Santa Claus comes tonight! But before we let this stranger into our homes, maybe we should know who he even is first.
People have some pretty strong opinions about what Santa looks like. News anchor Megyn Kelly once made the ridiculous proclamation on national airwaves that “By the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white.” Last year, a family in Arkansas received a racist letter attacking an inflatable Black Santa Claus that was featured in their yard decorations. Fortunately, their community proved once again that the actions of a few racists can’t withstand the overall goodness of people, and their neighbors and homeowners’ association all began to display inflatable black Santas in their yards.
Arguments about what Santa looks like or who gets to portray Old Saint Nick are nothing new. During World War Two, some department stores began to hire women to play Kris Kringle. And of course, some people had some things to say about that.
The second World War found women stepping outside their traditional roles and entering into fields that had typically been male dominated. One of those roles was that of Santa Claus. Department stores began to employ women for the role and charities used women to dress up as Santa to ring bells on street corners.
The St. Louis Star-Times had this to say in 1941:
“It is customary in wartime for women to take over numerous fields of employment conventionally reserved for men…woman’s place is in the office, factory, courtroom, marketplace, corner filling station, and other locations too numerous to mention. There is one male domain, however, that should be defended at all costs. A woman Santa Claus? Heaven forbid! That would be stretching the credulity of guileless little children too far.”
It seems that each store took a bit of a different approach in how they explained the change in Santa, with some telling children that she was Mrs. Santa Claus, who would pass on their requests to her husband and others treating her as a genuine Santa.
Hollywood, which had already helped to shape collective notions of what Santa looks like through film, got involved in the efforts to regulate the new batch of Santas that were emerging during the war. Make-up artist Max Factor Jr. shared his idea of an ideal female Santa and gave the Santas the advise to “lower their voices, puff out their cheeks with cotton and put on false noses.” In 1944, Bob Hope joked, “a lot of the Hollywood actresses are playing Santa Clauses this year and when you think about it, it isn’t as silly as it sounds. Who can do a better job of filling a stocking than Betty Grable?”
After the war, most of the stores that had used women to play Santa Claus, returned to having men fill the role and Santa largely carried on being portrayed in a specific way.
The origins of Santa lore dates back hundreds of years and has evolved over time. The modern U.S idea of who Santa Claus is comes from several sources, but most prominently from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem, Twas The Night Before Christmas and political cartoonist Thomas Nast who created an image to reflect the likeness that was described in that poem. Sometime in the 1840’s, Santa made his debut in U.S stores when savvy marketers used Santa Clauses to bring people into their shops at Christmas. The Salvation Army has been using Santa to bring in donations since the 1890’s. Regardless of the physical changes he’s undergone during each of these historical appearances, Santa has retained the traits that first inspired his character. He’s jolly, kind, and loves and connects with children around the world.
Like Christmas itself, it seems that Santa means something a little different to everyone and people get pretty passionate about how they want to see Santa Claus portrayed. But whoever he is and whatever form he (or she) takes, Santa inspires people to be their best selves, to believe in magic, and to maintain childlike curiosity about the world. How could anyone question the existence of someone that can do all that?