholas saved three young women from a life of prostitution by giving their father three bags of gold, with which to pay their dowries, gaining each girl a good marriage. In another story, St Nicholas miraculously returned three murdered children to life. The children had been murdered by a butcher who dismembered their bodies and hid them in a barrel of brine. Some years later, St Nicholas discovered this, placed his hands upon the barrel and the children emerged fully restored.

St Nicholas became a very popular and well-known saint across Europe. He was remembered on the anniversary of his death, December 6th, and on the 5th of December children in some parts of Europe would leave their shoes outside to be filled with presents by St Nick. This practice later merged with Christmas celebrations, with people hanging stockings over the fireplace. The worship of St Nick was brought to America by Dutch immigrants, and their name for the saint, Sinter Nikolaas (also shortened to Sinter Klaas) eventually became Santa Claus.

Eventually Santa switched Turkey for Lapland, and his Bishop’s hat for the classic Christmas one – but when exactly did he swap horses and walking for reindeer?

Narratives began to include Santa’s loyal reindeer in the 1800’s. In 1823, Clement Clarke Moore’s ‘The Night Before Christmas’ was published, where a man awakens to see Santa arrive at his house on a sleigh driven by eight reindeer. These reindeer were called by name; Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Donner, Cupid, Comet and Blitzen – with Rudolf being notably absent. Why Santa began to be associated with reindeer is unknown. It may simply be because he was believed to live in Lapland, where reindeer are native.

However reindeer originally entered the Christmas narrative, their position was cemented by a man named Carl Lomen. Early in the 20th Century, Lomen attempted to popularise reindeer as livestock in America – both for their fur and their meat. As part of his efforts, he launched a Christmas parade complete with Santa in his reindeer pulled sleigh. The parade was very popular, and similar ones cropped up around America. While Lomen’s effort to popularise reindeer meat may have been unsuccessful, he did succeed in one thing – making reindeer the loyal companions of Father Christmas.

Another change said to have come about due to marketing is Santa’s classic red suit. In early depictions of Father Claus, he is often wearing green. Santa’s change to red is largely credited to the company Coca-Cola, who redesigned Father Christmas’ image to be wearing red and white – the colours of the classic Coca-Cola bottle. While the company certainly did popularise the look, this was not the first time that Santa was envisioned in red and white. While Coca-Cola may be responsible for making them the iconic Santa colours, they were not the first to put him in red and white - earlier drawings did show Santa in these colours. It is even said that the original St Nicholas wore red robes when giving gifts to the poor.

Reindeer are not Father Christmas’ only companions – helping him out in the workshop are, of course, Santa’s elves. Usually depicted as jolly little toymakers in red and green, Santa’s elves are said to help make toys and presents, keep track of the ‘naughty’ and ‘nice’ children, and sometimes even help with delivering presents on Christmas Eve.

Myths of elvish helpers are not exclusive to either Santa or to Christmas. There are countless myths across Europe of elvish or fey creatures helping around the home. If these creatures were respected, they would bless the household, helping out with chores, protecting the inhabitants from misfortune, and bringing wealth and prosperity to the family. If these creatures were offended, or spurned, they would grow irritated at best, and malicious at worst. This could mean anything from annoying but harmless tricks such as curdling milk or making a mess, but if the elves are truly offended, they may injure livestock – or even humans.

While Santa’s ‘naughty and nice list’ may be a far more harmless version of this, it does play into these legends. The good are rewarded with presents, the bad are punished with coal.

If people wanted to keep on the good-side of the helpers, they would often do so by leaving offerings to them. This was rather risky, as payment for their services was more likely to offend these helpers than placate them. Acceptably offering were usually dairy based. Bowls of milk or porridge were most commonly left for the fairies. Cheese was also acceptable. An element of this remains in the Christmas story. Most of us have left milk and cookies (or mince pies) out for Santa on Christmas Eve, with some even adding a carrot for the reindeer.

Though Father Christmas may have changed over the years, the fundamental generosity and kindness that prompts his actions remains the same. Though he is primarily believed in by children, the legend of Father Christmas remains a rich and enduring figure in the folklore of the Christmas holidays.


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