The French Faces of Father Christmas
Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Père Noël…
Americans call him Santa Claus, the British call him Father Christmas, in Italy he takes the form of a benevolent witch, La Befana, who delivers presents to every house, and in France he is Père or Papa Noël. The figure of Father Christmas has many faces, all with slightly different characteristics and features. Here, we will explore some of the different ways in which he is viewed around France.
Père Noël, much like Father Christmas or Santa, is generally seen in France as a kindly old man with a white beard, wearing red robes with white fur lining. Since the first references to this character, which appeared in the 19th century, he has become a central image of Christmas for French children. In the 1960s, the French government even created a system by which letters sent to Père Noël could be forwarded to a single post office in Libourne, in the South West of France, opened, and responded to. Since then, millions of children have received postcards from Père Noël!
Although across most of France this Christmas figure closely resembles the generic image of Santa Claus, there are certain regions of the country which see him differently. For example, in Provence, just as in Italy, children believe in a fairy who, riding a little donkey, travels round distributing presents. In the Basque Country, Father Christmas is called Bizarzuri (‘White Beard’), and in Breton, the language of Brittany, he is Tad Nedeleg, which is very close to the Welsh Tad Nadolig.
However, it is in the North and North East of France that traditions surrounding Santa are the furthest removed from the typical image that we may have in our heads. In Alsace-Lorraine, Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Franche-Comté, the Fête Saint-Nicolas is celebrated on 6th December. This festival is inspired by Nicholas of Myra, who was born in today’s Turkey. Legend has it that this saint saved three small children from the malevolent clutches of a bloodthirsty butcher, who he then imprisoned and castigated. This evil character became Père Fouettard, Saint Nicholas’ antithesis, a figure always dressed in black who would go round punishing badly behaved children by giving them lumps of coal. Therefore, while Saint Nicholas himself fits closely with the idea of Père Noël, the stories and traditions that surround him are quite unfamiliar to those of us who are used to the concept of Father Christmas.