Because I get to host a fun, local travel show with IN Hollywood TV, I was in the lucky position of getting to sit on Santa’s lap for a legitimate purpose this past week. It turns out that in the two and a half decades or so since I was last in that venerated spot, a few things have changed: for one, I knew to ask for world peace because I’m an adult now and I’ve got my priorities in order. (Last time it was… what, mom? A new Barbie whose hair I could chop off? A sibling?) For another, I couldn’t help but notice the cloying presence of Mrs. Claus hanging around the Santa chair like the popular kid’s sidekick, overzealously inserting herself into the conversation as though her existence depended on it. Which I suppose it does.
The actors playing Santa and the Mrs. – if indeed they were actors – showed commitment and charm. You can see from this short video clip that they were dears, truly. And considering that the whole lap imbroglio occurred while I sat on Santa, and Santa sat on a chair from NBC’s The Voice, they were good sports, happy to blend tradition with novelty. We had a delightful chat. I think I got them on my side for the whole world peace thing.
But I couldn’t help noticing that Mrs. Claus seemed sort of… retro. Yes yes, perhaps they both are. It is an outdated tradition we’re talking about here: two overweight, elderly white people breaking the laws of physics to bring cheer to kids who’ve been “good.” If we think too much about it, we could find offense in every ingredient of that particluar fruitcake. (The laws of physics are there for a reason, dagnabbit!) But Santa, at his essence, represents gift giving – and generosity is timeless, right? Mrs. Clause, on the other hand, represents cookie baking and various other servicings of the big man’s needs, while puttering around the homefront.
That warrants a once-over.
Has Mrs. Claus, in the cultural eye, always been such a submissive domestic, I wondered? It turns out, the answer’s no. One of the earliest recorded mentions of a companion for Santa (beyond, of course, the elves and the reindeer) dates back to 1889 when the very woman who would go on to write “America the Beautiful,” Katharine Lee Bates, published a poem called “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride.” (Goody was just a term for “Ms.” in Puritan times.)
Through these for spacious skies the Goody wants to ride – but it takes a lot of convincing. In the poem’s first stanza she laments,
“Why should you have all the glory of the joyous Christmas story,
And poor little Goody Santa Claus have nothing but the work?”
Preach it, sistah. But don’t worry: after eleven stanzas of tactical maneuvering she finally gets crotchety, traditional-values Santa to let her come along – ultimately by appealing to his romantic side and reminding him of the last time they were on the sleigh together… which was apparently their wedding night. This bliss doesn’t last long though; sitting shotgun isn’t the same as delivering the gifts, of course, so as their evening wanes the Goody suggests a promotion:
“Yes, I know the task takes brain, Dear. I can only hold the reindeer
And so see me climb down chimney — it would give your nerves a shock.”
Spoiler alert: she finally does wear down Santa’s resolve and is rewarded with the chance to deliver one measly gift to a poor guy – who also needs his stocking darned! And thus she transgresses gender rules, but reinforces them all at once, setting the world right again. The world of 1889, that is.
We’ve progressed since then, right? An article in last week’s Slate magazine suggests that the trouble with Santa is the white skin thing, and the author, Aisha Harris, proposes a slight rebranding: Santa as penguin! “For one thing,” Harris points out, “making Santa Claus an animal rather than an old white male could spare millions of nonwhite kids the insecurity and shame that I remember from childhood.” (And for another, she adds, “people love penguins!”)
Well it seems only logical, if we’re going back to the drawing board on this one, that we reconsider the Mrs. while we’re at it. They could be a team – two members of a rookerie (how sexy does that sound?). Or heck – the Easter Bunny’s relatively gender-neutral and goes it alone; seems Santa Penguin has an equal opportunity here to strike out on his/her own without a baker back home providing cookie reinforcements from afar.
Listen, I don’t mean to play the politically correct police, but I do wonder if kids would enjoy a gift-giving duo as much as – if not more than – a lone old dude, and if some adorable birds might embody the spirit of the holiday as well as – if not better than – said lone old dude. I have a hunch I would have. Especially if I could have had a doll version of the Santa Penguin Team, with long flowing hair I could go to work on.