Why does Christmas have a dad but no mom? Sure, Mrs. Claus gets a shoutout every now and then for keeping the home fires burning — and in one instance, she even “saved” Christmas — but our Christmas story has always given Daddy all the credit.
To state the obvious: Yes, Santa, and St. Nicholas, his Greek bishop of origin, are both historically men. But what real man could ever pull off that much multitasking? What man could maintain and update the naughty list with such infallible precision? What man could oversee the production of the largest gift delivery service the world over and manage to get every single package to every deserving child on time without fail? How do you think Santa knows what you really want? Because he’s a woman.
We women have rarely been let in on the Christmas game, but it’s not for lack of trying. Here’s the concise 80-year history of women taking their best shot at wearing the shiny black boots in the Claus family.
In our first recorded moment of lady-Santa prehistory, Mrs. Claus appears in a story by James Rees, collected in Mysteries of City Life; or, Stray Leaves From the World’s Book (“Being a Series of Tales, Sketches, Incidents and Scenes, Founded Upon the Notes of a Home Missionary”).
It’s not quite female Santa just yet, but we see our first inklings when Charles W. Howard founds the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in New York to train up-and-coming Santas, and lets two women learn the ropes for Mrs. Claus. Howard intends to solve the widespread problem of unrespectable male Santas on the market (mostly due to bad beards and bad manners), but until he can get more male Santas up to speed, Mrs. Clauses will have to do. They’re trained to “greet little girls, learn what they want in their Christmas stockings, teach them how to play with dollies, doll houses, dishes and clothes,” as he told the Associated Press. By doing so, he inadvertently cracks the door open for Santa’s female understudy, and women are now poised to waltz in from the shadows when Santa is off his game.
1942: The First Female Santa
That big break comes just a few years later, when World War II creates a Santa vacuum by shipping all able-bodied men off to fight. Women step in to do man jobs like building planes, driving fire engines and, at long last, getting to play Daddy Christmas to all the little children.
A Chicago department store throws lady Claus her first bone. “The manpower shortage has even hit old Saint Nick,” Smithsonian reported of the Associated Press story at the time. “This lady Santa Claus has turned up — dressed like Mr. Claus except for the whiskers — at a Chicago department store, and youngsters seem just as happy telling her which gifts they are hoping for.”
That same year, a New Jersey Woolworth’s hires a female Santa because they are “unable to find a man suitable for the job.” The mother of eight, Anna Michaelson, will “wear a skirt instead of trousers, but all the other habiliments will be the same as those of the traditional Kris Kringle,” Smithsonian reports.
This development fuels outrage but occasionally begrudging concession. The Wichita Daily Times calls the ordeal women “invading another male bastion.” Columnist Henry McLemore pens a national op-ed calling it a “minor horror: Kristine Kringle! Sarah St. Nicholas! Susie Santa Claus! Holy Smoke!” Most irksome to McLemore is the fact that the lady Santa Claus giggles, as “the real Santa Claus never giggled.” (He didn’t?) Yet another columnist weighs in that no Mrs. Santa can possibly “stand the strain a real Santa has to undergo.” (Ahem: See childrearing, domestic upkeep, event planning, grocery shopping, meal planning, laundry detail and maintaining the social calendar.)
British actress Daisy Belmore accepts the job of a female Santa in New York for Saks Fifth Avenue. As Smithsonian notes, the beardless Belmore is called Mrs. Claus, but is given her own throne and full Santa wish-granting powers.
That same year, Max Factor releases a photo of the ideal Santa, ladies included. Aside from portraying the female Santa with nail polish, women portraying St. Nick are instructed to masculinize the performance in every way, including puffing their cheeks with cotton, lowering their voices and putting on a fake bulbous nose.
Women begin dressing as female Santas around the holidays for charity the Volunteers of America, and 62-year-old Phoebe Seabrook (location unknown) is notably reported to have portrayed Santa with a long beard.
For half a century, there’s little kerfuffle over women taking up a Santa position. Then, boom: Donna Underwood of West Virginia is hired to portray Santa for a local mall. A mall manager complains; the mall fires Underwood; she sues; she loses.
Marta Brown is given the part of a female Santa at a Louisville, Kentucky, Walmart, and then summarily loses it when a customer complains. She sues for $67,000 for lost wages, and, like Underwood, she loses on the grounds that the retail behemoth has the right to discriminate based on gender when it comes to St. Nick.
Two women volunteer to play Santa in the upcoming Christmas parade in the English town of Newton Aycliffe, causing a bit of an uproar. Though the town’s council initially agrees it should be okay — because, after all, it’s 2018 — one member strongly objects on the grounds that Father Christmas is a dude, children will be bummed, men have been doing the job perfectly well since the 1960s and there are still more than enough guys around to fill the slot. Outcome: Still as yet undecided.
Anna Kendrick is set to play a female Santa in Noelle, a Disney streaming flick featuring Bill Hader, Billy Eichner and Shirley MacLaine, and some publications hail it as a “feminist Santa Claus” story. Could this be the final kick that busts down the door to letting women ho ho ho?
Eh, not quite. Kendrick is really just playing Santa’s daughter. The plot merely follows the same historical track as every other woman playing female Santa: The real Santa has retired, and Kendrick has to take over the job because her brother refuses.
Maybe next year.