Sunday, 17 December 2017

The Four Santas of Advent : 3) Meet the Wife

Every good man deserves a good woman, the old saying goes, and no more so than with Santa Claus. Though long before he had a same-sex partner he had a wife. It may have taken several hundred years before Santa got a wife, but Mrs. Claus is now an equally essential part of any Christmas season.

Perhaps the reason it took so long for Santa to be given a wife is probably because until the Victorian period he was still largely regarded as an incarnation of St. Nicholas, a medieval Catholic bishop who would not have been allowed to have a wife. The first time a Mrs. Claus was presented to the world was in the Christmas 1851 edition of “The Yale Literary Magazine”. Sadly we don’t know the name of the person who wrote about her in an article entitled “Holiday Week”, only as A.B.

Mrs. Claus didn’t really re-appear in recognisable form until 1887 when an article in the “Good Housekeeping” magazine gave a description of how she was dressed. The main purpose behind her presence, however, was to instruct the article’s author, who was describing a dream he had, on how to build the perfect kitchen.

The definitive Mrs. Claus appeared two years later in 1889 in a poem called “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride” by Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929). The poem was included in a book of verse for children, yet Katharine gives a feminist spin on the Claus household. The name “Goody” was a colloquialism for “Goodwife”, a term that was very popular in the olden days used instead of the more formal Mrs. It’s a term that wreaks of the old-fashioned notion that a good wife stays at home in the kitchen (ideally the perfect kitchen) while the husband went out to work. And that is precisely the view of the Claus household that people had in those days and, in some areas, still do today.

Katharine Lee Bates gave her Mrs. Claus a will strong enough to persuade her husband to let her get out of the house, away from the kitchen with its Christmas sweets, Thanksgiving turkey and rainbow chicken that laid Easter eggs. Santa Claus welcomes his wife onto the sleigh for his Christmas Eve travels. The only time Santa is a bit reluctant to share his duties is when Mrs. Claus asks if she can go down a chimney instead of him and deliver the presents herself. However, Santa lets her have her chance at gift-bringing. Once all the presents have been distributed the Claus’s return home. Katharine’s poem about the adventures of Goody Claus, Mrs. Claus, became very popular.

To link Mrs. Claus with last week’s article on Leyendecker Santa I’ve put two illustrations side by side (below). The image on the left is the cover of a late Victorian edition of Katharine’s “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride”. It doesn’t actually show Mrs. Claus, but it does show Santa very clearly and, as you can see, he isn’t dressed in the familiar red outfit, but in a long yellow robe. The image on the right comes from a postcard of 1919 depicting the Claus couple. By 1919 J. C. Leyendecker’s Santas had become hugely popular and illustrators were painting Santa in the familiar red outfit favoured by him.
Katharine Lee Bates never became “Mrs.” or “Goodwife” herself. She never married. In 1891 she became an Associate Professor at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. There she had met Katharine Coman, a tutor in history and political theory who later became Dean of the college. Their relationship has been described as a Boston Marriage, so named because of many female partnerships that developed in that area in the late 1800s.

In 1893 Katharine Lee Bates travelled across America. These were the days long before the expansion of cities and metropolises and unspoilt countryside. The many natural wonders of the landscape impressed her so much that she composed a poem immortalising those wonders. It first appeared in print on 4th July 1895. Once people had begun to set the poem to music the words became an anthem of America. The poem, and the song, is called “America the Beautiful”, the unofficial second national anthem of he USA.

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