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. Nast 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
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Reblogged this on 24/7 in FRANCE and commented:
HO! HO! HO!
Thanks for the reblog and Happy Holidays to you!
To you as well, Margo – take care!
Great information! And I love the tongue-in-cheek references to what children do today: go to the Internet and play interactive games. How true!
Thanks! Yes, it is kind of strange to think that Santa has his own website. Probably in the not-too-distant future, Santa can send their toys electronically and the children can print them on their 3D printers — Yikes!
wonderful , once again. Happy Holidays to you and Jeff..hope 2015 brings us together again..
Happy Holidays to you too, and wishing you a wonderful 2015!
Thanks Mary Jane. Merry Christmas! Hope Santa brings you everything you want!
Pardon me, but some of what you write is dubious ( Santa was sometimes dressed in red before the Coke’s ad, in 1866 in the States, and his image was used by Waterman in 1907 and Michelin in 1919 ) .
About him being imported in France after 1945, just have a look at this French newspaper, “L’Humanité” of Christmas 1921 : http://tendanceclaire.npa.free.fr/breve.php?id=6917 .
Besides, he was called “le bonhomme Noël” a long time before, as the XIXth century novelist George Sand mentions him in a story .
Hello and thank you for your comments.
I agree with you that Santa wore red before Coca-Cola, and I believe I said that in the article (maybe it wasn’t clear enough). Before the Coke ad, he was depicted in many different outfits – “including the now famous red suit with white fur”.
The Santa that I meant to say was imported to France after the Second World War was the “modern American Santa” – the one that was popularized (not invented) by Coca-Cola. Of course, the idea of St Nicholas, or an old man bringing gifts to children, had been around since the fourth century as I said at the beginning of the article. But the “American version” – (jolly and round, wearing a red suit, riding in a sleigh pulled by reindeer) spread to France after World War II when all things American were in fashion.
I hope that clears up any misunderstanding. I don’t really think I said anything contradictory to what you have said. It’s nice to know that I have some readers who know their history. 🙂
Thanks again for writing.
Merci beaucoup ma belle Margo
J’ai lu et j’ai appris beaucoup de choses sur le père Noël.
Merci Nayer, c’est gentil de ta part. Je suis très impressionée que tu lis en anglais! 🙂
Thanks Margo, I love that Pere Noel has his own department at La Poste.
Yes, it’s nice that all children can be in touch with Father Christmas. I imagine the number of emails will soon overtake the letters though – if it hasn’t already. Happy Holidays!
great post! I’ll share it on my blog’s FB page:) #allaboutfrance11
Thanks, Tanja – Happy Holidays!
I’d heard about the link with coca cola and red and white Father Christmas before but wasn’t sure if it was just an urban myth. However I know that you do such great research Margo so if you say it’s true then I believe you! It’s quite an amazing story really and just goes to show the power of marketing. I’ve always enjoyed sending off my kids letters to the pôle nord and getting replies form Libourne, it’s always made me laugh. Now I know more about what actually happens in there. Even if La Poste now encourages kids to go online I still think it’s impressive that every kid who writes to Père Noël gets a reply. Thanks for linking up to #AllAboutFrance, and LOVELY to meet you at last!
Hi Phoebe – it was really great to meet you too! Glad we finally made it happen!
Yes, even thought Coca Cola didn’t invent the jolly Santa dressed in red and white, they chose those colours because they conveniently matched their product. And since they did mass marketing, this became the image everyone thought of when they thought of Santa Claus. It’s definitely the power of marketing!
It is funny that the postcards from Santa are postmarked Libourne – it seems like they should have a special North Pole postmark – but I guess the kids don’t care as long as they get their gifts. 🙂
Another great article!
Thanks so much! Happy Holidays!