The British Father Christmas was a very different figure to the American Santa Claus until the mid-twentieth century. Before then, he personified the good will and cheer of the season, depicted in a variety of clothes, and never climbed down chimneys, had reindeer or filled stockings.
He was banned by the Puritans, along with mince pies and games. Occasionally secret publishers would print broadsheets with a verse about ‘Old Christmas’. In An Hue and Cry after Christmas (1645), which described the imprisonment of Christmas on St Thomas’ Day, he was described as
“This hoary headed man was of great years, and as white as snow. He entered the Romish Kallendar, time out of mind, as old, or very near, as Father Mathusalem was – one that looked fresh in the Bishops’ time, though their fall made him pine away ever since. He was full and fat…just like Bacchus upon a tunne of wine, when the grapes hang shaking about his ears”
In the Vindication of Christmas (1652), ‘Old Christmas’ complained about the way he was used in the city and found small comfort in any house, announcing “Welcome or not, I am come.” Another periodical (Mercurius Democritus) published the verses:
Old Christmas now is come to town,
Though few do him regard;
He laughs to see them going down,
That have put down his Lord.
A gallant crew, stir up the fire,
The other winter tale,
Welcome, Christmas, ‘tis our desire
To give thee more spic’d ale.
He became the personification of everything the British people held dear about Christmas – peace, good cheer, merrymaking, feasting and good will.
1616 AD Ben Jonson presented his play Christmas, his Masque at the Court of King James. In this the Season of Christmas was represented by an actor, and his entourage were the attributes of the season personified. In the eighteenth century, Father Christmas began to appear in the Christmas plays of itinerant players. In the middle of the play, he would appear, heavily disguised, shouting his challenge, “In comes I, Old Father Christmas. Be I welcome or be I not – I hope that old Christmas will never be forgot!” He and appeared regularly in Punch.  He was used as a symbol of good living and gaiety in the eighteenth century in order to ridicule the Puritan objections to Christmas.
Charles Dickens, in A Christmas Carol, described the Spirit of Christmas as a jolly character clad in a green robe and wreathed with holly, and Victorian illustrators usually depicted him as a very Pagan character with icicles or ivy round his head in robes of various colours.
As more influence came to Britain from America after World War II, Father Christmas was presented as a fat and jolly character, who filled stockings and represented the more material and commercial aspects of the season.
© Anna Franklin, Yule, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books, 2010