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Is the name Father Christmas used in the US or is it mainly Santa Claus (and Santa)?

Does Father Christmas sound unusual or out of place if it was used in the US? Would it be laughed at?

As an aside, my feeling is Father Christmas was the main term used in the UK but Santa Claus has become more popular and is now just as acceptable.

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Sounds outdated to me. I'd expect it on Garrison Keeler. –  tylerharms Dec 19 '13 at 14:51
    
    
It's a shame that Santa doesn't get enough attention at Christmas ;) –  ScotM 13 hours ago

6 Answers 6

As this ngram shows, the term has very little usage in US print as compared to Santa Claus. There is a slight rise in usage over the years, but a quick scan of the listed works often refer to historic works or the British tradition.

Most US listeners would probably understand a reference to Father Christmas, but most would probably consider it a bit archaic, stilted or reference to a foreign tradition.

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If corpus evidence is anything to go by, then Santa Claus is more popular than Father Christmas in the US, and Father Christmas is more popular than Santa Claus in the UK, but by a very much smaller degree. The COCA shows Santa Claus as being 27 times more frequent than Father Christmas, whereas the BNC shows Father Christmas as being just under twice as frequent as Santa Claus.

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Santa Claus is used in US rather than Father Christmas ( see Ngram and the usage origin below). In UK both terms are used Ngram with Santa Claus becoming more and more popular:

America and the Creation of Santa Claus:

  • The American Santa Claus is generally considered to have been the invention of Washington Irving and other early nineteenth-century New Yorkers, who wished to create a benign figure that might help calm down riotous Christmas celebrations and refocus them on the family.

  • This new Santa Claus seems to have been largely inspired by the Dutch tradition of a gift-giving Sinterklaas, but it always was divergent from this tradition and was increasingly so over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So, the American Santa is a largely secular visitor who arrives at Christmas, not the 6 December; who dresses in furs rather than a version of bishop's robes; who is rotund rather than thin; and who has a team of flying reindeer rather than a flying horse.

  • At first his image was somewhat variable, but Thomas Nast's illustrations for Harper's Illustrated Weekly (1863-6) helped establish a figure who looks fairly close to the modern Santa. This figure was taken up by various advertisers, including Coca-Cola, with the result that he is now the 'standard' version of the Christmas visitor and has largely replaced the traditional Father Christmas in England.

The English Father Christmas: A Separate Origin

  • The English Father Christmas seems to have had an entirely separate origin from Sinterklaas, being a personification of Christmas and a Yule-tide visitor - not a gift-giver - rather than a version of St Nicholas.

  • The earliest reference to him comes from the mid-fifteenth century, when a Sir Christëmas appears in a carol, although most discussions start with Ben Johnson's early seventeenth-century old or Captaine Christmas. Whilst strenuous efforts were made by the puritans of the seventeenth century to do away with this character, they did not succeed.

  • In the nineteenth century Father Christmas benefitted from the general Victorian revival of Christmas and can be found in, for example, Dickens' Christmas Carol. However, from the 1870s onwards Father Christmas became increasingly like the American Santa Claus, both in terms of his actions - he started giving gifts - and his appearance, with the result that two are nowadays virtually inter-changeable.

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As an American, I've only ever heard the name "Father Christmas" from UK-based sources, most notably in the eponymous Kinks' song.

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Currently the name Santa Claus is approximately 10 times more popular than Father Christmas in the United States, but there was a time when their popularity was similar. In addition, the popularity of those two names had tracked together in the UK until the mid 1980's.

Ngram US

Ngram UK


Cultural Perspective

THE ORIGIN OF AMERICAN CHRISTMAS MYTH AND CUSTOMS offers very good insights into Santa's current dominance in the USA:

About 1890 Santa Claus' modern Christmas role becomes established. The first store Santa Claus was James Edgar, Brockton, Mass., 1890.

Mrs. Claus created by Katherine Lee Bates, Sunshine and other Verses for Children, 1890 (ref?), violating sainthood celibacy restrictions.

