All the Season’s Ladies:
Forgotten Females of the Holiday Season
By H. Bradford
It often seems like men have the starring role in the holiday season. There’s Santa Claus, who delights children by delivering toys and travelling the world by a reindeer powered flying sleigh. There are dozens of old men who act in a similar way to Santa Claus, including Father Christmas, Grandfather Frost, and Sweden’s Christmas gnome. There’s baby Jesus, who makes babies seem less awful by not crying, spitting up, or creating messy diapers. The three wise men add to the count. Frosty the Snowman, Jack Frost, Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer, the Elf on the Shelf, Krampus, Nester the Donkey, and the Little Drummer Boy can be added to the list of guys. Even an obscure Bohemian king from the early 900s has a memorable holiday song (Good King Wenceslas). Thankfully, there are some interesting female characters during the holiday season as well. They might not be as numerous and might not attract the same attention, but each has an interesting story and offers some lessons in feminism.
(Tis the season for sexism?)
Mrs. Claus is a familiar Christmas season character who is usually portrayed as a plump, elderly woman dressed in red, with white hair and round glasses. She is often engaged in such things as baking cookies, ironing clothes, and managing the Claus household. There are few stories about her or well known songs. Even her name is unknown or unmentioned, though she has been called Molly, Jessica, Delores, and Maya in some adaptations of her story (Santa Takes a Wife, n.d.). For most of history, Santa Claus did not even have a wife. This is because the character, Santa Claus, was based upon a bishop from Myra, Turkey who may have been born around 280 CE. According to legends, St. Nicholas gave his wealth to the poor, saved a three falsely imprisoned men, and gave dowry money to three poor sisters to save them from prostitution. In a particularly horrific tale, Nicholas sensed that a corrupt inn keeper in Athens had pickled the corpses of three men, so he prayed to have them resurrected (St. Nicholas Origin Story, n.d.). Ms. Claus has always lived in the shadow of her husband, baking cookies and doing laundry while he delivers toys. It would be hard for her to compete with a character who gives toys to the world’s children, but also save women from prostitution and revives pickled corpses from time to time.
Historical evidence of an actual person whom Saint Nicholas was based upon is thin. His written biography was published 250 years after his death and the region already featured a similar story about a pagan philosopher named Apollonius who performed similar feats as St. Nicholas (Lendering, 2002). Whatever the actual history, Saint Nicholas was a popular saint who was associated with gift giving and protecting sailors and children. Even after the Protestant reformation, he remained a popular saint in the Netherlands, where he was called Sinterklaas. Interestingly, saint days were abolished after the Republic of United Provinces became protestant, but due to unrest in the Catholic south and among students in Amsterdam, private observances of the Feast of Saint Nicholas were allowed. Dutch immigrants are are credited with bringing Sinterklaas and the observation of the December 6th Feast of St. Nicholas to the U.S, where the character slowly lost his religious connotations and became associated with Christmas (St. Nicholas, n.d.). There is no historical record that Saint Nicholas had a wife and his pagan counterpart, Apollonius was also celibate. While modern bishops and priests within the Catholic church are required to be celibate, this would not have been the case in Nicholas’ era. In 304 CE, when Nicholas would have been about 24 years old, the first written edict from the Council of Elvira stated that clerics should be celibate. In 325, the Council of Nicea rejected a ban on the marriage of clerics. It was not until the 12th century that clerics were definitively banned from marriage (Owen, 2001). Thus, it is possible that St. Nicholas was married, if such a person existed. But, in the imagination of post-12th century celebrants of the Feast of St. Nicholas, he likely would not have been thought of as a married man because of the normalization of celibate bishops.
