Santa Claus is called “Père Noël” (Father Christmas) in France. Like in any places celebrating Christmas, the French Père Noël wears a red suit and hat with white fur trimming with a broad black belt around his waist. He is tall and large, with ruddy cheeks and nose, bushy eyebrows, a white beard and moustache. His big brown sack is packed full of toys that will be delivered to every household at midnight, using his sleigh pulled by reindeers.
The origins of Santa Claus
The character of Santa was inspired by Saint Nicolas (Sinterklaas) who was originally the person distributing presents to German and French children on 6 December. Le Père Fouettard (the Bogeyman) is the counterpart of Saint Nicolas; he is covered in coal marks and is dressed all in black. He whips/spanks children who have misbehaved, just as Saint Nicolas rewards the good ones. With the transformation of Saint Nicolas into our modern-day Santa, le Père Fouettard has disappeared altogether, and has in fact given way to other characters, such as elves and reindeer.
Saint Nicolas is celebrated in the Flanders, Lorraine and Alsace, as well as in Austria, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. When the Dutch migrated to the United States in the 19th century, they took with them the traditions of Saint Nicolas (Sinterklaas) which gradually evolved into Santa Claus.
The rising of Santa Claus
In a drawing by American cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1863, Santa appears as a peddler; a right jolly old elf distributing presents to all children. In 1885, the cartoonist revealed that Santa did not come from the sky but from the North Pole. The following year, American writer George P. Webster expanded upon this idea, adding that Santa’s toy factory and house were also located in the North Pole.
This cliché was reinforced by Louis Prang, the man who was said to have introduced the tradition of Christmas cards in the United States. Santa wore a broad black belt, boots and a hood and carried a very large brown sack, in which he carried the children’s toys.
Santa’s fame greatly increased in the US at the beginning of the 20th century, embodying the idea of individual success and the importance of wealth symbols. In 1931, Coca-Cola commissioned Haddon Sundblom to use the character of Santa as a selling point in order to enlarge its market towards a younger public and to help spur sales of the refreshment drink throughout the cold winter. The colours of the brand – red and white – were used on Santa’s outfit, which has contributed to the unique, modern image of him that we recognise today. Sundblom based his drawings on some former illustrations published in around 1906 (before the advertisement) depicting Santa clothed in red and white, with white whiskers. Thus, Coca-Cola actually only contributed to the popularisation of this new image as a result of marketing campaigns.
Santa Claus in France: le Père Noël
Until the 1950’s, the Christmas season was symbolised in France by the Nativity. It was only after the Second World War that Christmas celebrations quickly underwent an unexpected change, which many argued was turning the whole celebration into a capitalist business opportunity. Illuminated Christmas trees, Christmas cards, colourful wrapping paper and lots of presents (rather than simply putting an orange and a very small gift in a sock) were suddenly everywhere. All these new traditions were imported from America, as were Coke and chewing-gum.
The prestige of the American lifestyle was great in France in the aftermath of the Second World War. The French were fascinated by the “country of the liberators” and they embraced popular American icons, including Santa, with a little help from the French press…
In December 1951, the French media reported a particular event which caused a great scandal across the entire country. The religious authorities of the city of Dijon, Burgundy, decided to crusade against Santa and set fire to an effigy in the cathedral square, in front of a crowd of children and adults! It was their way of protesting against the character of Santa, who they considered to be a usurper and a heretic. Santa was accused of “paganising” Christmas, his greatest offence was being introduced in public schools, where nativities had previously been banned.
French traditions around Le Père Noël
In the period leading up to Christmas, French children write letters to Père Noël in class at school, asking him for certain presents. A fun fact is that, in 1962, a law was passed in France decreeing that all letters written to Santa would be responded to with a postcard so that when a class writes letters, each pupil gets a response. On Christmas Eve, French children used to fill their shoes with carrots and treats for Père Noël’s donkey and leave them by the fireplace.
More recently, the fireplace has been replaced by the Christmas tree. On Christmas night, Père Noël is said to travel the world, stopping at each and every house and climbing down through the chimney to leave presents for every child who has behaved themself through the past year. Sometimes, Père Noël’s donkey is substituted by seven magical reindeer who pull his sleigh, which is in fact an American tradition. On Christmas morning, children run to the Christmas tree to see what Santa has left under it for them. Often presents are opened on the evening of 24 December, after the Christmas Réveillon dinner or after the midnight mass.