In the 17th Century, Christmas Day was more than just a religious date – it marked the beginning of the traditional twelve days of celebrating, feasting, and drinking but was also a flashpoint in the political and cultural turmoil of the English Civil Wars. Over the twelve days, we’re going to be exploring some of the Christmas customs and history from the 1640s and 1650s…
Father Christmas may have been and gone by now, but the image of the jolly, bearded man bedecked in fur-trimmed red still languishes in many a living room and high street window display.
With its near-universal appearance at this time of year, some have pointed to Father Christmas’ dominance of festive decorations and celebrations as a sign of the commercialisation and trivialisation of the season. Yet Father Christmas’ status as an embodiment of the spirit of the season isn’t new, it’s not even Victorian, and it’s certainly not a sole creation of the Coca Cola Corporation…
So much of the symbolism of Father Christmas harks back to the past, a warm, nostalgic glow of Christmases past, of childhood innocence and hearty, good-natured socialising. What is intriguing about these qualities is that they have always been the case – in the 1640s and ’50s, he came to represent the festival has it had been celebrated before the sustained attack against old ‘feast days’ and what many saw as the ‘traditional’ ritual year.
There had been personifications of Christmas before. The first recorded in England came in the 15th Century with Sir Christmas, named in a popular carol, and the Lords of Misrule, who oversaw royal and noble festivities during the Twelve Days of Christmas, were sometimes given titles such as Captain or Prince Christmas.  In 1554, during the Protestant reign of Edward VI, Henry Machyn reported on the banning of ‘Saint Nicholas bishops’ and, two years later, during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, ‘Sant Necolas whentt a-brod in most part in London syngyng after the old fassyon.’ 
But it was during the so-called ‘Puritan war on Christmas’ during the early and mid 1600s that the figure of Father Christmas began to emerge:
the symbol and spokesman of the ‘good old days’ of feasting and good cheer, a stark contrast to the gloomy piety offered by the reformers, and from the Restoration to the mid nineteenth century this character continued to be regarded as the presiding spirit of the festival. 
His well-known style of dressing was already emerging – in Ben Jonson’s Christmas his Masque (1616) ‘Old Christmas’ wears out-of-date fashions and is also keen to distance himself from suspicions that he was a Roman Catholic or Pagan figure: ‘attir’d in round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, a high crownd Hat with a Broach, a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse … I am old Gregorie Christmas still, and though I come out of Popes-head-alley as good a Protestant, as any i’my Parish’ while stage directions in Thomas Nabbes’s The Springs Glorie (1638) describe Christmas as ‘an old reverend Gentleman in a furr’d gown and cappe &c.’.
Amidst the chaos of the Civil War, a pamphlet war broke out over the celebration and treatment of Christmas. Royalist political pamphleteers tried to defend Christmas from attacks by radical Protestants and linked old traditions with their cause – they adopted ‘Old Father Christmas’ as the symbol of ‘the good old days’ of feasting and good cheer from before the Civil War, and it became popular for Christmas’s defenders to present him as lamenting ‘past times’. The marking of Christmas began to be seen by the Commonwealth authorities as a sign of latent Royalism and, therefore, a threat to the state:
[David Underdown] maintains that where Christmas was, royalism was likely to be present as well 
Further characterisation came with The Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisoning of Christmas, printed by Simon Minced-Pie for Cicely Plum Pottage (1646), where he is presented in a negative light, which concentrated on his allegedly ‘Popish’ attributes:
‘he was full and fat as any dumb Docter of them all. He looked under the consecrated Laune sleeves as big as Bul-beefe … but, since the catholike liquor is taken from him, he is much wasted, so that he hath looked very thin and ill of late … But yet some other markes that you may know him by, is that the wanton Women dote after him; he helped them to so many new Gownes, Hatts, and Hankerches, and other fine knacks, of which he hath a pack on his back, in which is good store of all sorts, besides the fine knacks that he got out of their husbands’ pockets for household provisions for him. He got Prentises, Servants, and Schollars many play dayes, and therefore was well beloved by them also, and made all merry with Bagpipes, Fiddles, and other musicks, Giggs, Dances, and Mummings.’ 
Initially known as ‘Sir Christmas’ or ‘Lord Christmas’, the first use of ‘Father Christmas’ as the figure’s name came in 1658 in Josiah King’s The Examination and Tryall of Old Father Christmas, in which he appears as as a white-haired old man. In 1678, almost two decades after the Restoration, King reprinted his pamphlet with additional material, as well as a more healthy-looking Father Christmas: ‘[he] look’t so smug and pleasant, his cherry cheeks appeared through his thin milk white locks, like [b]lushing Roses vail’d with snow white Tiffany … the true Emblem of Joy and Innocence’.
One of the most famous depictions of Father Christmas appears on the cover of Royalist poet John Taylor’s 1652 pamphlet The Vindication of Christmas or, His Twelve Yeares’ Observations upon the Times. Published anonymously immediately after the third Civil War, the frontispiece shows an old and bearded Christmas in a brimmed hat, a long open robe and undersleeves. He proclaims ‘O Sir, I bring good cheere’ while a Parliamentarian soldier warns him to ‘Keep out, you come not here’. A countryman replies ‘Old Christmas welcome; Do not fear’. The pamphlet oppressive government as Christmas laments the passing of ‘traditional’ celebrations: ‘I was in good hope that so long a misery would have made them glad to bid a merry Christmas welcome. But welcome or not welcome, I am come … Lets dance and sing, and make good chear, / For Christmas comes but once a year’. With his fur-lined robe, hat, and mighty beard it is this portrayal that is closest to modern images of Father Christmas.
With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the political and religious settlement of the Commonwealth and the Protectorate that followed it collapsed. Most traditional Christmas celebrations were revived, although as these were no longer contentious and Father Christmas’s profile declined. His connection to gift-giving had not yet been established and would not become so until the Victorian era, when he encountered the Dutch-inspired American ‘Santa Claus’ and became the ubiquitous Christmas figure we know today.
 Bridget Ann Henisch – Cakes and Characters: An English Christmas Tradition (1984)
 Steve Roud – The English Year (2008)
 Royd ibid.
 Judith Maltby – Suffering and surviving: the civil wars the Commonwealth and the formation of ‘Anglicanism’, 1642-60 (2006) citing David Underdown – Revel, Riot and Rebellion (1987)
 Diane Purkiss – The English Civil War: A People’s History (2007)
Charlotte Susannah Frances Austin – The Celebration of Christmastide in England from the Civil Wars to its Victorian transformation (2006 dissertation, University of Leeds)