The first recorded mention of Santa Claus in England is believed to have been in a Lancashire newspaper, Mike Hill reports
The tradition of Santa Claus visiting children to deliver their presents on Christmas Eve was not widely adopted in the UK until the 1870s.
And it was a poem published in the Preston Guardian in 1871 which helped popularise the figure who is now such an integral part of festive folklore.
For centuries St Nicholas had been regarded as a charitable figure, especially when it came to children, but Santa Claus first stepped into Christmas customs in America.
Dutch settlers in New York brought the name Sinterklaas with them, which was derived from St Nicholas.
As illustrators brought the saint to life so his popular image was formed with his distinctive fur lined suit, rosy cheeks, white beard and tradition for dispensing of presents.
The Preston Guardian introduced Santa Claus in a Christmas poem published in 1871 and took the step of publishing an explanation as to who Santa Claus was to accompany the specially written tale Santa Claus and the Children – a step which helped establish him in this country.
The paper stated: “Santa Claus is the Dutch name of St Nicholas. In several parts of the Continent it is the custom of children on Christmas Eve to hang up their stockings and shoes and if any gifts be found in them next morning they are supposed to come from Santa Claus as a prize for good conduct.”
A description which still fits perfectly today. As for the poem, here it is reprinted in its entirety.
‘Twas the eve before Christmas, ‘Good night’ had been said
And Annie and Willie had crept into bed.
There were tears in their pillows and tears in their eyes,
And each little bosom was heaving with sighs.
For tonight their stern father’s command had been given,
That they should retire precisely at seven
Instead of at eight for they troubled him more,
With questions unheard of than ever before,
He had told them he thought this delusion a sin,
No such creature as “Santa Claus” ever had been.
And he hoped, after this, he should never more hear
How he scrambled down chimneys with presents each year.
And this was the reason that two little heads
So restlessly tossed on their soft, downy beds.
Eight, nine, and the clock on the steeple tolled ten,
Not a word had been spoken by either till then,
When Willie’s sad face from the blanket did peep,
And whispered, ‘Dear Annie, is ‘on fast asleep?”
“Why no, brother Willie,” a sweet voice replies,
“I’ve long tried in vain, but I can’t shut my eyes,
For somehow it makes me so sorry because
Dear Papa has said there is no ‘Santa Claus.’
Now we know there is, and it can’t be denied,
For he came every year before mamma died;
But, then, I’ve been thinking that she used to pray,
And the Lord would hear everything mamma would say,
And maybe she asked Him to send Santa Claus here
With that sackful of presents he brought every year.”
“Well, why tan’t we p’ay dest as mamma did den,
And ask Dod to send him with p’esents aden?”
“I’ve been thinking so too,” and without a word more,
Four little bare feet bounded out on the floor,
And four little knees the soft carpet pressed,
And two tiny hands were clasped close to each breast.
“Now, Willie, you know we must firmly believe
That the presents we ask for we’re sure to receive;
You must wait very still till I say the ‘Amen,’
And by that you will know that your turn has come then.”
“Dear Jesus, look down on my brother and me,
And grant us the favour we are asking of thee.
I want a wax dolly, a teaset, a ring,
And an ebony workbox that shuts with a spring.
Bless papa, dear Jesus, and cause him to see
That Santa Claus loves us as much as does he;
Don’t let him get fretful and angry again
At dear brother Willie and Annie. Amen!”
“Please, Desus, ‘et Santa Taus turn down tonight,
And bring us some pesenes before it is ight,
I wish he should div me a nice ‘ittle sed,
With bright shinin’ ‘unners, and all painted yed;
A box full of tandy, a book, and a toy,
Amen! and dear Desus, I’ll be a good boy.”
Their prayers being ended, they raised up their heads,
And with hearts light and cheerful, again sought their beds.
They were lost soon in slumber, both peaceful and deep,
And with fairies in dreamland, were roaming in sleep.
Eight, nine, and the little French clock had struck ten,
Ere the father had thought of his children again;
He seems now to hear Annie’s half suppressed sighs,
And to see the big tears stand in Willie’s blue eyes.
“I was harsh with my darlings,” he mentally said,
“And should not have sent them so early to bed;
But then I was troubled, my feelings found vent,
For bank stock today has gone down ten per cent.
But of course they’ve forgotten their troubles ere this,
And that I denied them the thrice asked for kiss.
But, just to make sure, I’ll steal up to their door,
For I never spoke harsh to my darlings before.”
So saying, he softly ascended the stairs,
And arrived at the door to hear both of their prayers.
His Annie’s “bless papa” drew forth the big tears,
And Willie’s grave promise fell sweet on his ears.
“Strange, strange I’d forgotten,” said he with a sigh,
“How I longed when a child to have Christmas draw nigh.”
“I’ll atone for my harshness,” he inwardly said,
“By answering their prayers ere I sleep in my bed.”
Then turned to the stairs and softly went down,
Threw off velvet slippers and silk dressing gown,
Donned hat, coat, and boots, and was out in the street,
A millionaire facing the cold, driving sleet.
Nor stopped he until he had bought everything
From the box full of candy to the tiny gold ring;
Indeed, he kept adding so much to his store,
That the various presents outnumbered a score.
Then homeward he turned, when his holiday load,
With Aunt Mary’s help, in the nursery was stowed.
Miss Dolly was seated beneath a pine tree,
By the side of a table spread out for her tea;
A workbox, well filled, in the centre was laid,
And on it the ring for which Annie had prayed.
A soldier in uniform stood by a sled
“With bright shining runners, and all painted red.”
There were balls, dogs and horses, books pleasing to see,
And birds of all colours were perched in the tree,
While Santa Claus, laughing, stood up in the top,
As if getting ready more presents to drop.
And as the fond father the picture surveyed,
He thought for his trouble he had amply been paid.
And he said to himself, as he brushed off a tear,
“I’m happier tonight than I’ve been for a year.
“I’ve enjoyed more pure pleasure than ever before.
What care I if bank stock falls ten per cent more!
Hereafter I’ll make it a rule, I believe,
To have Santa Claus visit us each Christmas Eve.”
So thinking, he gently extinguished the light,
And, tripping down stairs, retired for the night.
As soon as the beams of the bright morning sun
Put the darkness to flight, and the stars one by one,
Four little blue eyes out of sleep opened wide,
And at the same moment the presents espied;
Then out of their beds they sprang with a bound,
And the very gifts prayed for were all of them found.
They laughed and they cried, in their innocent glee,
And shouted for papa to come quick and see
What presents old Santa Claus brought in the night
(Just the things that they wanted,) and left before light.
“And now,” added Annie, in a voice soft and low,
“You’ll believe there’s a Santa Claus, papa, I know,”
While dear little Willie climbed up on his knee,
Determined no secret between them should be,
And told in soft whispers how Annie had said
That their dear, blessed mamma, so long ago dead,
Used to kneel down by the side of her chair,
And that God up in heaven had answered her prayer.
“Den we dod up and prayed dust well as we tood,
And Dod answered our prayers: now wasn’t He dood?”
I should say that he was if he sent you all these,
And knew just what presents my children would please.
(Well, well, let him think so, the dear little elf,
‘Twould be cruel to tell him I did it myself.)
Blind father! who caused your stem heart to relent,
And the hasty words spoken so soon to repent?
‘Twas the Being who bade you steal softly upstairs,
And made you His agent to answer their prayers!