The Green Man as Inspiration for Old Father Christmas

 

Some traditions place the Green Man’s annual death on the Winter Solstice. This was not a sad thing, but something to be celebrated. Because the gradual lengthening of days after the solstice was a sure sign that he was coming back; that Spring was returning.

 

The manner in which the early Christian church incorporated pagan holidays and traditions is well known. The Green Man survived this transition and became one of those curious symbols adopted by the Medieval church. Stone carvers in early chapels and cathedrals incorporated the Green Man in their artwork. Some have speculated that these artisans, having recently been converted from paganism, did this on the sly, keeping their old gods secretly present in the face of a new religion. But the predominance of Green Men across Europe would suggest that he was incorporated with the Church’s tacit consent. Indeed, it was part of many clever compromises that the early Church made to ease the transition for pagan converts to Christianity.

 

Probably the most familiar of these compromises is Christmas itself. The date of Christ’s birth is unknown. But the early Church fixed it very close to the Winter Solstice, thus incorporating pagan traditions and helping to ensure its widespread adoption. And so, the Green Man made yet another transition, becoming part of the inspiration behind Father Christmas. Old Father Christmas began to appear in English literature as early as the 15th century. But Puritanism in England (and New England, for that matter) put a serious damper on Christmas, making it illegal in some places, until the 19th century. By that time, there was a widespread desire to revive the old Medieval celebration and bring back the merriment and joy that Calvinists had squashed. Father Christmas, bearing a remarkable resemblance to the Green Man and all the life and vitality he embodied, became the powerful champion of this movement.

 

Charles Dickens, another champion of Christmas at this time, described in 1843 the sight that Scrooge beheld upon opening his chamber door to meet the Ghost of Christmas Present:

 

It was his own room…But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove, from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there…In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see…It was clothed in one simple deep green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free: free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air.

 

None other than the Green Man, still embodying joy and vitality, but now in the name of Christmas, peace on Earth, and human kindness. It is, perhaps, a bit unfortunate that Americans transformed the strong Father Christmas, full of Green Man imagery, into a fat, old elf. We mainly have Clement Clark Moore and his 1823 A Visit from St. Nicholas to thank for that.