The history of the jolly gift bearing old man of Christmas dates back centuries but he is a relatively late addition to the festive scene in France. Margo Lestz looks at how Pere Noel, Father Christmas, came to have his own department in the post office in France and become one of the most popular characters in the country…
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 and is said to have performed miracles. He eventually became Saint Nicholas, the protector saint of children.
The legend evolved over the centuries that on December 6th, St Nicholas 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, in those days wooden clogs called sabots, by the fireplace with some carrots or apples for St Nicholas’ donkey (who was called Gui, meaning mistletoe). Gui would eat his snack and then St Nicholas would leave some sweets in the shoes for the children to discover the next morning. Sometimes he 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.
Today’s Father Christmas
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.
In 1823, the poem, The Night Before Christmas firmly embedded the image of St Nicholas, or Santa Claus, in the American imagination. This poem gave the reindeer their names and made St Nicholas, 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 Nicholas, 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 the now famous red suit with white fur, and patriotic stars and stripes. But because of Coca-Cola’s very effective marketing, their version of Santa Claus became the American Santa Claus.
Father Christmas arrives in France…
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.
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 are 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. Feelings ran so high that in 1951 an effigy of Père Noël was burned in effigy in front of the cathedral in Dijon, Burgundy. It didn’t stop the colourful character’s popularity growing in France.
Father Christmas’s French Post Office Department
Today, 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 and every one is answered with a postcard – by law.
A staff of 60 secretaries handles his correspondence and in the 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 and in 2009 the postcard was updated. Now children are invited to go to Père Noël’s website to play interactive games and send an email 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.
Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France where she likes to bask in the sunshine, study the French language and blog as thecuriousrambler. Margo says “Life is never boring and I learn something new every day… and there are always surprises”.