Today, it’s common to use the names Santa Claus, Father Christmas and St Nicholas interchangeably. I’ve done it myself without thought, as have, I’m sure, many other people of my acquaintance.
But while today they are more or less treated as the same figure, their origins are entirely separate.
You may know that the actual St Nicholas was a bishop, who had his own celebration throughout Europe and England as far back as the Middle Ages. The bishop supposedly gave generously to three daughters of a man who planned to prostitute them to pay his expenses, but did so by throwing the purse through the father’s window at night.
This gave rise to the tradition of many parents giving to their children on the vigil of St Nicholas, and the children would believe they owed thanks to St Nicholas for the gifts. Looks a lot like Santa Claus, right? He does, although visually he was not represented at all the same, and St Nicholas’ Day was December 6 (December 19 in Eastern Christian countries) and not December 25. In 1542, St Nicholas was banned by Henry VIII as part of the English Reformation.
In the American colonies, German colonists kept the feast of St Nicholas, but gift-giving was on New Year, as it was in England and Europe. It wasn’t until 1804 that Dutch in New York began promoting St Nicholas as the patron saint, and in 1809 Washington Irving published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which contained references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This version of St Nick was shown as an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. The next year, the New York Historical Society held its first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner on December 6, 1810, and here St Nicholas was shown in a gift-giving role with children’s treats in stockings hanging at a fireplace.
In 1821, The Children’s Friend was published. This anonymous poem featured ‘Sante Claus’ arriving from the North in a sleigh with a flying reindeer. The poem and its illustrations began the shift away from images of a saintly bishop. Sante Claus rewarded good behaviour and punished bad. This book was the first we know of to mark Christmas Eve as the date of the arrival of Sante Claus, rather than December 6. His new jolly elf image was then cemented by the poem we all know, then called A Visit from St. Nicholas, now better known as The Night Before Christmas. The name Santa Claus seems to be a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus.
By the end of the 1920s, the image of Santa in a red, fur-trimmed suit had emerged from the work of popular illustrators.
Father Christmas, so far as we know, first appeared in Europe in the 15th century in a carol called Hail, Father Christmas, hail to thee! and was a personification of the idea of Christmas rather than an actual person (of course, as fellow Discworld readers know, on the Discworld, such a concept would quickly be anthropomorphised into a real person like the Hogfather!). He was linked to the idea of Christian hospitality, and his tradition came with familiar elements of children, gifts at New Year, traditional Christmas foods of minced pies, roast beef, and plum pudding, and carols. It also came with less familiar traditions, like the Lord of Misrule, who was usually a peasant appointed to preside over the drunkenness and revelry of the Feast of Fools. Father Christmas originally wore a doublet, but by the 18th century wore a fur-lined red or green robe, with holly or ivy on his head. He did not bring gifts. It is likely that Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present was Father Christmas.
Father Christmas originated from a mix of groups, including the Roman Saturn and his Saturnalia (a celebration typified by food, wine, revelry and equality, and a possible origin of Misrule), the Saxons, who were known for anthropomorphising seasons and weather, and the Vikings, whose Odin distributed goods to worthy folks and whose Thor had a long white beard and lived among the icebergs. These influences seem to have coalesced into Father Christmas by the 1400s, and he was a primarily secular symbol of the arrival of the season, rather than a Christian tradition. Notice that he has no links to St Nicholas, and actually appeared contemporaneously with St Nicholas in Christmas celebrations until his banning.
Following Henry VIII’s suppression of St Nicholas, the Puritans tried to eliminate Christmas (including Father Christmas) entirely in 1643. Shops were required to be open, and churches closed (because of ‘popery’), and there were attempts to stamp out misrule and its associated drunkenness, gambling and revelry, and mince pies, mummers, holly and church services were all banned. Festivities reappeared seventeen years later, but the beginning of the Industrial Revolution changed the celebration forever. While previously country life observed the entire Twelve Days of Christmas, gift-giving moved to Christmas Day from New Year’s Day when it became the only day the workers had off.
At the same time, the holiday in England and Europe was being domesticised much as was the case in America. Unlike America, who turned St Nicholas into Santa Claus, England had no gift-giver since Henry VIII banned the bishop saint. But they did have Father Christmas, who by the 1870s became more like Santa. Although still typically depicted in a robe with holly, he moved away from the traditional drinking, feasting, merriment and revelry to become the gift-giving children’s friend.
Father Christmas – http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/father-christmas/
Saint Nicholas and the Origin of Santa Claus – http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/origin-of-santa/