(St. Nicholas is more somber than jolly)
In the early 1800s, Santa Claus began to take on his more modern identity. He went from the thin, olive skinned, saint in bishop’s garb to the jolly, magical, character dressed in red. The 1823 poem called, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” or “A visit from Saint Nicholas” helped to create the modern American Santa Claus, as it featured him as a character carried by a reindeer drawn sleigh, plump physique, and chimney travel (St. Nicholas Origin Story, 2014). The secularization and modernization of Santa allowed the possibility that he might have a wife. Mrs. Claus was introduced in 1849 in “A Christmas Legend” by James Rees (Hatherall, 2012). In 1862, she was depicted in Harper Magazine as wearing a dozen red petticoats and Hessian boots, which seems like oddly militant yet fancy attire. She was again depicted in 1877 in the book “Lill’s Travels in Santa Claus Land (the History Chicks, 2014).” In 1889, Mrs. Claus was further popularized in the poem, “Goody Santa Claus” by Katherine Lee Bates (Hatherall, 2012). In “Goody Santa Claus”, Mrs. Claus asked her husband why he should have all of the glory delivering toys and requests to come along in his sleigh (Santa Takes a Wife, n.d.). Bates, the author of the poem is famous for her song America the Beautiful. She never married, was Oxford educated, and wrote children’s books, songs, and travel books. Bates also had a very close relationship with Katharine Coleman, an economics and political science instructor. Modern notions of lesbian sexual identity were not yet understood at the time, but some historians believe that the two women were a couple. Either way, Bates was an independent woman and it is no wonder that her poem depicted Mrs. Claus as a more assertive and independent woman than other portrayals of the character.
Generally speaking, Mrs. Claus is a supportive character to Santa Claus, who stays at home while he delivers toys. She is often depicted as a kindly, large, older woman. While she often plays second fiddle to her more famous husband, she does have a few more prominent roles in stories. For instance, in the 1974 Rankin Bass claymation film, “A Year Without a Santa” Mrs. Claus considers donning the Santa suit and delivering toys herself. She ultimately delegated gift delivery to the reindeer and elves, but does try to convince two weather spirits (Heat Miser and and Snow Miser) to make it snow. A 1990 book called “Mrs. Santa Claus” deals with a similar premise, wherein Santa is sick and Ms. Claus must deliver the toys using a flying bicycle operated with vacuum cleaners and guided by a goose and chicken. This eccentric method of delivery is feminine and domestic, but at least offers Mrs. Claus agency and a central role in the story (Santa Takes a Wife, n.d.).
(I couldn’t find an image of Mrs. Claus driving the sleigh, but here is one which conveys her as a lady prepared to wait for her man to return…)
Mrs. Claus quaint, invisible, and domestic characteristics illustrates how society tends to view older women. Older women are not viewed as sexy or beautiful in society. Women are shamed for aging poorly. They are held to a different physical standard than aging men. Young women are told what products to buy or precautions to take to avoid aging. As such, aging is viewed negatively for women. According to a study based upon data from OKCupid, the peak age of female attractiveness is 20 years old according to male respondents! Thus, most women have only a small window in their life wherein they are considered very attractive. As an older woman, Mrs. Claus lacks the power assigned to youthful beauty in society. Like many women, she is defined by her husband, having no name but his name and no role but a supporting role to his endeavors. Did she want to live in the North Pole? Does she want to make cookies and stay home? What was her name before she was married? What were her own dreams in life? Why can’t she drive the sleigh? Her isolation in the North Pole in a world of little men and reindeer only adds to the invisibility of being an aged woman. At the same time, older women have lived experience and have seen history unfold. They can be mentors, role models, and leaders to younger women. As for Mrs. Claus, I’d like to see a story about her life before Santa Claus and see her engage in social change that extends beyond giving toys to kids. She could be an icon against ageism and for the rights of women.
