The Story of Father Christmas
The towering figure of Father Christmas was clearly visible from three blocks away among the 12,000 Yuletide visitors at the Muscatine Christmas Magic Holiday Stroll - in spite of drizzle and heavy fog. In full regalia, Father Christmas stands nearly seven feet tall. The German Black Forest Spirit of Christmas, who is fast becoming an Iowa holiday tradition, appeared in towns from Belleview on the Mississippi to Spirit Lake in the northwest part of the state to the Des Moines Court Avenue district. Adults and children of all ages enjoy hearing Christmas legends and fantasies, shaking hands, or getting a magical hug.
Not to be confused with the red-and-white suited Santa Claus, whose origins are American and date back to the 1800's, Father Christmas is of European origin and hails back to the Mummers' Plays of the Middle Ages. His burgundy tunic features rich brocade and gold embroidery; his mantled green coat is trimmed with the fur from three full sheepskins. He carries a hand-made leather drinking mug on his belt and toys in his deerskin pouch, while his walking staff features Norwegian rosemaling and pine cones.
Father Christmas claims to be Santa's great-great-great grandfather, he admits with a chuckle that there is a family resemblance - as he strokes his long, flowing white beard. "Santa Claus brings presents to children around the world," he says. "I preside over the Wassail Bowl for adults. I take orders for presents, Santa does the deliveries. The last time I tried to climb down a chimney I got stuck!"
He and Santa Claus are related to Father Frost and Tatiana the Snow Princess in Russia, Zinter Klaus in Holland, Babushka, and other Christmas figures around the world. According to Father Christmas, it all started with Saint Nicholas, who was Bishop of Myra in the third century. In Nicholas' town, there were three young maidens who were to be sold into slavery because they had no dowries. One night, Bishop Nicholas threw bags of gold through an open window into the girls' bedroom so they could get married. The bags landed in the girls' stockings, which were hanging on their bedsteads.
"Nicholas always claimed he was a good shot," says Father Christmas. "But I think it was an accident. The rest of us in the family have had to drop presents into stockings ever since!"
The Black Forest Father Christmas is a veritable font of Yuletide lore and traditions, with stories of Christmas from around the world, medieval toasts and ballads, blessings, and - of course - the story of the first Christmas Night.
Adults as well as children are fascinated by Father Christmas, who dances with old ladies in the streets to the accompaniment of carols played on a tuba, has young mothers want to sit on his lap to have photos taken, and shakes hands with homeless winos. At the Festival of Trees in Cedar Falls this year, Father Christmas was approached by a man who wanted to have his picture taken with him - a grown man who was as excited as a little child. Father Christmas later learned that the man was Iowa Senator Charles Grassley!
Children are in awe of Father Christmas and throng around him, playing with the hand- painted wooden toys on his belt, ringing his bells, or trying to blow his brass trumpet. Accustomed to seeing department store and street corner Santas, they look up at the gigantic Black Forest Spirit of Christmas in wonder. "Oh, my gosh! He's real after all!"
At the Hotel Kirkwood in DesMoines, Father Christmas stepped outside to cool off. (In all those furs, he is only comfortable at ten degrees below zero). A transit bus full of late shoppers passed by honking and waving, and a pair of college student reporters asked for an interview. Then, a little old homeless alcoholic (known locally as 'Squeek') stepped up with eyes as big as moons. "Santy, can I tell you what I want for Christmas?" he said.
"He obviously believed in me," said Father Christmas. "Though he badly needed money and a home, Squeek asked for 'toys for all the little children.'"
A mother brought up an awestruck three-year-old child for a hug. The mother then asked for a hug herself. When Father Christmas turned to go back into the Hotel Kirkwood, he found Squeek the Wino waiting in line for a hug.
"That frail little man had probably not been hugged in thirty years," said Father Christmas. "When I gave him his hug, I was truly the Spirit of Christmas."