Missus Claus remained largely in the shadows for years. When she was mentioned, she was Santa’s adoring and tireless helper who received little or no credit. But by the 1800s some accounts indicated that she was no longer satisfied to watch her husband have all the fun.
Like many people of the 19th century, Missus Claus grappled with shifting views of a woman’s role both inside and outside the home. In some early stories and poems she offered a shining example of the New Woman as she joined ranks of female trailblazers including Nellie Bly, Elizabeth Bisland and many more.
But before Missus Claus was having an identity crisis, Santa was undergoing his own evolution.
Sinterklaas Was Santa’s Role Model
The character of a wintertime gift-giving personage who often does his business in secret is likely to reach back through earliest human history. While Santa’s exact origins remain murky, most Santa Scholars point to Saint Nicholas and other versions of a similar character.
In Battle For Christmas: A Social And Cultural History Of Our Most Cherished Holiday, historian Stephen Nissenbaum writes that the name of Santa Claus is rooted in the informal Dutch name for St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas. The historic figure dating back to the 4th century was known as a secret gift giver who left coins and other gifts in shoes. Dutch settlers brought Sinterklaas and associated traditions to America in the early 1600s.
Dutch settlers brought Sinterklaas and associated traditions to America in the early 1600s.
Santa Got His Red Suit
It took decades for the new-and-improved Santa Claus to evolve. Slowly but surely, he earned his red suit, white beard and a bio that included his North Pole toy-making compound that housed hosts of elves, reindeer and other helpers.
In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore published the long Christmas poem he wrote for his daughters. He titled it “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” This work crystallized the Victorian Santa image we know today as a portly “right jolly old elf” who could launch down chimneys with the nod of his head.
By the late 1800s, the new and improved Santa was a familiar image in newspapers and magazines. According to New England Living Today, in 1890, dry goods owner, James Edgar of Brockton, Massachusetts pushed Victorian Christmas Shopping up another notch. He had a suit custom made and the first department store Santa Claus was born.
Christmas consumption was riding an out-of-control sleigh to our modern Christmas.
So When Did Missus Claus Arrive On The Scene?
Most early accounts portrayed Santa as a solo act, ignoring the possibility of a female partner to keep him warm on cold winter nights.
The exact date of her appearance remains unclear. But we do know that as early as the 16th century, citizens of York in America rode through the streets on St. Thomas Day, which marked the Christmas season. Editors of the Herder Correspondence wrote about a “rude and barbarous custom” in which:
“… two disguised persons, called Yule and Yule’s wife, should ride through the city very indecently and uncomely, drawing great concourses of people after them to gaze, oftentimes committing other enormities.”
This was a pitch to ban the annual sleigh ride that distracted people from church services. This is one of the earliest mentions of Yule, later known as Santa, and his wife.
A Female Christmas Star Trailblazer Is Born
As Santa’s image changed, that of Missus Claus evolved in parallel. Ultimately, most accounts place her as that doting housewife who waits behind, keeping the hearth warm for her man.
That said, these interesting accounts gave fans of Christmas legend an alternate view of Missus Claus.
1849—“A Christmas Legend” by Philadelphia missionary, James Rees, tells the story of a mysterious couple who visit a destitute family on Christmas Eve. Ken Zurski, historian and author writes in Unremembered History:
“The constructive narrative sets up a deep exploration of family, loss and forgiveness; a classic Christmas formula. But the story itself is not widely known. In fact it would likely be completely forgotten had it not been for one word- “wife.” Today, it is cited as being the first time Santa Claus was associated with a spouse. It literately introduced the character we know now as Mrs. Claus.”
1874—“Mrs. Santa Claus’s Ride” by Georgia Grey is a short story in which Missus Claus convinces Santa to take her on his epic delivery ride. He agrees but makes her promise she will remain out of sight.
1878—“Lill’s Travels in Santa Claus Land And Other Short Stories” by XXXX gives readers an early glimpse of Missus Claus in a pivotal, albeit helper role to her husband.
“There was a lady sitting by a golden desk, writing in a large book, and Santa Claus was looking through a great telescope, and every once in a while he stopped and put his ear to a large speaking-tube. While I was resting he went on with his observations.
“Presently he said to the lady, ‘Put down a good mark for Sarah Buttermilk. I see she is trying to conquer her quick temper.’
“‘Two bad ones for Isaac Clappertongue; he’ll drive his mother to the insane asylum yet.’
“‘Bad ones all around for the Crossley children,—they quarrel too much.’
“‘A good one for Harry and Alice Pleasure, they are quick to mind.’
“‘And give Ruth Olive ten, for she is a peacemaker.’”
1880—“Mrs. Santa Claus’s Christmas-Eve” written anonymously and published in the Churchman. It tells the story of how Missus Claus strikes out on he own to deliver some dolls that her husband left behind.
“When Mrs. Santa Claus said she’d do a thing, she did it. In five minutes she had an old side-saddle on Blitzen’s back, and was dashing down the long icy slope of Sweden.
The ocean was awful: but she shut her eyes and set her teeth and it might have been worse. She didn’t open them again till Blitzen’s hoofs struck the quay of New York.”
Overcoming her fears, physical discomfort and lack of training, Missus Claus delivers ten dolls to children whose letters touched her heart.
When Santa heard the story, he “laughed till he cried”.
The author concluded:
“And now, children, who is the only person in the world who never has a Christmas-day, and why doesn’t he have one?”
What about Missus Claus?
1884—“Mrs. Santa Claus Asserts Herself” by Sarah J. Burke, published in Harper’s Young People speaks for itself.
“Oh, it’s all very fine for that husband of mine/To be courted and praised and invited to dine;/Thought late inn the day, I’ll take while I may/My woman’s one privilege of ‘saying her say.”
Missus Claus goes on to say that paint a picture of the difficult life she lives.
“Is it nothing I ask, that my husband should bask/In the popular smile, like a belle at a masque,/While I, poor old crone, sit and cower alone,/Tight clasping the fingers I’ve worked to the bone?”
With a nod and a blink he would lead you to think/He had dressed all the dolls ere a weasel could wink;/No, while he’s inn bed—to his shame be it said–/It is I who am plying the needle and thread.”
1885—“In Santa Claus Land” by Ada Shelton, Missus Claus gets her due. This one serves as a reminder of the importance of a new model that was a consequent of the Industrial Revolution. In the growing middle class living in cities, women often worked full time in the home while the man went out in the world to provide for the family.
“Of all busy people/This busy Christmas-tide,/None work like Mrs. Santa Claus,/For days, and nights beside./ The good old Saint, her husband,/Has so much now to do,/If Mrs. Claus did not take hold/He never would get through.”
1888–“Goody Santa Claus On A Sleigh Ride” by Katharine Lee Bates shows Missus Claus pointing out to her lazy husband how much she does all year. In addition to making all the toys and other gifts beautiful, she tends to trees, raises turkeys and handles a host of other important jobs. She demands that he take her on his Christmas delivery ride.
Missus Claus proves to be indispensable, making sure that all children including orphans receive a gift. But as dawn approaches, Santa still denies her a chance to go down the chimney. (Presumably this is man’s work.) When Santa can’t deliver a final gift to an orphan whose stocking is full of holes, Missus Claus saves Christmas. She drops down the chimney, mends the hole and leaves a gift.
And that’s how Missus Claus became the female Trailblazer of the North Pole.
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