Story at a glance
- Literary scholars have in the past overlooked the evolution of Mrs. Claus, whose role in Christmas literature has followed the path of women’s rights.
- Some of the first depictions of Mrs. Claus paid homage to hard working women who cooked, cleaned and sewed in preparation for Christmas. She was later used by some to discredit women’s rights activists and to scare disobedient wives.
- As the years went on, Mrs. Claus was given a voice, personality and storyline of her own.
Much is known about the development of the modern-day Santa Claus, who travels around the world each Dec. 24 delivering presents to good girls and boys, but literary scholars have regularly overlooked the evolution of his wife, Mrs. Claus, who, unlike her husband, has changed with the times. In many cases, Mrs. Claus’ role in Christmas literature is a proxy for real-world debates about gender.
According to research conducted by the literary scholar Maura Ives, a professor at Texas A&M University, 19th Century Christmas traditions relied on the hard labor of women, who were tasked with preparing family celebrations and organizing community events. Women were also more likely than men to work in industries affected by seasonal demand for goods like clothing and toys.
The Ladies Home Journal in 1899 warned its readers not to “tire themselves out preparing for Christmas.”
Literary depictions of Mrs. Claus around this time paid homage to hard working women, Ives writes in a recent article published in The Conversation.
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In the 1875 short story “Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus,” by Sara Conant, Mrs. Claus works alongside American women as they cook, clean, and sew in preparation for Christmas. But she’s also seen as an “indispensable” and equal partner to her husband in the “joint work” of holiday preparation.
In Ada Shelton’s “In Santa Claus Land,” Mrs. Claus is instrumental in helping Santa get through the season, and Santa could “never get through” Christmas each year without her hard work.
In some stories, Mrs. Claus is even given her own sleigh ride, and she saddles the reindeer Blitzen in the 1880 story “Mrs. Santa Claus’s Christmas-Eve” when Santa Claus accidentally leaves the North Pole without some children’s Christmas presents.
In a 2019 interview, the Ghanaian-Australian entertainer Lillian Ahenkan, known professionally as Flex Mami, said Mrs. Claus’ role during Christmastime pays tribute to women as the backbone of their communities.
“We need to look at Mrs Claus as a feminist icon and not a regressive side piece,” she said. “How you chose to express your womanhood is feminism at its core. In the north pole where her ideologies were formed, that was her feminist duty to support and uplift the community around her at Christmas time.”
But Mrs. Claus was not painted in such a positive light by every writer. According to Ives, some in the late 19th Century used Mrs. Claus to push back against women’s suffrage, which was being debated at the time.
Charles Dickinson’s “Mrs. Santa Claus’s Adventure,” published in an 1871 issue of the Wood’s Household Magazine, tells a cautionary tale of the dangers awaiting disobedient wives and women who leave the home. Ignoring Santa’s belief that some children are too naughty to visit on Christmas Eve, Mrs. Claus attempts to deliver presents to young ones on her husband’s “naughty list,” only to be attacked by “hateful imps” each time she descends a chimney.
Ives writes that Mrs. Claus’ shining moment appears in suffragist Katharine Lee Bates’ “Goody Santa Claus on A Sleigh Ride,” in which Mrs. Claus is given a voice and personality of her own.
In Bates’ story, Mrs. Claus, referred to as “Goody,” questions why Santa gets “all the glory” while she has “nothing but work.” While Santa rests by the fire eating cookies, Goody tends to their orchard of toy-growing plants, raises livestock, and chases thunderstorms to collect lightning for fireworks.
Although Goody accompanies her husband on his sleigh on Christmas Eve, he tells her that she doesn’t have the “brain” to fill stockings and seeing her climb a chimney would “give his nerves a shock,” so she is left alone atop the roof.
But Goody ultimately emerges as the hero of the story after she mends a stocking with holes in it – defying Santa’s demands that she neither fill stockings nor descend chimneys.
Ives writes that Bates’ Goody, along with the many renditions who came before her, “still speak to every woman who has ever dreamed of a little rest, a little recognition and a seat in the sleigh.”
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