Like with the pantomime, the origins of Santa Claus lie far further back that the 1800s, but the Santa that we all know today is very much based on the Victorian version of this embodiment of gift giving.
He’s a combination of festive characters that have existed within western culture for over a thousand years. Father Christmas was a figure that features as part of the midwinter festival, a medieval English tradition that took place around the same time as Christmas. He was the provider of the feast in which all enjoyed, paving the way to the Christmas Dinner Tradition. This character was generally depicted as tall, thin and dressed in either green or brown to note the return of Spring. Another influence, in which the tradition of giving gifts stems, is St Nicholas, a 4th century Bishop from Turkey. Old St Nick was well known for his gifts of gold to those in need, he gave those gifts in secret, sometimes throwing them down the chimney. In Dutch the man was referred to as Sinter Klaas, a name which eventually carried over to the Americas where settlers likely mispronounced the name, inventing the new name Santa Claus. It was an American poet named Clement Moore however who first portrayed the image of Santa we still see today in his poem The Night Before Christmas which was first published in 1823. The round face, nose and belly, the reindeer and the jolly demeaner all come from this 19th Century poem which is still read with fondness to this day.
Carol singing is an ancient tradition, originally it would likely be done by the poor who would travel from home to home in hopes of receiving some food to tide them over in return for their display of festive joy. During the Victorian era this became popular, perhaps due to a climb in poverty or maybe just on the wave of a Christmas loving era. Most homes that housed wealthier people would have in them a piano or an organ, it became common at Christmas for the family to gather round and sing popular Christmas carols. The most popular at the time was likely silent night but the Victorians had a few of their own tunes such as Jingle Bells, Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem and O Come all ye Faithfull that are all still commonplace amongst carollers today.
A Christmas Carol
You can’t really talk about Christmas without mentioning perhaps the most famous Christmas story out there (outside of the bible of course) A Christmas Carol by none other than Charles Dickens. The Victorian era was a time of extreme wealth and in turn extreme poverty, this story urged the rich to share their wealth with the poor, teaching people that kindness would not only serve you in death but in life too. I also have no doubt that charities have prospered greatly from this encouragement of giving at this time of year ever since and the sentiment hasn’t left us to this day.