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Last Updated: Friday, 22 December 2006, 15:44 GMT
Faces of the week
Christmas Faces of the Week

Our regular look at some of the faces which have made the news this week. Above are FATHER CHRISTMAS (main picture), with THE ELVES, RUDOLPH, MRS CLAUS and SNOWMAN.

FATHER CHRISTMAS

It's been a busy few months for Father Christmas.

Since early summer he's been organising his little helpers after their long spring lay-off.

He's also had to answer the 750,000 letters forwarded to him in Lapland from the Reindeer Land post office depot outside Belfast.

And finally, the reindeers have been brought to the peak of physical fitness and the sleigh polished ready for yet another long haul flight.

Then sooner than you can say "Ho, ho, ho", it's all over for another year.

But as if all that hard work wasn't enough, Father Christmas has also had to deal with the nay-sayers, who've got nothing better to do than spread ugly rumours about his very existence.

The non-believers are usually to be found among those over the age of 11. Now, a teacher at a primary school in Exeter has added to Santa's woes by trying to convince a class of nine and 10 year olds that he's just a myth.

Father Christmas impostor in Kenya
Father Christmas, larger than life in Kenya
It adds to the confusion when there are thousands of his body-doubles, popping up at children's parties and sitting around in department store grottoes.

But the ubiquity of Santa impersonators is not the only problem.

Doubts about his existence have also arisen because of the mystery which surrounds his ancestry, despite the 18 million references to the jolly chap which can be found on just one internet search engine.

Generosity

The bearded, fat-bellied, twinkle-eyed old character we know and love is known to be a distant relative of Saint Nicholas, who was born in AD260 in what is now Turkey.

Nicholas became Bishop of Myra - now renamed Demre, where the town's mayor recently caused outrage by replacing a statue of the Saint with one of Santa Claus.

What Nicholas and his modern relative appear to have in common is their generosity. The Bishop is said to have given away his money- providing a dowry for three sisters who were too poor to marry.

Stories vary but some say that bags of gold were thrown through a window, or down the chimney, and that some of it even landed in a stocking.

Nicholas was adopted across northern Europe as a patron saint of everything from children and seafarers to pawnbrokers and brides. His saint's day is still celebrated in some countries on 5 or 6 December and is regarded by some as more important than Christmas itself.

Santa skating on the Rockerfeller Plaza in New York
Santa helping skaters in New York City
It was the Dutch who then transported him to America, where the family name was changed from Sinter Klaas to Santa Claus.

The family sense of humour and liking for reindeer first became apparent in the early nineteenth century when the poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas (now known as The Night Before Christmas) was first published.

Then in 1863, the political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, firmly established Santa Claus as a fan of the red uniform, white beard and pipe.

Since then Father Christmas's ancestors have found their reputations tarnished by commercial associations - not least when one of them was pictured for thirty-five years running in Christmas adverts for Coca-cola.

Some now regard him as the apotheosis of the secular Christmas, entirely devoid of the spiritual dimension embodied by Saint Nicholas.

But for others - despite the best efforts of the ad men and less than tactful teachers - he still has some of that old magic.

Scientist Roger Highfield has written an entire book about the physics of Christmas - calculating that the sleigh would have to travel at more than 6,000 times the speed of sound to reach all the world's children on Christmas Eve.

But even he confesses there's something wonderful about the story of Father Christmas. "Now by refracting the Santa myth through the prism of science", he writes, "he seems more real than ever."


Elves
THE ELVES

Elves are embedded in folklore and mythology across Europe and come in all shapes and sizes. In the UK, they're generally regarded as nimble forest dwelling creatures with magical powers. They are often mischievous and sometimes invisible. Those employed by Santa traditionally help make and wrap the presents distributed on Christmas Eve. Some of them help with the millions of letters received by Santa from all over the world.

Rudolph
RUDOLPH

Despite being spurned by the other reindeer, the red-nosed Rudolph is almost as big a part of Christmas as Santa. The lead reindeer was first immortalised in a book in 1939 by Robert L May, a copywriter who worked for a chain of department stores based in Chicago. He tested the story on his daughter, who loved it. A song, an animated TV series and several films all followed.

Mrs Claus
MRS CLAUS

Santa's wife was first got her name in lights in 1889 in the poem "Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride", by the American author, Katharine Lee Bates. Since then she's featured in songs, films and books - usually pictured as a homely, rosy cheeked, plump lady. Of course she's a great cook, infinitely patient and endlessly hard-working when it comes to organising the elves.

Snowman
SNOWMAN

Children have been building snowmen for as long as there's been snow - and they are associated with Christmas and winter across the western world. They do vary in style - in some countries they're traditionally made of three balls of snow. In the UK, it's usually two. At Lake Superior State University in America students welcome the start of spring in March by burning a huge paper-made snowman.

Written by BBC News Profiles Unit's Helen Morgan-Wynne





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