Saint Lucia or Saint Lucy is Catholic and Orthodox saint whose feast is on December 13th. St. Lucy day is particularly popular in Scandinavia, where a girl is chosen to portray saint by wearing a white robe, with a red sash, and a lingonberry crown with candles on her head. She is followed by a procession of white clad girls and boys in cone hats, who sing songs for Saint Lucia and Christmas. Traditionally, the girl playing the role of Lucia would visit local farms to distribute saffron buns and coffee on the early morning of St. Lucia day(Swedish Customs and Traditions, n.d.). Despite her popularity in Scandinavia, she actually originated in Italy. Lucia is the patron saint of the blind and is said to have lived in Sicily from 283 to 303 CE. As such, she would have been a contemporary of Saint Nicholas if both can be imagined as real people. According to legends, Lucia’s father died when she was young and her mother was not a Christian. However, Lucia became a Christian and refused to marry a pagan man that her mother had arranged for her to marry. Instead, she gave her dowry to the poor. She managed to convert her mother to Christianity by bringing her to a shrine to St. Agnes for healing, but the man she was promised to became angry that she would not marry him. He denounced her as a Christian to the Roman authorities, who sentenced her to forced prostitution. Thus, just like Saint Nicholas, her story involves prostitution. Her body became too heavy to be carried away for punishment so she was instead tortured. In some stories, her eyes were gouged out but healed, which is why she is often depicted with eyes on a plate and the patron saint of the blind (St. Lucy, n.d.). Like Saint Nicholas, the evidence of her actual life is scant. Also like Saint Nicholas, she was a popular saint during the middle ages. Finally, like Saint Nicholas, observation of her feast day was popular among Protestants.
St. Lucia Day is popular in Scandinavia and has some elements of pagan traditions. In pre-Christian times, December 13th was celebrated as Yule (Traditions in Different Cultures, 2016). Solstice and the Feast of St. Lucia both fell on December 13th according to the Julian calendar. Thus, St. Lucia’s Feast was on the shortest day of the year, which easily allowed for the survival of pagan solstice traditions such as bonfires, burning incense, and singing songs (Swedish Customs and Traditions, n.d.). Even the name of the feast is very similar to the Scandinavian pagan observation of Lussi Night. Lussi night was a night wherein an evil spirit named Lussi was active, along with spirits and elves. Lussi would punish misbehaved children by taking them away to her dark world (Traditions in Different Cultures, 2016). Children would write the name Lussi on fences and walls to announce that the darkness of winter was ending and that light would be returning. After converting to Christianity, the Vikings introduced the Italian Saint to Scandinavia, as she fit well with pre-existing celebrations of the solstice and her very name means light. Celebration of the saint survived both a calendar change and the Protestant Reformation. When the Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582, the winter solstice moved to December 21st. St. Lucia’s Feast remained on December 13th. Despite the shift, St. Lucia Day remained connected to the idea of the return of light. Her feast became increasingly popular after the 18th century in Sweden and today, the Nobel Prize winner in Literature has the honor of selecting the “Lucy Bride” of Stockholm (Swedish Customs and Traditions, n.d.).
From a feminist perspective, St. Lucia has some pros and cons. On one hand, it is great that she stood up to her mother, spent her dowry on the poor, and refused to marry a man she did not want to marry. She was also defiant in the face of Roman authority, as in some stories, she predicted the downfall of the Roman empire and asserted that they would not be able to take her virginity. She is also a strong character in that she represents the return of light and end of winter. With the Polar Vortex looming over most of the U.S. right now, and sunset at about 4:20 pm, ending winter is something I can definitely get behind. On the other hand, the character idealizes youth, beauty, and virginity. In Sweden, local newspapers often depict various candidates for the year’s Saint Lucia, allowing readers to vote. Many Miss Sweden winners began as local Saint Lucias (Swedish Customs and Traditions, n.d.). The girls who depict Saint Lucia are usually blond and fair skinned. This year, the Swedish department store, Ahlens, received over 200 negative comments on facebook because they depicted St. Lucia as gender ambiguous child with a darker complexion. The department store had to pull the advertisement. Like the mythical trolls of Scandinavia, the internet trolls threatened to hurt the child model by their racist and cisgendered objections that Lucia was not a white girl (Swedish Lucia advert sparks love and hate online, 2016). From a feminist perspective, anyone of any age, gender, race, or any appearance should be able to portray Saint Lucia. The character is almost entirely fictional and as such, open to interpretation and change. After all, had there been an actual St. Lucia, she most likely would not have been blond and fair skinned, considering she hailed from Southern Italy. But, just as Santa has been white washed from a skinny, swarthy, Turkish saint to a fat man with a ruddy complexion, Lucia has also been made more Northern European in her appearance.
