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Illustrations by Ana Jaks.
Santa may have a monopoly on American Christmas, but the women of the North Pole aren’t going quietly into the night. From Mrs. Claus to Kriss Kringle’s daughter, modern-day iterations of Santa-adjacent womenfolk are industrious, charming, jolly spreaders of holiday cheer. As Dec. 25 creeps ever nearer, we bring you three examples of a woman-led Christmas: a new Disney Plus film, “Noelle”; a book, “Mrs. Claus Takes the Reins”; and a real-life woman who puts her own spin on Santa’s spouse.
But first, a very brief history of St. Nick.
Centuries before he became widely known as a rosy-cheeked, big-bellied man zipping around the globe on a sleigh, Santa Claus (the myth) grew from St. Nicholas (the man), a Greek bishop born circa 280 A.D.
He served as bishop in a small town that was then called Myra, located in what is now modern-day Turkey, during the era of the Roman Empire. St. Nicholas was a scrapper, fiercely fighting against Christian persecution at the hands of the Romans and even spending years in prison.
He died on Dec. 6, sometime around 343 A.D. — hence, Dec. 6 is known as St. Nicholas Day and celebrated in countries around the world, particularly in Europe — but his legacy endured, including a couple anecdotes in which he purportedly delivered gifts and aided youth. According to “Santa Claus: A Biography,” by historian Gerry Bowler, Nicholas is said to have rescued a trio of young women from prostitution by gifting bags of gold to their father, to be used for his daughters’ dowries.
In the other anecdote, which was “enormously well known in the Middle Ages,” Bowler told National Geographic, St. Nicholas brought three young men who had been killed by an innkeeper back to life. “That’s one of the things that made him the patron saint of children.”
The 19th century brought a handful of books, poems and one indelible cartoon that introduced St. Nicholas in the way we now know him: rotund, sporting red and white furs, and led by a reindeer crew. That version of Santa continues to be the dominant figure in American Christmas imagery. The women in his life, such as Mrs. Claus, are relegated to sidekick status — if they’re visible at all.
Santa’s daughter looks strikingly similar to actress Anna Kendrick (of “Pitch Perfect” fame). I kid; they’re one in the same. In “Noelle,” a new holiday offering streaming on Disney Plus, Kendrick plays chipper Noelle Kringle, daughter to Kriss and sister to Nick (Bill Hader), their father’s heir apparent. But Nick has zero interest in (or aptitude for) gift-giving, sleigh-riding or reindeer wrangling. The movie opens months after Santa’s death, days before Nick’s first Christmas at the helm, and he is struggling. Noelle tries to coach and counsel him, ultimately suggesting that he take a short vacation. But Nick doesn’t return. The North Pole townspeople blame Noelle. (Figures.)
She goes on a mission to find him — with the help of no-nonsense Elf Polly (Shirley MacLaine) — and locates her errant brother in none other than Phoenix, where she, and we, learn that he has become a yogi. The Kringle siblings duel it out in a yoga studio. “You’re a coward who’s too afraid to be Santa Claus!” Noelle says. “Exactly! Bingo! Partridge in a pear tree! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” he replies.
You see where this is going.
(Skip to the next section if you loathe spoilers, but I sincerely believe you won’t be worse off if you know how this Disney movie ends.)
Guess who isn’t stricken with paralyzing fear at the thought of stepping into Santa’s boots? Noelle is brimming with Christmas knowledge, has acquired some of her father’s magical powers (communicating with children in any language, sussing out if you’re naughty or nice with a mere glance), and possesses more compassion and nuance than the replacement Santa the town named in Nick’s absence.
Though it takes some convincing — one town elder says, “Santa’s not a girl!” — the North Pole citizens ultimately name Noelle their new Santa. She gets the job done with skill and panache, and even institutes some women-boosting changes in the town. (Hint: Elf Polly gets a promotion.)
Will this film change your life? Highly unlikely, but it’s heartening to see a young woman steering the sleigh.
Sue Fliess had been tasked with writing a Santa book. And she was a tad stuck. The children’s author thought, “How am I going to put a fresh spin on Santa? Santa’s been done so many times. … He gets all the limelight.”
Then it hit her.
“As I started writing it,” she says, “I’m not sure why, but I immediately gave Santa a sinus infection.”
Initially she figured Mrs. Claus would help Father Christmas get back on his feet. But then, she decided, “Oh heck, I’m not going to get Santa better. I’m going to make him sick and Mrs. Claus is going to take over.”
