Come the holiday season, Mrs. Claus is simultaneously an ubiquitous figure and a criminally underdeveloped one. We can’t even agree on her first name. What we can (usually) agree on is that she’s a sweet, grandmotherly housewife, whose job description includes baking cookies; looking after the elves and reindeer; and laundering Santa’s red suit, which is no doubt dry clean only. She has white hair, a plump figure and a wardrobe heavy on red-and-white velvet and fur. She’s typically understood to be more efficient and effective than her sugarplum-brained mate — a grounding, necessary foil to his jolliness, the Katherine Heigl in a Judd Apatow Christmas movie.
But how did she get here?
And what more, if anything, does she want out of life?
The historical Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey, was unmarried. And the legendary Santa Claus enjoyed a long bachelordom himself. Although occasional references to a Mrs. Claus appear in the mid-19th century, it was in an 1881 issue of Harper’s Young People that Margaret Eytinge’s poem “Mistress Santa Claus” introduced Santa’s “good-natured wife.” As Gerry Bowler writes in Santa Claus: A Biography, Santabod would’ve been considered, if anything, an asset on the Victorian-era dating scene: “This was an age when portliness was no drawback to romance. … [A] full-figured man was someone of eye-catching substance.”
And by that point in history, Professor Karal Ann Marling has argued, Christmas had become “the primary home or family feast in the American celebratory cycle,” for which the responsibilities of trimming the tree, decking the halls and roasting the prize goose fell entirely on the shoulders of women.
In other words: It was high time that Santa Claus settle down.
But the winter of Mrs. Claus’ discontent swiftly followed. All that cooking, cleaning and/or reindeer-wrangling takes a toll on a person, mortal or otherwise, particularly when her efforts go largely unappreciated. In Sarah J. Burke’s 1884 poem “Mrs. Santa Claus Asserts Herself,” the title character tearfully asks, “Complimentary strife is the breath of [Santa’s] life, but who ever mentions his desolate wife?”
The 1889 poem “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride” (that’s “Goody” as in “Goodwife”) by Katharine Lee Bates introduces what will become a familiar trope of Mrs. Claus stories when an overworked, excitement-starved Mrs. Claus cajoles her husband into bringing her along on Christmas night. In later stories, like the 1914 play Mrs. Santa Claus, Militant and the 1963 children’s book How Mrs. Claus Saved Christmas, she commandeers the sleigh and delivers presents herself without his permission.
By the mid-20th century, Mrs. Claus was a fixture of Christmas pop culture in every medium — although, for the most part, disappointingly stripped of her feminist streak. Nat King Cole crooned approvingly of the domestic goddess in 1956’s “Mrs. Santa Claus.”
She’s believed to have made her first film appearance (played by Doris Rich) in the 1964 sci-fi B-movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Mrs. Claus also figures importantly in the beloved Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV Christmas specials, like 1974’s The Year Without a Santa Claus. When an exhausted Santa considers canceling Christmas, she dispatches two elves on a mission — and gets the best of the Heat Miser and Snow Miser — to restore his faith in the holiday.
1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town introduces a now familiar trope of modern-day Mrs. Claus movies: The love story that preceded her marriage. Young Santa delivers toys to Sombertown, where they are expressly forbidden. He’s scolded for flaunting the law by lovely red-haired teacher Miss Jessica, but wins her heart by presenting her with the doll she always wanted as a little girl.
In 2002’s The Santa Clause 2, Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) discovers he must marry by Christmas Eve or else relinquish the title of Santa Claus. He falls in love with Carol Newman (Elizabeth Mitchell), his son’s strict school principal. Apparently, Santa has exactly one seduction technique: He, too, woos Carol with a long-lost childhood-favorite doll of her own. This is also approximately the plot of Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus, a 2004 Hallmark movie starring Steve Guttenberg, except the future Mrs. Claus is a single mom ad exec and her husband-to-be is Santa’s son and heir apparent.
It’s a narrative arc straight out of a formulaic rom-com, in which only true love can melt the ice queen’s heart. By The Santa Clause 3, the newlywed Mrs. Claus is still blonde, not snow-haired, although she’s traded in her Ann Taylor suits and sweaters for conventional red-and-white, Santa-adjacent garb to teach elf elementary school at the North Pole. This film also establishes an active sex life for the Clauses as canon: Carol gives birth to a bouncing baby boy named Buddy.
The 2012 Lifetime movie Finding Mrs. Claus offers a title character who, like Carol Newman, is far from traditional in appearance, if not in personality. It stars Mira Sorvino, who at first wears old-age makeup and a white wig. Jessica Claus is distraught that her distracted husband (played, improbably, by MADtv alum Will Sasso) has forgotten their 500th wedding anniversary. And so, she charters the family sleigh to Las Vegas to answer the Christmas letter a little girl addressed to her, transforming herself with “magic sparkle dust” into a sexy strawberry blonde to better blend in on her trip. She and Santa ultimately renew their vows at a chapel on the Strip, with an Elvis impersonator officiating.
Watching Mrs. Claus clean up at a roulette table is a singular experience, but pop culture’s most self-actualized Mrs. Claus yet was portrayed by none other than Angela Lansbury, in the 1996 TV movie musical Mrs. Santa Claus. She’s predictably neglected by busy Santa, who’s too harried to review her navigational suggestions for an optimized course around the world. There must be more than this provincial North Pole, she sings:
I need something challenging to do
Somewhere marvelous to go
He’s seen every little corner of the world
All I’ve ever seen is snow
Convinced she has “gifts of [her] own to offer the world” (see what she did there?), Mrs. Claus embarks on a solo journey of self-discovery to test out the new map. Mrs. Santa Claus is set in 1910, which you won’t realize until bad weather necessitates an emergency landing in the bustling immigrant enclave of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. While she waits for her injured reindeer to recover, Mrs. Claus — or Mrs. North, as she identifies herself — gets hired as a supervisor in a cut-rate toy factory that exploits the neighborhood kids. There, she channels her supernatural competence into human affairs, organizing a work slowdown and later a strike, which sparks a statewide movement for child labor laws. In her spare time, she becomes a suffragette. When Christmas finally arrives, a repentant Santa invites his wife to come along on his globe-traversing sleigh ride — on the very route she plotted.
What might the Ghost of Christmas Future have to show her?
Well, “Mother Christmas” — with her glasses, wrinkles, white fur-trimmed red cap and any of the five standard skin tones — was immortalized in emoji form in 2016, albeit long after Father Christmas first enjoyed the same treatment.
And the British department store chain Marks & Spencer centered their 2016 Christmas ad campaign on a modern vision of the character. Unbeknownst to Mr. Claus, a stylish and elegant Mrs. Claus (Janet McTeer) travels by snowmobile and helicopter to answer a child’s letter addressed to her. The next morning, she tells her husband, “It wouldn’t be fun if you knew all my secrets.”
Here’s hoping we don’t know all of them, either — and that this year, Mrs. Claus finds something more exciting than another baby doll under her tree.