Even though some of the American/British folkloric characters don’t come to France, you’ll be happy to know that the jolly old man in the red suit does. Of course, he goes by a different name: in France he’s known as Père Noël, or Father Christmas.
History of St Nick
The history of Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, dates back to the 4th century, when a priest from the area that is now Turkey came on the scene. He was known for his generosity, said to have performed miracles and eventually became Saint Nicholas, the protector saint of children. The legend evolved over the centuries that on December 6th, St Nick would descend from the sky on his donkey (or sometimes on a white horse), go into houses by way of the chimney and leave gifts for well-behaved children. The children would leave their shoes by the fireplace with some carrots or apples for St Nick’s donkey (who was called Gui, meaning mistletoe). Gui would eat his snack and then St Nick would leave some sweets in the shoes for the children to discover the next morning. Sometimes St Nick, or Father Christmas, was accompanied by a less kind character, Father Whipper (Père Fouettard) who would punish the bad children. This donkey-riding saint was the forerunner to the Santa Claus we know and love today.
The present-day version of Santa Claus started to take shape in New York in the early 1800s. A book was published as a New Year’s gift for children which contained a poem called, Old Santeclaus (Sinter Klaas being the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas). In the poem, Santeclaus was an old man who delivered gifts to children on a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
Then in 1823, the poem, The Night Before Christmas firmly embedded the image of St Nick, or Santa Claus, in the American imagination. This poem gave the reindeer their names, and fleshed out St Nick, making him a jolly chap with “a little round belly that shook, when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!” Thomas Nast, an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly magazine drew a series of illustrations for Christmas based on these ideas and gave the public a real glimpse of Santa Claus. Nash is also responsible for establishing Santa’s home as the North Pole.
But the real public relations boost for Santa came in 1931 when Coca-Cola gave Haddon Sundblom the task of finding a symbol for their Christmas advertising campaign. He looked to the earlier illustrations of St Nick, accentuated his jolliness, and dressed him in red and white – the colours of Coca-Cola. Up until this time Santa had a variety of clothing in his wardrobe. He had been seen in many outfits, including patriotic stars and stripes, and the now famous red suit with white fur. But because of Coca-Cola’s very effective marketing, their version of Santa Claus became the American Santa Claus.
And this is the Santa who came to France after the Second World War, along with other American products such as Coca-Cola and chewing gum. He’s known in France as Père Noël (Father Christmas) and he brought with him the commercialisation of the Christmas holiday.
A very warm welcome
The Catholic Church, which was still quite strong in France, took a dim view of this jolly fellow’s arrival. Up until the 1950s, the nativity scene had been the symbol of Christmas and they wanted to keep it that way. The religious leaders were especially upset by the fact that Père Noël and his Christmas tree were allowed in French schools, while Nativity scenes were banned. France being a country where church and state were separate, allowed no religious symbols in the schools. But since neither Père Noël nor Christmas trees (sapin de noël) were religious symbols they were permitted. So how did the Church react? They were so upset by this intruder that in 1951 Père Noël was burned in effigy in front of the cathedral in Dijon, France. But did this stop Father Christmas? Not at all, he just continued making his rounds throughout France.
Today, jolly old Father Christmas is known and loved all over the country. He even has his own department in the French post office to handle all the letters received at holiday time. The position, Secretary of Father Christmas, was created in 1962 in the “dead letters” department of the post office in Paris. Today, all letters addressed to Père Noël go to Libourne, in south-west France, where each one is answered with a postcard. A staff of sixty secretaries handle his correspondence, and in the fifty plus years since the department’s creation, the number of letters has gone from 5,000 to 1.4 million letters (and emails) per year. No matter what address is on the letter, it will end up in the hands of Père Noël’s secretary.
The first postcards said, “My dear child, your nice letter brought me joy. I am sending you a picture of me. You can see that the postman found me, he is quite clever. I get lots of requests and I don’t know if I can bring you what you asked for. I will try, but I am very old and sometimes I make mistakes. You have to forgive me. Be good, work hard. I send you a big kiss. Père Noël. “
But the world is changing and Father Christmas has to keep up with the times. So in 2009 the postcard was updated. Now children are invited to go to Père Noël’s website to play interactive games. Today, children can choose to write an email to Pere Noel with their list of desired gifts. But for those who still want to write letters, big red special delivery post boxes appear around French cities at holiday time, just for those letters to Père Noël.
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Photo Credits: 1 – by Thomas Nast 1881, 2 – by Thomas Nast 1863, 3 – Public domain postcard c1870 Wikimedia Commons, 4 – Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell 1920, 5 – Post box in Nice, France by Margo Lestz