Thus, “Mrs. Claus Takes the Reins” was born.
“I finished it and my agent loved it, and my critique group loved it,” she says, but when she sent it off the publisher who had given her the assignment, “they did not love it.”
She was bummed.
“I didn’t really feel like writing a book about Santa,” she adds, “and especially now that I had what I thought was a really fun and funny take on it with Mrs. Claus. I just told my agent, I said, ‘Well, let’s just try to shop it around.’”
So, they did, and another publisher bit. The editor at that publishing house loved the draft, and during revisions, she even whittled down the section about Santa’s illness.
The well-reviewed 2018 book tells the tale of one woman’s successful attempt to save Christmas.
One notably delightful moment occurs when Mrs. Claus, mid-sleigh ride, encounters a navigational obstacle. She acts fast to remedy the problem, proclaiming, “I may not have magic, but I’ve got a brain!”
Fliess admits: Female power was at the forefront of her mind when she penned the story. “The year that I wrote this was 2017, and I don’t know how much you want to get into politics and things like that, but I was fired up.”
She had been to the inaugural Women’s March in Washington, D.C.; her friend and cousin had attended as well. She kept thinking, this is “the year of the woman. And so it kind of just fueled everything that I wrote that year.”
At the book’s end, after Mrs. Claus finishes her gift-delivering duties, the elves are waiting up to celebrate her triumph. Look closely and you’ll spot a cocktail in her hand. Fliess loves that the illustrator added that bit. “Yeah, that is what would have happened,” she says. “I would have been all about having a cocktail when I got home from traveling around the world.”
Ann Votaw, like most of us, has a multipart identity. She is a New Yorker, a former dancer and — unlike most of us — a Mrs. Claus portrayer. Her male actor friends played St. Nick during the holidays, and she thought it would be thrilling to get in on the action. She felt the spirit of Mrs. C settle into her bones circa 2017, when she volunteered to play Santa’s spouse at a community garden in upper Manhattan. It was her idea, and she flew solo, with no Santa by her side.
“I didn’t really think much about it as far as being edgy for a woman to be doing it,” Votaw says. “I just knew I wanted to be part of it.”
Before the gig, she stayed up until 3 a.m. one night in November (well past her typical 9:30 or 10:30 p.m. bedtime) browsing the web for Mrs. Claus costumes.
“I noticed that either the costumes were really sexy for Mrs. Claus or they were really dumpy,” she notes, and “I’ve since learned that how we treat our women who are cartoons says a lot about how we treat our women who are humans.”
The event wasn’t seamless. When she was walking over, she says, some kids yelled, “You’re not real!”
“I wasn’t expecting that,” she says, but acknowledges that her costume “wasn’t great to start off with, and I didn’t have a lot of confidence.”
When she arrived, other children asked about Santa. “I just said that it was good for our marriage to do things apart sometimes.”
Despite bumps, Votaw had a ball. She stayed up way late after the event, too:
Afterward, Votaw doubled down. She attended Santa School (yes, that is a real thing) and “pushed hard” for bookings. She went to restaurants, offering her services, and even wrote a script that she hoped to act out with an elfin partner — Cole the crabby elf; she liked the pun — but initially, gigs were “nonexistent,” she says.
Eventually, she appeared in the New York Post and found a Santa partner. They worked together twice, including once at a holiday party with Bill and Hillary Clinton. She continues to perform — sometimes with a Santa, sometimes without, though not with the frequency or pay she might hope for — and amplifies fellow women in the business. She speaks fondly of Mrs. Claus Dallas (“She was so good. Oh my God. She makes up her own songs. She does puppetry,” and, Votaw says, she has “Texas glamour out the wazoo.”) and Ms. Santa in Tennessee, a Claus of color (“She is stunning.”).
Votaw fervently believes that women in the Christmas industry should present themselves however they’d like: real hair or wigs, solo or partnered, matronly or hip. At 45, she occasionally gets pushback for being a young Mrs. Claus (“I can see menopause from where I’m standing right now, people,” she says. “I’m not that young.”) but that won’t stop her. She’s doing this for joy.
And she’s looking to grow the ranks of Claus women spreading cheer. She even tried recruiting this reporter.
“We need more of us,” she says, adding: “Maybe you can be a Mrs. Claus, when this is all over, okay? Not now, and maybe not even in costume, but your job is to become a Mrs. Claus and ring the bells.”