Hey there, hi there, ho there. This month, I wanted to share some thoughts on just how important women are to our Christmas performing art form. And coincidentally, just how much they have helped shape the Holiday as we’ve come to know it.
First, let’s ponder some not so imponderables. Consider the following.
- Who generally teaches children about Christmas?
- Who does most of the Christmas decorating in homes?
- Who does most of the wrapping?
- Who does most of the baking?
- Who plans most social gatherings?
- Who does most of the bookings for Christmas characters?
- When you see lines for photos with Santa, who stays with the kids?
- Who does most of the Christmas shopping (that $465 billion annual industry)?
See a pattern developing? But let’s get more specific. In the Christmas Performing industries,
- Who are most of the agents? Women.
- Who creates most of the costuming? Women.
- Who have been some of our first trainers? Women.
And for those of us lucky enough to have Manager/Handlers in our lives, they tend to be: Women (surprise!). They help us make the magic possible (big shout out to my “Manny,” Ms. Cat).
The simple truth, gents, is that we Santas are essentially the furry hood ornament on the front of the sleigh that is the Christmas Industry. This is a profession that owes so much to the ladies. We should do everything we can to support them.
There’s so much irony in all this. Mrs. Claus of legend and lore is sometimes considered pretty anonymous as a character. Most people cannot tell you her first name or give you any specifics beyond, “she’s a nice old lady who makes cookies.” That’s rather sad. It’s also much like real life where women are still getting paid only 70% on the dollar that men make, plus putting in longer hours to boot. Most female Christmas performers (with a few exceptions) have to fight to get paid as much as their male colleagues. Often they are not hired for many gigs simply because, “Mrs. Claus just isn’t in the budget.”
As professional Christmas Performers, we know there are incredibly talented female performers who have amazing chops, can work their magic with crying babies and groups of children, sing from the stage, or enthrall with a puppet like few Santas can.
Ladies Who Influenced Christmas History
Before Mrs. Claus ever appeared in print, the esteemed Thomas Nast described Saint Nick getting his dance on with Mother Goose. And while Mother Goose may not have been the prettiest of ladies, she did come with some real advantages. She was bundled with a pantheon of stories, songs, and characters that Saint Nick fit into, amid a body of lore that went back centuries. Nast was not only a brilliant illustrator, he was pretty darn clever, associating Santa in a rich story tradition, just like the clever move placing St. Nick at the apolitical North Pole.
Mrs. Claus (Finally in Print)
The traditional St. Nicholas—a religious figure, a bishop, and reputably a long-term bachelor—went through several transformations before the Jolly Old Elf we know today. To make him a bit more trustworthy and retool him for domesticity, along came Santa’s wife. Mrs. Claus was likely already part of the tradition when she was first mentioned in a short story called, “A Christmas Legend,” written by James Rees in 1849.
Then in 1878, a children’s book was published titled, “Lill’s Travels in Santa Claus Land and Other Stories.” Young Lill on her adventures meets, “a lady sitting by a golden desk writing in a large book,”—the Naughty and Nice book. From this time on, Mr. and Mrs. Claus become an item (sorry, Ms. Goose).
Women in History
As we look at the histories of women in Christmas traditions, remember that in many of these eras, it was uncommon for women to receive a formal education. Many of these women were not allowed to own property, could not vote, and often published their writing under a male pseudonym.
Sarah Josepha Hale was the editor of “Godey’s Lady’s book”—one of the most influential periodicals before the Civil War, with a circulation of 150,000. This brilliant and self-taught woman was also the author of, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She also helped establish many of the traditions of Thanksgiving and fought to make it a national holiday.
Mary Mapes Dodge, the editor of the St. Nicholas Magazine, which solicited some of the best writers of the time to contribute to the body of lore about Christmas. She wrote Hans Brinker and nurtured some of the greatest authors of her age: Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Tennyson, Longfellow, and scores of others. In fact, she convinced Kipling to write some children’s stories, the result of which was “The Jungle Book.” Many of these authors wrote for the St. Nicholas Magazine, which ran for over thirty years and had a circulation over 70,000 (phenomenal for its time). These two periodicals, The Godey’s Lady’s Book and St. Nicholas Magazine, were very influential on what we call Christmas today.
- Ms. Claus finally has a name! “Goody,” which derives from Good-Wife, was a name of respect for a woman who is brilliant at domestic management.
- Mrs. Claus has a voice and opinions. And what will become a trope, she wants to guide the sleigh and deliver presents, which she does.
- Goody complains that she does most of the work and Santa gets most of the credit. (Hmm, we’ve never seen that before.)
- Finally, the poem has some really amazing fantasy elements.
- She tends a forest where there are trees that grows candy and toys.
- She raises the Thanksgiving Turkeys and the Rainbow Chickens, which give the Easter bunny his colorful eggs.
- She reminds Santa of how they fled the Fairy Realm together on their wedding day.
- She is truly concerned that EVERYONE gets a present, even the poorest of the poor, starving poets, and orphans.
- She can darn a sock with an icicle needle and thread made of moonlight, and she gives gifts like a paint box filled the colors of autumn.
- And yes, she can control the reindeer and go down a chimney (although her bonnet does get a bit sooty).
Here’s the link to the poem itself: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Goody_Santa_Claus_on_a_Sleigh_Ride
Is it any surprise that in an era when women had to tread carefully, Mrs. Claus became an advocate for human rights, a suffragist, and a promoter of child welfare and domesticity? And true to form, the women in the Christmas Performing field today, whether off stage or on, have helped grow it into the art form and industry it is. For that, we owe not only thanks, but active and real support. Speaking of which, if you get a chance, check out Santa Nana’s Holiday University, the first roving school with an emphasis on Female Christmas Performers!