Saint Nicholas of Myra
Born on March 15, 270, the man known as Saint Nicholas of Myra was a Christian bishop of Greek descent from the maritime city of Myra in Asia Minor. A pious man who had multiple miracles attributed to him, he was also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. Of course, much of what we know of this man’s life is from writings made long after his death, and there are no doubt many elaborations in those tellings – appropriate for a man whose legend would one day morph into a jolly gift-giver who rides upon a crimson sleigh pulled forth by a team of flying reindeer!
One popular story of Saint Nicholas is that he saved three daughters whose family did not have the money for a dowry for them to be married. In these days, young woman in these circumstances had limited options in life, and so Saint Nicholas intervened by dropping bags of golden coins into the window of their home. With these generous gifts, he gave them the dowries they needed to secure suitable marriages. This story is the basis of the holiday tradition today where chocolate candies shaped like coins wrapped in golden foil are gifted to loved ones.
Nicholas was canonized by Pope Eugene IV on June 5th, 1446. At his canonization, Nicholas was credited with three hundred miracles, including three resurrections. Today, he is held as the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, and students.
Besides the miraculous tales that led to his sainthood, the man who would become Saint Nicholas also had a reputation for generosity and surprise gift-giving. This, no doubt, had led to Saint Nicholas becoming known as “Saint Nick”, or Santa Claus, in future tales!
The Holly King
We move now from a pious man of the cloth to old world traditions to see the roots of many of the legendary stories we know of Santa Claus take shape. One of these stories is in that of the endless battle between the Holly King and the Oak King.
The Holly King and Oak King are the personifications of Winter and Summer in various folklore and mythological traditions. These two beings engage in an endless struggle which reflects the seasonal cycles of the year. For ancient people, these stories were about light and dark, as well as crop renewal and growth. As the year turned, these stories were used to explain the warm days of Midsummer when the Oak King was at the height of his strength. Later, as the Autumn equinox approached, the Holly King began to emerge, his strength peaking during Midwinter. Of course, the cycle continues, and the Oak King is reborn, regains his full power at the Spring equinox, and perpetuates the endless cycle of the seasons and of death and rebirth.
In many of these legends, we see elements familiar to our commonly recognizable stories of Father Christmas today. The ancient character of the Holly King has evolved into the present-day Santa Claus, for stories tell of him wearing red, donning a sprig of holly in his hat, and driving a team of eight deer, an animal sacred to the Celtic Gods.
The Santa Claus we know in modern times clearly borrows not only from the Holly King, but also from many other mythological figures. Across the stories of Father Christmas we see characteristics of Saturn (Roman agricultural god), Cronos (Greek god, also known as Father Time), Morozko/Grandfather Frost (Russian winter god), Odin/Wotan (Scandinavian/Teutonic All-Father who rides the sky on an eight-legged horse), the Tomte (a Norse Land Spirit known for giving gifts to children at this time of year), and Thor (Norse sky god who rides the sky in a chariot drawn by goats). It is no wonder that the figure of Santa Claus is so well known and so beloved the world over, for his roots are multicultural, spanning across many stories that date back to the most ancient of times.
Below you can see one of the pieces that Nate Baertsch painted for this latest Figura Obscura release. We see elements of many of these aforementioned mythological inspirations take root in this figure and in this stunning artwork.
Jolly Old Saint Nicholas
The image many of us know as “Santa Claus” is that of a “jolly old elf.” He is a rather rotund man with a full white beard, rosy cheeks, and a warm smile. Interestingly, if we look back to the legends we have covered thus far in this article, we do not really see these characteristics in those mythological predecessors to our modern day Santa. In fact, when we look at stories of Saint Nicholas of Myra, who was said to be a tall and thin man and not plump at all, or connections to characters like Odin and Thor, who are warriors typically depicted as muscular and mighty, one has to wonder where these popular images of Santa came from? The truth is that we may have Coca Cola to thank for that.
In 1931, the Coca-Cola company commissioned an illustrator named Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa Claus for some of their Christmas advertisements. Those paintings established Santa as a warm, happy character with rosy cheeks, a white beard, twinkling eyes, and laughter lines.
The artist who created these now iconic depictions of Santa Claus drew inspiration from a poem that came out nearly 100 years earlier. Clement Clark Moore published “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, commonly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”, in 1822. That poem reads:
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes - how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
Reading these lines, we can see a number of today’s commonly associated characteristics of Santa Claus - characteristics which Haddon Sundblom added to his paintings and which have since become hallmarks of the image of Santa.
The Years With a Santa Claus
Since those Coca Cola advertisements of the 1930s, the image of Santa Claus has been a popular fixture in entertainment media of all kinds.
Countless books, from children’s picture books to full novels imagining different takes on the legendary character, can be found today. J.R.R. Tolkien, most commonly known for his adventures in Middle Earth with the Lord of the Rings, wrote “letters from Santa” to his children for 24 years, from 1920 to 1943. Those letters were later collected in a short book titled “Letters from Father Christmas”. There is even an edition with “real pull-out letters” that endeavors to recreate these actual letters from the famous author.
