One of the major reasons why the banning of Christmas failed in England was because the threat of abolition caused people of the seventeenth century to fight for their right to continue the traditions they had developed. Many writers even tried to find a character who embodied these Christmas traditions and could be used to appeal for their safekeeping. Writers of the seventeenth century were not masters of subtlety – probably because large segments of the public were illiterate, so books had a limited reach, and playwrights knew that drunken audiences would talk and heckle through most of their plays, so needed constant reminders of what was going on. Ben Jonson’s 1616 play Christmas, His Masque features a group of allegorical brothers and sisters with names like Minced Pie, Carol, Mumming, Wassail and Misrule, and he then introduces their father. The father is an old man with a beard who bemoans the fact he is being excluded from Christmas celebrations and implores the audience to keep the traditions alive in the face of growing opposition.
This is an early appearance of a character who would soon be featuring in mummers’ plays, stories and newspaper articles everywhere and over the next few hundred years would come to be a ubiquitous figure. He was a character who came to embody the secular irreligious Christmas traditions that the Puritans despised, but perhaps it was only because of the Puritan opposition that he ever developed at all. His name was Father Christmas.
“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” by Paul Hawkins is published by Simon & Schuster and is available now.