St. Lucia is just one woman associated with the winter solstice. Another woman is Beiwe, the Sami goddess of spring, mental wellness, fertility, and the sun. She is credited with chasing away the winter and restoring the sanity of those who have become mentally ill over the winter. White animals are traditionally sacrificed in her honor and butter is smeared over the doorposts of homes (Auset, 2009). On the winter solstice, a white deer was sacrificed in her honor. The meat was made into a ring and hung from a tree with colorful ribbons. Butter was smeared in the doorposts so that she would have something to eat. The Sami believed that the sun was the mother of all life and that reindeer were her children and a gift to humans (Monaghen, 2011). She flies through the sky on a chariot made of reindeer antlers with her daughter. The fact that she restores mental health after the winter suggests that Sami people recognized what might be called Seasonal affect disorder (Loar, 2011). Interestingly, the existence of seasonal affect disorder is currently being called into question. A 2006 CDC study did not find an increase of depression in the winter months at high latitudes. Similarly, a 2012 Norwegian study did not find increased mental distress during the winter, but did find a greater incidents of sleep problems in the winter months. It is possible that the CDC questions did not measure seasonal depression or that the respondents did not recall specific times of year that they were particularly depressed (Turner, 2016).
Beiwe highlights a perennial issue of the knowledge of women and indigenous people is often devalued by scientific institutions. It is certainly interesting the Sami people had a goddess which specifically connected winter with feeling mentally unstable. Truly, for this connection to have been made, the Sami people must have noted that winter had an impact on their mental wellbeing. At the same time, it is also interesting that SAD is being called into question. For many people, winter is a difficult time. I myself feel cooped up by cold weather, saddened by the short days, and less energetic. Winter driving is a chore at best, and life threatening at worst. Of course, I enjoy the beauty of winter and have been able to remain happy by adopting winter activities that I look forward to. Anecdotally, many people around me also dread the winter and become more reserved and reclusive. Does this constitute a change in mental wellness? For those who do experience full blown winter depression, do their experiences matter? Science is an ongoing pursuit to understand the laws, patterns, and trends in the material world around us. It is a wonderful thing that we can organize knowledge in this manner, but at the same time, because scientific institutions yield power and are themselves beholden to power, this knowledge sometimes shapes our reality and shades our experiences. This is why marginalized people often find their knowledge dismissed by science.
La Befana is worth mentioning since she like Mrs. Claus, she is another elderly, female character in the Christmas season canon. In Italy, La Befana delivers toys to children on January 5th, or the Eve of the Epiphany. According to Southern Italian folklore, she was visited by the three magi as they were on their way to see baby Jesus. They asked her directions and asked if she would like to accompany them. She declined, offering the excuse that she had too much housework. After they left, she decided to follow after them and see Jesus for herself. However, she lost her way. Thus, for the past 2000 years she has been searching for baby Jesus, while distributing gifts to children. In another less pleasant story, she is a mother who lost a child, went insane with grief, mistook baby Jesus as her own child, and was blessed by Jesus to be the mother of all Italian children. Unlike Saint Lucia and Saint Nicholas, she is not a saint and is not an officially recognized religious figure. She is entirely fictional. She is sometimes called the Christmas Witch, and has a witch like appearance, as she has a long nose, warty face, wears a kerchief and shawl, and flies from place to place on a broom. Like Santa Claus, children leave her treats. But, instead of cookies, she enjoys wine, sausage, and broccoli. Similar to St. Lucia and St. Nicholas, she may have some pre-Christian roots, as Romans celebrated the New Year by honoring a goddess called Strenia (Matthews and Newkirk, 2010). Strenia gave the same gifts that La Befana traditionally delivered, including honey, figs, and dates.
