The Advent Calendar of Literature: Day 7

Father Christmas, we revealed yesterday, was J. R. R. Tolkien. But he had also been knocking about for several centuries before the author of The Hobbit wrote down his adventures. Indeed, the merry fellow first turns up in literature in the age of Shakespeare, as a character in a play – and he is the title character of the play in which he appears. But the play isn’t by Shakespeare himself, and it isn’t exactly a ‘play’ at all. Allow us to explain…

Christmas, His Masque is a work by Shakespeare’s great contemporary, Ben Jonson (1572-1637), the playwright who is more famous for writing plays like The AlchemistVolpone, and Bartholomew Fair. A ‘masque’ was something slightly different: it was like a play but with more dancing and Father Christmasmusical content, and it was specifically a courtly entertainment. Jonson’s Christmas masque was first performed at the court of King James I (James VI of Scotland) during the Christmas season of 1616.

‘Christmas’ in the title is, of course, Father Christmas – and when we say ‘father’, we mean it: he has ten children in the play. Their names are Carol (of course), Gambol, Wassail, Misrule, Mumming, Offering, Post and Pair, New-Year’s-Gift, Baby-Cake, and Minced-Pie. (Carol is actually a boy, by the way.)

Father Christmas must have had a fair few presents to buy at Christmas, even for his own offspring! But in fact this early appearance of Father Christmas in literature points up the crucial difference between Father Christmas and Santa Claus – a distinction that it’s easy to forget, since the figures have become interchangeable in more recent times. But ‘Father Christmas’ was originally merely the personification of Christmas (like Father Time personifying … well, time). He wasn’t a gift-giver or magical benefactor of children who’d behaved themselves (that role was reserved for Santa Claus, derived, of course, from the separate legend of St Nicholas).

The play – sorry, ‘masque’ – is usually seen as a ‘trifle’, a holiday show with little substance or broader cultural significance (although its promotion of traditional Christmas values and rituals chimed with James’s own sentiments of the time). This is how the masque begins: ‘Enter Christmas with two or three of the guard. He is attired in round hose, long stockings, a close doublet, a high-crowned hat with a brooch, a long thin beard, a truncheon, little ruffs, white shoes, his scarfs and garters tied cross, and his drum beaten before him.’ Sadly Jonson doesn’t record the colour of Christmas’s doublet, so whether he anticipated the modern red attire usually associated with Father Christmas by a couple of centuries will probably never be known…

Image: Excerpt from Josiah King’s The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas (1686). Wikimedia Commons.

10 thoughts on “The Advent Calendar of Literature: Day 7”

  1. This is really interesting. Thank you for doing the research and posting. I did not realise that Father Christmas and Santa Claus were not the same person. Perhaps the original doublet was green like holly and mistletoe leaves.


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