When Santa got stuck up the chimney

It’s my son’s nativity play this week and this has put me in a festive mood. He’s been practicing  songs about Santa, bags of toys and chimneys and this got me thinking. Why do I say ‘Father Christmas’ but so many songs say ‘Santa’ and, whatever his name is, where did the idea of such a roly-poly man squeezing down the chimney come from?

Let us begin with the chimney. As towns grew and more buildings became multi-storey, brick chimneys replaced the hole in the roof as the means of releasing fire smoke. In the 17th and 18th century most homes with chimneys were served by one very large flue. Hard tar and soot collected inside the flue as a result of the smoke created by burning wood, logs and coal. This eventually created a blockage, so the master chimney sweep would use small children, often known as ‘climbing boys’, to climb up inside flues with brushes and metal scrapers to clean them. Girls were often used too. Sometimes a small fire was lit beneath or an older boy sent up behind to encourage the climbing boy to reach the top. Despite the dangers, the invention of various cleaning brushes, and an 1840 Act of Parliament forbidding anyone under the age of 21 from climbing a chimney, small children were still being used to clean chimneys until the 1860s. It wasn’t until  the Lord Shaftsbury’s  1864 Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers established a penalty of £10 pounds for offenders that the of ‘climbing boys’ was seriously curtailed. Eventually, as homes increased their number of rooms for dedicated functions, chimneys  were modified to have smaller flues but more of them, thus heating bedrooms as well as lounges and dining rooms. Still, this history of child labour and cruelty is hardly all fodder for a lovely, cuddly, Christmas story.

So what do chimneys have to do with Christmas spirit? Although Father Christmas and Santa Claus are now used interchangeable to refer to the same figure, the two characters had quite different origins. Apparently, the earliest Father Christmas wasn’t actually called Father Christmas. Wearing a long, green hooded cloak and a wreath of holly, ivy or mistletoe, he appeared in pagan British mid-winter festivals and represented the coming of spring. With the arrival of the Saxons in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, this figure took on the characteristics of the Saxon King Frost or King Winter were someone would done the costume and be welcomed into homes, to sit by the fire and be given something to eat and drink – thus this early predecessor of Father Christmas became associated with receiving good things. The Vikings then brought the midwinter tradition of Jultid with them – the time when the Norse God Odin takes on the character of Jul, one of his twelve characters, and visits the earth. It was thought to be this influence that destined Father Christmas to become rotund, as Odin was. Also like Odin, he developed the ability to automatically know whether people had been bad or good and could travel magically and quickly. Skip along to the 15th century and we find a carol which includes the line “Welcome, my lord Christëmas” and a Father Christmas associated with good cheer and benevolence to all. Of course it wouldn’t be very interesting if it was all plain sailing from there, would it. The reverence of a pagan figure and all this revelry was too much for the Puritans. In 1644 they banned Christmas and Father Christmas along with it. By the Victorian period the spirit of Christmas had seen a revival. The Victorian Father Christmas embodied elements of all his predecessors and was usually drawn as a jolly, pagan figure in a long, hooded coat — the colour of which could be red, blue, green or brown. For example, John Leech’s illustration of Charles Dickens’ The Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol – wearing a green cloak and holly wreath.

It was during the mid-Victorian period that the the association of Father Christmas with chimneys took hold, arguably following largely the American tradition of Santa Claus. In the American tradition his entrance into homes via the chimney had been solidified by a few lines in the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas:

“Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;”

Also known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’ and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ this was first published anonymously in 1823 and generally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, although the claim has also been made that it was written by Henry Livingston, Jr.

In this poem Saint Nicholas is likened to an elf and an elf might just plausibly have fitted in a chimney flue. Interestingly earlier European popular belief had elves and fairies bringing gifts to the house through the hearth. In Dutch master Jan Steen‘s (c.1665-1668) painting, The Feast of Saint Nicholas a family is at home on December 5, the night celebrated in the Netherlands as the Feast of Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas very much inspired the American tradition and Santa Claus. It draws on a European folk tale based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas – a bishop from Turkey, who supposedly gave presents to the poor. In Steen’s painting the subjects are glancing up the chimney with amazement on their faces while other children play with their toys.  You can also see which child has been rewarded for being nice and which has been naughty!


During my research I found this interesting text:

L.A. Shuffrey, The English Fireplace. A History of the Development of the Chimney, Chimney-Piece and Firegrate with their accessories (London, 1912)


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3 Responses to When Santa got stuck up the chimney

  1. Dear Alison
    both of your websites are very impressive!
    ‘Propertyhistorian’ is close to my interest to property history in nineteenth-century Moscow. And I read the ‘Propertyhistorian’ with a great pleasure, especially after my visits to London during last three-four years.
    I would be very glad to read new essays in your blog.
    And I don’t lose hope to organise a session with your participation for the next European Social Science History Conference (ESSHC) which is to be
    held in Glasgow, Scotland, UK, from Wednesday 11 April to Saturday 14
    April 2012.
    My best wishes to you and your family,
    Yours sincerely

  2. Hi Ali,
    I think we met at conference in Manchester organized by the EHS a long while ago!

    Congratulations for your websites!
    Reading about the climbing boys in your post has promped me to check the DNB entry about Joseph Glass (1791-1867). He was one of the inventors of sweeping devices you mention. In the 1820s he invented a machine for sweeping chimneys which contributed to give strenght to the campaign for the abolition of chimney sweeping by climbing boys. In 1829 Peel ordered that Glass’ invention was to be used for all government buildings. Joseph Glass received a medal and a prize of £200 and he refused to patent his invention. Nice story, don’t you think ?

    Keep up the good work!! I have added “the property historian” to my favourite bookmarks!
    Merry Xmas and Happy New Year!

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