Children around the world will turn their eyes toward the sky tonight, hoping to catch just a glimpse of that magical visitor as he travels the world filling stockings and laying presents under the brightly decorated trees in millions of homes.
The “jolly old elf” affectionately known as Santa Claus has captured the hearts and minds of children and adults alike for centuries, but his journey wouldn’t be possible without the help of another popular Christmastime figure, Mrs. Santa Claus.
It wasn’t always that way. Santa Claus first appeared in his modern form around the 17th century, but his origins date back to the historical St. Nicholas of Myra, a Greek bishop who lived in the fourth century. St. Nicholas was a man known for his generosity, often recognized specifically for his work in giving gifts to the poor, including offering dowries to three impoverished woman so they would not have to turn to prostitution to survive.
Although the origins began with St. Nicholas, however, European folklore played a role in molding the modern day Santa. In pre-Christian Germanic culture, the god "Odin" was a popular, bearded figure that took to the skies leading a hunting expedition during the December holiday of “Yule.” This expedition would prove the foundation for Santa’s magical sleigh and eight flying reindeer.
Scandanavian folklore told the story of "Tomte" or "Nisse" — a short, plump and bearded man with a red hat, and Dutch folklore included tales of "Sinterklaas" or "the Good Saint," a man who would sail in from Spain in November with a book that recorded whether children have been naughty or nice.
"Sinterklaas" was also later known during the Reformation as “Christkindl” which means “the Christ Child.” Around that same time period, legends developed in England of Father Christmas, a jolly, plump and bearded man who dressed in a green version of Santa’s modern day suit.
In all these traditions, however, he was never married and there was no reference to a woman. So where did Mrs. Claus come from and how did she become a key figure in contemporary legend?
Who Is Mrs. Claus?
Today’s legends of a “jolly old elf” living in the north pole with a team of workers helping create lists of children and assisting in the delivery of presents was heavily recorded in the early 1800s, but the work of Mrs. Claus was first recorded just over 150 years ago.
Mrs. Claus was the creation of James Rees in his book 1849 book “Mysteries of City Life,” which explored a variety of traditions including Christmas Legend. Rees is the first to name Mrs. Claus as well, giving her the title Gertrude in his stories, although pop culture has given her the name Jessica.
She would make several literary appearances in the following years, including a mention in the December 1851 edition of Yale Literary Magazine as part of an essay by an unnamed student.
In the upcoming years, mystery surrounded a woman who was described as a kind aid to the iconic Christmas visitor, including appearance in Harper’s Magazine and Good Housekeeping magazine.
By the late 1800s, intrigue surrounded Santa’s wife and her status as a Christmas figure in her own right was solidified with the Katherine Lee Bates' story “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride.” Goody is a term which means “the good wife.”
The imagery of Bates’ tale gave a lot of insight into Santa’s wife:
Santa, must I tease in vain, dear? Let me go and hold the reindeer, while you clamber down the chimneys. Don’t give me that sour smirk! Why should you have all the glory of the joyous Christmas story, and poor little Goody Santa Claus have nothing but the work?
Perhaps one of the most well-recognized accounts of how Santa and Mrs. Claus met has been portrayed in the modern day classic “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which provides a look at how Santa Claus, or Kris Kringle, would end up meeting and marrying Mrs. Claus. In the 1970 tale – the film was created using the 1934 song by the same name – Mrs. Claus is introduced as a schoolteacher in Sombertown named Jessica. After King Burgermeister outlaws toys in town, she helps Kris Kringle restore happiness to children of the village by sneaking them toys to play with at night and eventually falls in love and marries Santa Claus.
Today, Mrs. Claus still plays a prominent role in popular culture with references in nearly every contemporary Christmas movie, television show and song, although her name and roles are often altered slightly to fit different plot lines.
The Roles of Mrs. Claus
Over the years, Mrs. Claus has taken on a wide variety of tasks and responsibilities within Santa’s workshop and in preparing for the Christmas Eve travels. She is often associated with tending to the home, overseeing the workshop, organizing Santa’s travels and keeping tabs on the naughty and nice list among a variety of other roles.
In fact, in Bates’ 1889 tale, it is implied that while Santa Claus gets the glory for his worldwide journey every Christmas Eve, it would never have been possible without the behind the scenes work of Mrs. Claus.
One of the first accounts of the tasks belonging to Mrs. Claus is detailed in the 1978 story “Lill in Santa Claus Land and Other Tales” written by Ellis Towne, Sophie May and Ella Farman. In the story, she is identified as the keeper of the naughty or nice list, keeping detailed records for her husband:
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.”
Mrs. Claus also has been identified as the patient, caring woman behind Santa Claus, helping to calm him down and keep him focused as the holiday draws closer. As many married couples would put it, she is “his better half.”
In contemporary stories, she takes on an even more prominent role as the savior of Christmas. In the 1974 movie “A Year Without a Santa Claus,” she travels great distances and creates compromise in order to instill Christmas spirit and convince Santa Claus, who is sick through much of the film, to continue with his annual Christmas journeys.
With all these prominent roles, Mrs. Claus has cemented her role as a Christmas legend in her own right.
So as you set out the milk and cookies for Santa Claus and the carrots for his reindeer this Christmas Eve, don’t forget the kind old woman who made his trip possible and make sure to leave a little something for Santa to take back to his wife.