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Always winter, sometimes Santa

22 December 2023

Why would Father Christmas appear in Narnia? Jem Bloomfield offers his theory


Coloured 19th-century etching

Coloured 19th-century etching

C. S. LEWIS’s Chronicles of Narnia are famous for the magical landscape into which they draw the reader. Many of us can remember yearning to visit Narnia as a child (and maybe we still have that feeling). Less obvious, perhaps, is the way the books enchant our world, and leave us seeing it with new eyes.

One striking example happens in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with the depiction of Father Christmas. To explore it properly, we have to go back to the first arrival of the White Witch, because I think there is a fictional trick being played on the reader by Lewis at that point.

We are told that “[e]verything was perfectly still, as if he were the only living creature in that country”, and that Edmund heard “very far off in the wood, a sound of bells”. This is followed by a sledge drawn by two reindeer, whose white hair and gilded antlers are described, then their scarlet harness with its silver bells.

After the reindeer at the front of the vehicle comes the person sitting behind them, driving it. This is a “fat dwarf” with a red hood and gold tassel and a long beard. We’re also told that his clothes are made from polar-bear fur. Then “behind him, on a much higher seat in the middle of the sledge, sat a very different person”. I think Lewis intends us to guess who is about to enter the adventures of the Pevensie children, and to guess wrongly.

After all, we are in a snowy landscape, in a novel which has already demonstrated that fantastical and magical people, like fauns, can appear. The most famous sledge in all literature and folklore is surely that of Father Christmas. The mention of the general hush followed by the sound of bells and the arrival of a sledge pulled by reindeer reminds me of the opening of the 19th-century poem “A Visit from St Nicholas”:

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The reindeer are driven by a diminutive figure in a tasselled hood, dressed in polar-bear furs which he could only have acquired in the Arctic Circle, where the North Pole can be found. When the White Witch arrives, she is described in terms of red and white: “her face was white — not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth.” The narrator calls it “a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern”.

The traditional picture of Father Christmas, as laid out in “A Visit From St Nicholas” uses similar colours to very different effect:

His eyes — how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;

The witch appears as an inverted image, or a photographic negative, of Father Christmas. His red face and white beard against her white face and red lips. Her pride and sternness against his warmth and cheer. She is the symbolic antithesis of the generosity and good will that the children associate with him. Edmund has just met the embodiment of “always winter and never Christmas”.

WHEN Father Christmas does appear, some chapters later, the same fictional trick is played in reverse. The Pevensies and the Beavers, hiding from the Witch and her minions, are horrified by a noise outside the cave: “They were all sitting up with their mouths and eyes wide open listening to a sound which was the very sound they’d all been thinking of (and sometimes imagining they heard) during the walk last night. It was the sound of jingling bells.”

Of course, it is not the White Witch, but Father Christmas. He is described in the same colour scheme which emphasises him as the Witch’s counterpart. He has “a bright red robe (bright as hollyberries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest”. All is well — for the moment, at least. The children have met the figure of kindness and generosity, not the danger who was chasing them.

More than that, Father Christmas’s appearance is a sign of something more than himself: “I’ve come at last,” he declares. “She has kept me out for a long time but I have got in at last.” His arrival is a suggestion that the White Witch no longer has complete control over Narnia, and that “Aslan is on the move.”

Having argued that Father Christmas’s presence, and even some of his physical attributes, are invoked by the story long before he actually appears in Narnia, it is worth asking what this figure brings with him into the fantasy world.

From one point of view, he brings an additional level of chaos and incoherence. This was certainly the view taken by J. R. R. Tolkien, in his famous comment on the eclecticism of Narnia: “It really won’t do you know!” With a faun from Classical myth, talking animals from either Aesop or Beatrix Potter, some sort of ice witch, and now Father Christmas from British folklore and modern popular culture, Lewis seems to be drawing in a constellation of inconsistent fantastical creatures.

I would speculate that it was Father Christmas’s part in 20th-century culture which most marked him out as jarring for Tolkien. A figure who appeared on wrapping paper, advertising posters, and the shop windows in London must have seemed entirely discordant next to the pipe-playing faun of Arcadia.

Lewis insists, however, that the children see something different from their previous images of Father Christmas: “Some of the pictures . . . in our world make him look only funny and jolly,” but “he was so big, and so glad and so real . . . They felt very glad, but also solemn.” For me, this comment is key to what Father Christmas is doing in this story. He is not just a cheery man who gives out presents, but possesses the deeper history of that figure.

One strand of the traditions surrounding Father Christmas is bound with the image of Santa Claus (or Sinterklaas), who derives from the medieval St Nicholas. The stories surrounding this bishop of the Early Church emphasised (among other attributes) his generosity, and he became associated with gift-giving.

This became specifically tied to buying small gifts for children at fairs named after him, and the figure of “St Nicholas” or “Sinterklaas” became “Santa Claus”. (St Nicholas was also renowned for his strong theological views: one persistent but apocryphal story describes him attending the church council of Nicaea, and punching the priest Arius over his denial of the doctrine of the Trinity.)

Another strand of the popular image of Father Christmas comes from a folkloric personification of the festival sometime known as “Sir Christemas”, and sometimes as “Father Christmas”. He is associated with feasting, drinking, and celebration, rather than specifically with gift-giving. The opening of one medieval carol mentions him thus:

Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
“Who is there that singeth so?”
“I am here, Sir Christëmas.”
“Welcome, my lord Christëmas,
Welcome to us all, both more and less
Come near, Nowell!”

From the arrangement of the lines, it is clear that this is intended to be sung between two groups, with at least one person singing “Nowell!” boisterously, and others asking who is singing, and then a reply coming from “Sir Christemas”. The poem goes on with Sir Christemas declaring that the Christ-child has been born, and encouraging everyone to drink and celebrate: “Buvez bien par toute la campagnie” (Make good cheer and be right merry).

Father Christmas appearing in a novel may immediately spark associations with wrapping paper, seasonal jingles, and children’s parties. The way he is described by Lewis, however, gestures towards the deeper connections of this figure. It echoes with sound of hands hammering on the door of a medieval hall as voices are raised in boisterous chorus; it summons up the flicker of festival firelight across the snow and the furrowed brows of scholars debating the natures of Christ.

Lewis does not present his young readers with a new character who will tell them all about the coming of Aslan. Instead, he shows them a figure they already know, but suggests that there is more to him than they had thought. It’s a characteristic technique in Lewis’s theological fiction.

As ever with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I find myself thinking of terms of depth, of the way the bright surface of the story brings in old and strange associations to disturb the readers’ apprehension of the world around them.

This is an edited extract from
Paths in the Snow: A literary journey through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by Jem Bloomfield, published by DLT at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29); 978-1-915412-30-0 (Christmas books, 24 November).

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