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We all basically know what Santa wears at this point: a red suit with white fur trim, a hat, black boots. But what about Mrs. Claus? What’s the deal with Santa’s recent bride?
I say recent because, while the first descriptions of Santa appear around 270 AD, Mrs. Claus doesn’t crop up in any literature until 1849. Santa may have remained a bachelor so long because he was, originally, a bishop. Or at least he was based on one. Santa was originally known as St. Nicholas after the bishop Nicholas of Myra, who gave dowries to impoverished girls from Christian families so they wouldn’t have to become prostitutes (the prostitution detail is left out of most backstories). By the mid-1800s, however, the celibate bishop element of Santa’s history had been largely forgotten about, at least in the United States.
By 1849, Mrs. Claus made her first appearance in a story by James Rees called “A Christmas Legend.” It was the first to describe “Old Santa Claus and his wife,” who helped him deliver presents to children. By 1862, Harper’s magazine was already speculating about what Mrs. Claus wore, describing her as being adorned with a dozen red petticoats. The History Chicks podcast notes that this might have been inspired by the Balmoral petticoat, which had been popularized in these years by Queen Victoria. By 1864, in the novel The Metropolites by Robert St. Clair, she was clad in “Hessian high boots, a dozen of short, red petticoats, an old, large, straw bonnet.”
That straw bonnet detail is absolutely insane. She lives in the North Pole. Where there is snow.
Or… not necessarily. In the short story “Lill’s Travels in Santa Claus Land,” published in 1878, Mrs. Claus is pictured helping Santa in his office. While Santa is still pictured in his fur suit, Mrs. Claus wears a less heavy, though still long-sleeved, dress. That may be because in the story the office is located within walking distance of Lill’s family’s orchard, which is most likely not in the North Pole.
She’s clearly in chillier climes by 1889. That year, Mrs. Claus was featured in a poem by Katharine Lee Bates called “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride.” It’s also the kind of awesome proto-feminist poem that could only have been written in the early suffragette years. In it, Goody Claus demands that her husband take her out with him to deliver presents, claiming that she does all the work all year long anyway. It contains lines like:
Home to womankind is suited? Nonsense, Goodman! Let our fruited
Orchards answer for the value of a woman out-of-doors.
If you are to respond, “Didn’t she originally help Santa deliver presents?” Well, it seems like her life got more confined in the intervening years. That happens, sometimes. Good for her for demanding to go out again.
Her attire also gets somewhat updated in this popular poem, as she exclaims:
“See! I've fetched my snow-flake bonnet, with the sunrise ribbons on it;
I've not worn it since we fled from Fairyland our wedding day.”
Beyond that, the poem describes the couple as being fairly similarly dressed –
It would be so very cozy, you and I, all round and rosy,
Looking like two loving snowballs in our fuzzy Arctic furs,
However, that bonnet is different than his. Even in “Goody” Santa wears a “fur cap,” and that’s a detail that still holds up in their depictions today.
Even if, as time wore on, depictions got really different. As years passed, Mrs. Claus became more of a bit player in the Santa mythology. People still, today, do not talk about how on Christmas Eve you will be visited by Santa and his wife, who maintains beautiful forests. So, we should probably assume that Mrs. Claus lost her battle to be included on gift-giving. In certain mid-century depictions of her, Mrs. Claus also apparently lost maybe 100 pounds and 50 years. Here’s a great picture of her from the mid-century where she looks maybe 25 to Santa’s 65.
That’s a real shame for anyone who enjoyed thinking of them as “two loving snowballs.” However, they do keep their arctic furs, even if, in the above picture, Goody’s bonnet is replaced with a hat identical to Santa’s. She’s presumably just “pretty lady Santa who does not make a big deal about how a woman’s place is not at home.”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and point out that 1950s America was a good time to be a very svelte, white, married woman and absolutely no other kind of woman, even if you were a beloved magical woman who made presents.
However, by 1964, Mrs. Claus gets to appear in her first onscreen depiction! It was in Santa Conquers The Martians, a film that is remembered mostly for being truly atrocious. However, it’s nice to see Doris Rich portray Mrs. Claus as a grandmotherly type. Though, she does wear a blue dress and apron, rather than the furs and red boots she’s originally depicted in.
Her traditional attire gets revived in a lot of films of the 1990s, though, such as in We Wish You A Merry Christmas and Santa Claus 2. Happily, she gets some of her feminist spunk back in 1996’s Mrs. Santa Claus, in which she’s played by Angela Lansbury. The film focuses on her taking the sleigh out herself and meeting with a family of Jewish immigrants to fight for women’s rights and child labor laws. She gets to wear exactly what she was originally depicted as wearing, she is not 25, and the cover of the film features her by herself, on a sleigh. So, it seems she finally did get to take their sleigh ride, even if it took a hundred years.
And perhaps, if you’re good, she’ll visit you this year to have a really stirring conversation about labor laws while she leaves your husband a PS4.