A Victorian image of Father Christmas in a red robe trimmed with white fur passing a small red heart to a child sized angel with blonde curly hair

A Right Jolly Old Elf: The Origins of a Christmas Icon

The image of a plump, jolly man who delivers presents wearing a red suit and sporting a bushy white beard is one of the best-known symbols of the Christmas season. This familiar figure goes by many names: Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas. But what are the origins of this figure and why does he have so many names?

The oldest of the three is Saint Nicholas, which relates to a 4th century bishop who lived in Turkey and was famous for his acts of kindness, especially towards children. One day on hearing that a poor man was reduced to selling his three pretty daughters as slaves, Nicholas threw three purses of gold through the door. On another occasion, he threw some gold coins down a chimney and they fell into a stocking (although some say a shoe) which had been put in the hearth to dry. It is thought that this is the origin of our Christmas stockings. After Nicholas’ death, secretly gifting presents on his feast day, the 6th December, became the custom. The traditions surrounding Saint Nicholas eventually migrated to Holland, where he was known as Sinter Klaas.

The second oldest of the three names is Father Christmas, who was originally a player from old English medieval midwinter festivals and was thought to be the provider of the feast which all enjoyed during the Christmas season. He was normally depicted as being tall and thin and dressed in brown or green as a sign of the returning spring. From the 19th century onwards, adapted from the character St Nicholas, he became an integral part of English Christmas.

Santa Claus is the most modern of three forms and emerged in North America in the 19th century inspired by the Sinter Klaas of Dutch settlers.

‘The Ghost of Christmas Present’ depicted by John Leech in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (1843). This depiction reflects traditional imagery of the medieval Father Christmas.

Merry Old Santa Claus, Thomas Nast, 1881.

No matter whether you call him Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas or Santa Claus, it’s unlikely that you visualise a 4th century Turkish bishop or a tall, thin medieval man dressed in green or brown. Instead, a portly character with a large beard, wearing a red suit, and carrying a sack of presents is probably the image that comes to mind. This iconic depiction originates from Clement Moore’s well-loved poem, ‘The Night Before Christmas’, which was first published in America in 1823. The poem later inspired Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist, who annually depicted the “right jolly old elf” as Moore had described in a magazine called Harper’s Weekly from 1863 to 1886. This depiction later inspired Coca Cola adverts in the 1930s which went on to standardize the western image of Father Christmas and popularized the image of the red suit with white fur trim.


'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds;

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,

Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,

But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,

With a little old driver so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to the housetop the coursers they flew

With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.

His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face and a little round belly

That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

'A Visit from St. Nicholas', Clement Clarke Moore (1823)