Letter to Virginia (O'Hanlan), Francis P. Church, New York Sun, 1897--"Yes Virginia. There is a Santa Claus."

The image of Santa Claus now becomes varied and often elfin, rejecting Nast's robust figure. The Oz illustrator W. W. Denslow drew Santas of Munchkin-size. Arthur Rackham, an artist and illustrator of children's books drew Santa as an elf.

Norman Rockwell drew full-sized Santas for the Saturday Evening Post.

Archie Lee of the D'Arcy Advertising Agency proposed a realistic, modern appearing Santa Claus with red cheeks and wrinkled face, but appearing vital and young, for Coca Cola. This image was painted in oil by a commercial illustrator Hadden H.Sundblom, starting with the 1931 holiday promotion. The original model was Lou Prentice, a retired salesman who died shortly thereafter. This is the Santa Claus we know today.

The name Santa Claus has become a well developed cultural icon, and we discover an intentional development in the article Santa Claus Does More than Deliver Toys, in the Journal Consumption Markets Culture pages 207-240:

Society's collective memory of Santa Claus reflects the dynamic and interactive process between advertising, as well as other cultural institutions, and consumers. Coca-Cola's advertising has maintained, transformed and mass-produced the image of Santa Claus over time. Consumers have numerous experiences with Santa Claus— they have watched, listened, read, and even dreamed of Santa Claus. As consumers experience Santa, they actively combine and adapt cultural discourse to fit with their individual, familial, and cultural traditions.

The name Santa Claus benefits news papers, magazines, movies, merchants, politicians, and just about everyone in our country. Saint Nicholas is surely welcome in the United States, and we definitely prefer to call him Santa, but he has Nicknames too:

Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle and simply "Santa..."

The monicker Father Christmas competes with Saint Nicholas, and is a more popular than either Kris Kringle or Saint Nick. Traditionalist can argue about whether it should be, but in the United States, Santa Claus and Father Christmas are both the mythologized historical Saint Nicholas.

Ngram Nicknames


Historical Perspective

Robert Ellice Mack wrote the iconic Old Father Christmas Picture Book in 1888 with an elfish picture of "Santa" on the cover, but the concluding stanza in the first poem reads:

Now wake little people dressed in white

Old Father Christmas came last night

He crammed your stockings--and children look!

He brought you a colored picture book!

A Santa by any other name is just as jolly!

A few decades later, Primary Education, Volume 13 contains a play where a letter is read:

Father Christmas

Santa Claus Land, December 21, 1905

Dear Father Christmas:

Will you and your little band of workers give me some timely aid?...

At the peak of it's popularity, the name Father Christmas appeared in The Kindergarten-primary Magazine, Volume 33:

Father Christmas has a white beard and carries a bag.

The name Father Christmas is just as popular today as it was in 1922. Barbara Reeds published a Christmas story called *Father Christmas* in 1995. At Amazon.com the book, Father Christmas BC is among the many books available promoting Father Christmas as Santa.

Perhaps the most well known recent reference to Father Christmas is in the movie adaptation of C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), where Father Christmas accosts the children, announces that Christmas has returned to Narnia and gives them powerful gifts that will factor into the rest of the stories. The fact that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who also has a popular book entitled Father Christmas, are British authors does not diminish their influence on American culture.


Conclusion

Father Christmas and Santa Claus were equally popular names in the British Empire that spawned the American dream, and so it is no surprise that both names were popular in the early days of the United States. Father Christmas has not become a less popular name, but cultural developments have made Santa Claus a more popular name.

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To answer part one of your question: In the US, the name Santa Claus is by far the most widespread and popular.

As to the second part of your question: If you say "Father Christmas", and you have a foreign accent, (esp. British) it will not sound unusual, nor will you be laughed at. If you say "Father Christmas" with a Brooklyn accent, it will not only sound unusual, but people will be rolling on the floor.

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