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Who is Father Christmas?

When the celebrations of Christmas are fast approaching a simple ho-ho-ho or mention of reindeer and sleighs brings one name to mind for nearly everyone in the world. Father Christmas. He stands in a long tradition of gift bringers  that appear around the turn of the year. History records many long and ancient traditions. The Romans gave gifts at Saturnalia and Kalends. Woden, or Odin, scattered gifts down on the children of the frozen north while they slept.

Instead of trying to wipe out the tradition the early Christians welcomed it as a chance to give each other gifts in memory of the birth of the Christ child. Different countries subsequently developed their own traditions of who should bring the children's gifts. In Spain it was the Three Kings, in Italy Befana and in Russia Baboushca. In parts of Germany it was an angel who brought the gifts, known as ChristKind in Germany when exported to the USA became Kriss Kringle (now a name given to Father Christmas).

The tradition of  gift giver goes way back into pre-Christian times but in more recent years the appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas has united many across the globe. Father Christmas is also known as St. Nicholas, a fourth-century Christian Saint from Myra about whom little is known. However many stories are told about him. One story tells of how he saved the lives of three boys who had been slaughtered by a village innkeeper and preserved in a barrel of brine. St. Nicholas raised the boys from the dead and then converted the innkeeper. It was this story that associated St. Nicholas with children.

In the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas was everyone's favourite saint. He was patron saint of all kinds of people, including merchants, sailors and small boys. The best known of the St. Nicolas stories may well have an element of truth in it.

In Nicholas' home town, it is said, lived a family so poor that the father could not afford dowries for his three daughters. Nicholas determined to rescue them from starvation and distress, but without making his generosity known. So, when the eldest daughter was old enough to marry, he dropped a bag of gold in at her window by night. (Some say he dropped it down the chimney, where it fell into the shoe or stocking she had left on the hearth to keep warm).

Nicholas did the same for the second and third daughters, but on the last occasion he was discovered by the grateful father. Nicholas swore him to secrecy.

The 6th December is St. Nicholas' day and some countries celebrate by giving presents the night before.

Every year, on the last Saturday in November, St Nicholas, dressed in bishop's robes and mitre, arrives by steamer at the port of Amsterdam, in Holland. With him is Black Peter, dressed in the costume of a Spaniard of the 16th century. St. Nicholas disembarks, mounts a waiting white horse and rides off, accompanied by a jostling procession of children, first to the royal palace, where he is formally welcomed, then to his chosen headquarters for the season. Black Peter is supposed to be the Devil, now St. Nicholas' servant, come to punish any naughty children and do to the dirty work of taking presents down chimneys.

Everyone in Holland gives presents on 5 December, St. Nicholas' eve, and every present should come as a surprise. Sometimes a tiny gift is wrapped in a huge box, or the parcel is hidden in an unexpected place - anything that makes it as much of a happy surprise as St Nicholas' first presents were said to be.

In the sixteenth century, after the Reformation, saints went out of favour in Europe. However someone was needed to take the place of St Nicholas and give present at Christmas.

In England, a merry old character from children's plays, known as Father Christmas, took over the job.

France has Pere Noel, and in Germany the Christkind, or Christ child, gave gifts. In the United States of America his name became Kris Kringle.

But Dutch settlers in America took St Nicholas with them. They shortened his name to Class and called him Sinta Class, which soon became Santa Claus in English. He became very popular with everyone and American writers and artists gradually transformed the bishop in his robes and mitre into the familiar figure with white beard and robes and hat.

No one is sure how St Nicholas' white horse turned into a pack of reindeer. A nineteenth-century book shows a picture of him with just one reindeer and in 1882 Dr Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem for his children about Santa Claus in which he described eight reindeer and gave them all names. But in Sweden he is still pictured drawn by mountain goats.

The English Father Christmas came to look more and more like his American counterpart, and now Father Christmas and Santa Claus have become one and the same person.