La Befana is a pretty cool Christmas character. She is basically the Baba Yaga of Christmas. She is an independent woman, as she has been a solo female traveller for 2000 over years. She is generous and active, but not as domestic as Mrs. Claus, due to her extensive travels (mainly around Italy). While Mrs. Claus has a neat and tidy appearance, La Befana embraces a more haggard, warty appearance. She definitely seems unconcerned about aging or pleasing or attracting men. Perhaps her main flaw is that she fits into the stereotype that women aren’t very good with directions or spatial reasoning. But, perhaps her wandering has become a way of life and she isn’t even all that interested in finding baby Jesus. Since her way of life offers her unfettered access to all the broccoli, wine, and sausage that a woman could want, finding baby Jesus would probably be a let down at this point in her life.
Unlike the other characters on the list, Snegurochka does not have any religious connection (granted, Mrs. Claus is only tangentially connected to St. Nicholas through Santa Claus). The character first appeared in 1869 collection of Russian poems and folktales. In that story, a childless couple named Ivan and Marya create a child made out of snow. The snow child comes to life and grows into a beautiful young woman. However, she melts when she joins a group of girls in jumping over a bonfire. In another version of the story, she is the daughter of Ded Moroz (Old Man Frost) who melted when she fell in love with a shepherd named Lel. Her story is the subject of a play by Alexander Ostrovsky, music by Tchaikovsky, an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, a ballet by Ludwig Minkus and Marius Petipa, and two Soviet films (Kubilius, 2016).
While Snegurochka was popular in tsarist Russia, she became particularly popular in the Soviet Union. In 1929, the Laws on Religious Associations curtailed religious activity in the Soviet Union. Religion was relegated to groups of 20 or more, consisting of individuals over the age of 18, who registered with the state. Public worship was banned beyond private worship services conducted by registered groups. Because public religious expression was banned and the state was officially atheist, Christmas disappeared from the public sphere. In 1935, public celebration of New Year was allowed. Ded Moroz and Snegurochka became associated with New Years and would bring gifts to children. Thus, Ded Moroz acted like Santa Claus and Snegurochka was his helper. Snegurochka appeared on many Soviet greeting cards and looks a little like Elsa from Frozen, with light skin, pale hair in a braid, and a blue or white dress. The main difference is that she wears fur and a kokoshnik, or traditional Russian headdress. Because she is another pretty, young blond, she perpetuates the same beauty standards as St. Lucia.
Snegurochka offers a few lessons that might be useful for feminists. The fact that she dies after falling in love is a lesson for feminists to be skeptical about narratives of love. While many fairy tales end with “happily ever after” “finding true love” and marriage, her story ends with tragic death. While women should not fear love, they should dissect media messages about love, as many of this messages are unrealistic and unhealthy. The alternate version of her story is a cautionary tale about peer pressure. She wanted the acceptance of the other girls, but in following them over the fire, she melted. Again, a woman should be able to trust others, but she should also be able to stand on her own and say no to dangerous activities. The fact that her story is not religious is useful to atheist feminists, since it does not reinforce religious ideas about virginity and purity. Unfortunately, because the character dies young and lives a sheltered life, she does not have much agency or power. When she was reimagined as a Soviet New Year’s character, she remained a helper to Ded Moroz rather than an independent woman. This is one of the main drawbacks of the character….aside from her status as an icon for state sponsored religious oppression. The fact that she was imagined as a helping character wearing the costume of imperialist Russians is indicative of the reactionary nature of Stalinism. The gains women enjoyed in the early years of the revolution were reversed under Stalin, who reaffirmed conservative values about family and gender by making homosexuality and abortion illegal and divorce hard to obtain.
This is far from a comprehensive list of female holiday figures, but hopefully it offers some ideas of how the holidays might be celebrated differently or characters re-imagined. Perhaps instead of taking children to see Santa, we should take them to see Mrs. Claus. Maybe instead of milk and cookies, you should leave out some wine and sausage and see if you are visited by an Italian witch. Perhaps some gifts could be opened after the New Year, as a special delivery from Snergurochka and Ded Moroz. The next time a local church or community center celebrates St. Lucia, you might recommend a boy for the role. Holidays are always evolving. I imagine that if the feminist movement grows in size and exerts more influence on culture, we will have our own characters, holidays, and interpretations of pre-existing characters. Until then, we can imagine, dream, and reinvent holidays with our friends and in our own small communities.
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