Although one American chain store has just made him redundant, the old man with the white beard is still busy in his many guises... including genial gift-bringer, fearsome child-whipper, avenging gun-runner, and a woman on the sexual discrimination warpath. Ho ho ho, says Nicholas Tucker
According to the New York Post, America's largest toy retailer, Toys 'R' Us, has sacked Santa Claus this Christmas. Children will no longer write to him at stores with their requests as they used to, but will instead use hand-held scanners to register the toys of their choice.
There is a rich irony here, since it was mid-19th century America that first established the jovial figure of Santa Claus as recognised by British children today. Much of the rest of Europe always had and still prefers the St Nicholas who brings presents for good children but sometimes a whipping for the bad.
Here in Britain, we have traditionally opted for the red-faced, holly-crowned Father Christmas of the Mummers Plays; a noisy and bucolic character who was a lot less interested in children than we have subsequently attributed to him. The American Santa Claus was a very different figure. Unfailingly genial, he distributed presents and was accompanied by reindeers and a sledge. That particular innovation was made by the Reverend Clement Clarke Moore in his famous poem, "The Night Before Christmas".
While adverts, cards and picture-books provide legions of Father Christmas images, there is little of quality written about him in literature to provide a definitive character. Anthologies tend to concentrate on the religious side of Christmas, and apart from Clement Clarke Moore's classic contribution ("His eyes, how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!") memorable poems are thin on the ground.
The appearances made by Father Christmas in children's stories are also less than enlightening. C S Lewis portrays him as an international arms-dealer, handing out swords, daggers and bows to the children with the ominous warning: "The time to use them is perhaps near at hand."
Raymond Briggs's strip-cartoon Father Christmas has to be the most memorable literary creation to date, grumbling his way through the daily chores like a milkman who has got up too early.
If the literary canon is scarce, can film help? The eponymous character in Santa Claus: the Movie had the requisite rotundity and flowing beard, but was eclipsed by a magical sledge complete with reindeer which soared above the rooftops just as it should do. Richard Attenborough, meanwhile, gives us a more prosaic department store Santa in Miracle on 34th Street who has to convince a deeply sceptical child of his credentials. It's a close call.
By now there will be thousands of makeshift Santas, all trying to do the same thing, ensconced in shop grottos of varying degrees of schmalz. Both Harrods and Selfridge's claim they have the real thing while all the rest are pale imitations. If so, one wonders who is minding the shop in Greenland.
Maybe part of the magic of the man is that because he is who is, he can be in more than one place at one time. So how will we know if it's really him?
It is to America that we must look for quality control. A pamphlet produced by the Santa Claus College recommended the "whitening of eyebrows" to go with the beard and warned against "falling asleep or accepting money from parents in front of a child". A Father Christmas convicted of robbery while in uniform was condemned as a disgrace to his "profession".
What is required appears to be a bountiful old man, always on the side of the young. In real life it is impossible for adults to be consistently nice to children 24 hours a day, which is why Father Christmas is such a precious fantasy figure for children, especially on days when everybody else seems to be against them.
The south London department store Arding and Hobbs chooses its Father Christmases for their friendly, jolly, kind and caring characters. It has always been a men-only position, but in Glasgow a single mother who was rejected for the job of department store Santa because of her gender is now planning legal action. So presumably things could change...
Children are unequivocal: he has to be old. According to one group of five-year-olds, he is probably "about 100". And the reason he gives out presents every year is simply because "he is a very nice man". He's also territorial and likely to forego foreign destinations such as Spain and Brighton in favour of their home town. Other attributes include a gymnastic ability to negotiate chimneys and cross the globe at tremendous speed.
But who needs specifics when everything about Father Christmas is always so exciting? Those "Ho, ho hos" may seem cliched and repetitive to adults, but for children they are glorious reminders of gifts just received or still to come. With such in-built popularity, he will be squeezing himself down our chimneys for many more years yet.