Lockhart, William Ewart, 1846-1900; Old Father Christmas
Lockhart, William Ewart; Old Father Christmas; Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/old-father-christmas-138687

The history of leaving out food and drinks for Father Christmas

Growing up, it was always a tradition on Christmas Eve to leave out milk and cookies for Father Christmas, and a carrot or two for his reindeers.

Like most of our Christmas traditions, leaving out snacks for Father Christmas can be traced back to Germanic paganism. In times of old, ancient Europeans celebrated Yule – one of the oldest winter solstice festivals.

During this time, the Norse would set ablaze giant logs and feast for up to 12 days, until the fire finally burned out. It was a time of celebration, as it marked the coming of longer and better days now that all the wine and beer had finished fermenting, the cattle had all been slaughtered and was ready for feasting and, of course, the darkest days of winter were behind them.

In Norse mythology, Odin was the most important god. The first man and woman (Askr and Embla) were created by Odin and his two brothers from tree trunks found on the seashore. It was Odin that gave them life and, therefore, became known as the All-Father. His two brothers, Vili and Ve, gave them understanding, their senses and their appearance.

Christmas morning - photographed by F.J. Boston (c1896)
Christmas morning – photographed by F.J. Boston (c1896)

It was believed that Odin made nocturnal flights across the sky during the winter, watching over his people, and deciding who should prosper or not in the coming year. He was said to have ridden on an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir – his noble steed, described as the best of all horses, and with two ravens, which would fly all over the world and bring back information.

During the Yule celebrations, children used to leave out food for Sleipnir, in the hopes that Odin would stop by during his nocturnal flights and leave them gifts. To this day, in some parts of Europe, children believe Father Christmas and his sleigh are pulled by horses instead of reindeers, and they often leave out carrots and hay for them.

Along with food offerings, mistletoe, holly, wreaths and tree decorating are all originally Yule traditions. The Yule celebrations were first merged with Christian Christmas celebrations during the 10th century.

Haakon the Good, the king of Norway at the time, became Christian following a visit to England. In his efforts to introduce Christianity to the Norwegian people, he put into law that Yule should be celebrated at the same time as Christmas. The law also required every household to brew Christmas beer and, likewise, everyone was required to have beer at their Christmas feast, or they were issued a fine. Not a bad law in my opinion.

Today, each country and culture around the world have their own unique traditions. Although, for me, it was tradition to leave out a glass of milk and a plate of cookies, in England children traditionally leave out sherry and mince pies. In Ireland, Father Christmas has it best, as he gets a large pint of Guinness. The Australians must have liked that idea, since Father Christmas over there also gets a nice cold beer to help with the scorching summer heat.

An illustration of Odin riding Sleipnir from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript
An illustration of Odin riding Sleipnir from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript

In France, rightfully so, he gets a glass of wine. In Argentina, he keeps his buzz going with a rum sponge cake with dried fruit and nuts. However, in Sweden, he starts to sober up with a cup of coffee and, in Denmark, he gets a bowl of rice pudding, otherwise his elves are known to cause a ruckus.

Although this tradition can be traced all the way back to Odin and the Germanic tribes, the modern cultural phenomenon, as we know it today, began in the United States during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

The economic impact and hardships people were going through had parents trying to teach their children about the importance of giving and to show gratitude for the presents they were lucky to receive on Christmas Day. So, to show their gratitude, they would hang stockings filled with goodies as a welcoming gift and thank you to Father Christmas.

Today, the tradition has evolved to food and drinks for Father Christmas, and the stockings are now filled with goodies for family members instead. However, in the future, I intend to bring back the old ways and instead of leaving out one pint of Guinness for “Father Christmas”, he will get a stocking full.

By Jay Costa Owen

|| features@algarveresident.com
Jay works for a private charter airline, and is also a UX designer and aspiring author who enjoys learning about history and other cultures