Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Greetings

Today's Father Christmas
It occurred to me today that I've defined the subject matter of this blog so stringently that technically even a simple "Merry Christmas!" post would be off-topic.

Today's Santa
Then I thought of a way around the problem.  If I could come up with a post about costume that relates to Christmas, it would be appropriate to end that post  with a Christmas greeting.

What better way to do that with a few words about...Santa Claus! I figured that if I dug up a few public domain pictures showing a bit of the evolution of Santa Claus's costume, I could make a little Christmas costume display that would be a suitably on-topic platform for a Christmas greeting. Who knows, maybe I can do a Christmas costume post each year as a regular feature!   (All of the photographs in this post are from Wikimedia Commons; clicking on most of them will give you bigger versions.)

As you may know, the idea of Santa Claus is loosely based on a medieval saint, St. Nicholas, a bishop whose charity in supplying poor virgins with gold for dowries made him a by-word for selfless generosity. (Wikipedia gives a surprisingly detailed version of the Santa Claus origin story.) So it is not surprising to see that depictions of St. Nicholas show him in the miter and robes of a bishop and carrying a crozier, as shown in the modern Dutch image to the left.

Dutch image of St. Nick
Father Christmas from 1686
Voyageur reenactor
The 17th century British image I found shows a "Father Christmas" who looks kind of like a bishop in a cassock of the period.  He bears a stronger resemblance to the modern British Father Christmas than he does to "Santa Claus." It occurred to me in looking at the pictures that the British Father Christmas bears more than a little resemblance to the Ghost of Christmas Past from Dickens's A Christmas Carol:  "It was clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust."  Our modern Father Christmas isn't wearing a bathrobe-like garment that bares his breast, but the resemblance to Dickens's description is obvious.

Nast Santa of 1881
Canadian "Pere Noel" from 1875
Meanwhile, in the New World, the Father Christmas/Santa figure was coming to look more like a man of action than a saintly prelate.  This Canadian image from the mid-1870s looks more like a voyageur, a roving fur trader common in what is now the U.S. and Canada during the 17th and 18th centuries.  What persuades me that this is the source of the American-style Santa is the long, floppy hat, as shown by this reenactor.  Despite having acquired a silly hat, the Canadian Pere Noel has somehow retained Father Christmas's holly wreath on his head.  Thomas Nast's more commercial (and more famous) image features a similar hat-and-wreath combo, showing that voyageur and Father Christmas features are still present.

If so much of my brain wasn't eaten up with early period costume, I might do some serious research into the evolution of Santa's costume--what little I found in putting together this quickie essay suggests that there are some very interesting connections waiting to be explored.  

Anyway, I think that I've spent enough time talking about costume to justify some Christmas greetings.  Enjoy your Christmas (or other) holiday, everyone!


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  2. always fine to read your blog, a simply christmas greeting becomes a interesting story. fine!!
    best wishes from belgium, poperinge
    (poperinge lays next to Ypres, one of europe's main cities in woolen cloth production in medieval times, poperinge too was a cloth-city but smaller and always in conquest with Ypres, who tried many times to destroy his little competitors)

  3. nice post! Merry Christmas! May you and your family have a wonderful celebration of Christmas! Have a blessed new year as well.

  4. That's a nice post! Thanks for sharing. Thumbs up!
    Since christmas this year is coming, I would like to share my warm
    christmas greetings to you and your family.
    Merry Christmas!