Another interesting literary depiction of Santa Claus, as well as Mrs. Claus and the land they call home, can be found in the book “The Legend of Holly Claus” by Brittney Ryan. This story wonders what would happen if someone asked Santa what HE wanted for Christmas. In this story, the King of Forever, as Santa is known, wishes for a child of his own – the titular Holly Claus.
Literature is not the only place we find Santa Claus these days. He has also appeared on screens large and small. For those of us who were children of the 1970s and 80s, the stop-motion and animated holiday specials from the Rankin Bass company certainly hold a special nostalgic place in our hearts. Many of these specials featured depictions of Santa Claus, from the company’s first broadcast of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” in 1964 (where Santa goes from thin to fat and is actually kind of a jerk), to animated appearances in “Frosty the Snowman” and “Twas The Night Before Christmas”, to tales that reimagined various aspects of the origins and life of Santa. This later category would include “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” and the popular “The Year Without a Santa Claus”, which also introduced us to the perpetually warring Miser Brothers! The final Rankin Bass holiday special that was aired during this period (and it only aired one time) is also a personal favorite of Eric Treadaway. “The Life and Times of Santa Claus” is an adaptation of a book by Wizard of Oz author Frank L. Baum. This story places Santa’s life amidst the Fae-like characters of an ancient wood, including the Master Woodsman, the Great Ak. This character actually shares much in common with many of those aforementioned legendary depictions of Santa, from the Holly King to Odin, and we see elements of all of them rise up as influences in the Figura Obscura version of Father Christmas.
Hollywood movies have also mined the legends of Santa many times over the years - from Tim Allen’s “Santa Clause” movies, to Santa’s appearance at the end of “The Polar Express”, to a rather rotund Santa doing battle against the “Oogie Boogie Man” as part of the holiday hijinks of “The Nightmare Before Christmas." Many of these movies can be found on families’ “must see” lists each and every holiday season.
Through all of these mediums, the legend of Father Christmas thrives. With each telling and for every generation, the legend endures and grows as the magic of Christmas, and of Santa Claus, remains a part of the holiday season.
Delivering Father Christmas in Figura Obscura
The very first Figura Obscura figure explored the darker side of the holiday season in the form of the Yuletide demon known as Krampus. It made sense that we would follow up that release a year later with the lighter side of the holiday by surprising fans with our version of Santa Claus, or as we called him on his packaging - Father Christmas.
There were many ways we could’ve depicted Father Christmas for our Figura Obscura release, and we considered the “jolly old elf” option, as well as a muscle-bound barbarian "battle Santa." In the end, the design that felt right for us was somewhat of an amalgamation of various traditional depictions. He clearly has much in common with the ancient Holly King in that he is a thin, rather than rotund, character clad in his red robes with a crown of holly leaves upon his brow. He carries a large wooden staff and candle-lit lantern in one hand, with a sack of surprises in his other (we wonder what gifts could be hiding in there for fans to discover?).
Looking at the trinkets and toys he carries, we see a horn and a doll, drumsticks and a drum, a teddy bear, a ball, a candy cane and more. These gifts have much more of a Victorian feel taken from old Christmas cards than of old world nature deity. The end result is part Holly King, part Victorian Christmas, part Clement Clark Moore and Haddon Sundblom, part Rankin Bass, and of course part Four Horsemen Studios.
The figure itself features some of our most ambitious, and easily our most stunning, soft goods done to date - all of which were prototyped by the amazing team at CJESIM. Father Christmas also includes a number of parts that are brand new to the line, including two new head sculptures and a host of new accessories (including that impressive staff he carries).
Of course, like our past few Figura Obscura releases, this one also comes in a deluxe box with wonderfully festive artwork courtesy of Nate Baertsch. Part of that packaging includes a magnetic front panel that can be removed to view the figure and create a wonderful backdrop for the character. You can see an example of this artwork near the start of this article, and a shot of the packaged figure can be seen below.
In addition to this new Figura Obscura figure, we have also created other items tied into this latest release, including mugs for your hot choco (or coffee, if you’d prefer), pins, greeting cards and t-shirts (the later available from our partners at RetroRagsLimited).
The initial version of the Figura Obscura: Father Christmas is a limited edition, StoreHorsemen.com exclusive. The release was teased with a cryptic image reveal sent out the day before the figure would be available. Then, on the morning of December 3rd, 2022, Father Christmas was fully revealed as the third Figura Obscura character to be released. An initial run of the figures went on sale at 9am EST, with a second offering planned for later that evening at 8pm EST. There was also a small amount of this figure sold at the Black Forest Krampusnacht in Jim Thorpe, PA that same weekend (Sunday, 12/4). Fans who attend this "Figura Obscura-only" appearance by the studio will have the chance to be the very first ones to get their hands on Father Christmas!
The Figura Obscura: Father Christmas figure continues this tradition of surprising figure fans worldwide with a brand new, in-stock figure release tied into an iconic character from our own world. Like the magic of the holiday season, the possibilities of Figura Obscura are endless, leaving many wondering what gifts will come next from this new figure line from Four Horsemen Studios?
All figure photos on this page come courtesy of Trevor Williams, aka One-Six Shooter, who continues to be a gift to our studio with his contributions to our release.