Though all across the U.S. of A., Santa Claus and his missus appear arm in arm, NYC Santas have no time (or budget) for a wife, according to the Wall Street Journal. Several women who don Mrs. Claus outfits in a professional capacity during the winter holiday season have said that they’re not only paid about half what Santa gets–more along the lines of what an elf is paid, according to Brian Harrell, CEO of the Minneapolis-based All Time Favorites, Inc. which employs 600 “premium” Santa performers–but there’s not much call for Mrs. Claus in the city at all.
According to Harrell, top “real bearded” Santas get $200 to $300 an hour, and though he himself demands that Mrs. Claus gets similar compensation, “In general, nationwide, they are paid about $100 less,” he told the Journal. But before she makes a dime, she gets put on a shelf: She’s the least requested Christmas character of all.
Some may say that no matter who does the real heavy lifting in the relationship, comparing Santa with his wife is an apples-to-oranges situation. So what about the female performers who do lap duty as the bearded man himself. In today’s world, a female Santa would probably surprise no one; but in WWII-era America, women stepped into the big guy’s role the same way other female workers did. Smithsonian magazine tells us that 75 years ago this Christmas, department stores began hiring women to play Santa.
And Mrs. Claus predated even that glass ceiling: Filene’s department store in Boston hired a Mrs. Claus to help its male Santa entertain young visitors as early as 1906 (Santa’s spouse apparently first appeared in an 1849 short story, “A Christmas Legend,” by James Rees, a Philadelphia-based Christian missionary). Department store Santa trainer Charlie Howard helped the Mrs. Claus cause in 1937 when he announced that she’d be helpful in finding out what little girls wanted in their Christmas stockings and teaching them “how to play with dollies, doll houses, dishes and clothes. And she’ll have to be good looking, too.” No word on whether those standards would be applied to her chubby hubby–but it was pretty clear at the time that he would be portrayed by a fella.
In November 1942, after the U.S. had entered the war officially, the first female department store Santa worked the “Ho-ho-ho” shift in Chicago. New York City got its first female Santa in December 1943, when seasoned British actress Daisy Belmore took up residence at Saks Fifth Avenue. Though still not a common sight, women would appear in Santa roles for the duration of the war. Though Rosie held on to her rivet-gun as the century sped on, the brief run of female department store Santas ended with the war.
Fast forward 75 years, and there are still battles to win. Not only does Mrs. Claus get less pay than her male counterpart, but she’s often left out of the picture altogether. And what of women in the big-guy’s role? This year, actress Anna Kendrick will play a female Santa of sorts in “Noelle,” a Disney streaming movie starring Bill Hader, Billy Eichner and Shirley MacLaine. Though some see the story as a “feminist Santa Claus” tale, according to Mel magazine, Kendrick is actually playing Santa’s daughter, who steps up to take over the job when dad retires. So while she’s certainly up for the job, she’s not technically a female Santa Claus; she’s more, well, separate-but-equal.
Ann Votaw, a 45-year-old senior center programming director who seeks gigs as Mrs. Claus in-season, is looking for opportunities beyond the one she scored at an upstate New York theme park. And though she enjoys the role, she’s only earned about $500 as Santa’s better half. She has high hopes for Mrs. Claus, though, and would love to see more Mrs. Claus performers in the Big Apple, as she tells WSJ: “I don’t want to be the only Mrs. Claus in town. That is pathetic. Ring your bells, sisters!”
- 15 female trailblazers of the Village: From the first woman doctor to the ‘godmother of punk’
- Women’s History Month began in New York in 1909 to honor the city’s garment workers’ strike
- Elizabeth Jennings: The woman who helped desegregate NYC streetcars
- Support women-led restaurants in New York City with this new map from Grubhub