The Second World War saw American women break into many male-dominated jobs: riveters, crane operators, cab drivers, and professional baseball players, to name a few.
But perhaps the most unusual breakthrough of all occurred 75 years ago this Christmas, when department stores began hiring women to play Santa, sitting in thrones previously monopolized by men. Pretty soon, still more women in red Santa suits and matching hats could be seen ringing bells on street corners and ho-ho-ho-ing it up for charity.
Even before the U.S. officially entered the war, some astute observers saw it coming. “It is customary in wartime for women to take over numerous fields of employment conventionally reserved for men,” the St. Louis Star-Times noted in 1941. But while the paper conceded that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt might be right that a “woman’s place is in the office, factory, courtroom, marketplace, corner filling station, and other locations too numerous to mention,” it drew a line in the snow at Santa.
“There is one male domain, however, that should be defended at all costs,” it insisted. “A woman Santa Claus? Heaven forbid! That would be stretching the credulity of guileless little children too far.”
Women had already found some success in the Santa trade. Filene’s in Boston hired a Mrs. Claus to help its male Santa entertain young visitors as early as 1906, a time when the notion that he even had a spouse was relatively new and little publicized. (She seems to have made her first appearance in an 1849 short story, according to Mental Floss.)
Charlie Howard, a department store Santa who also trained other practitioners, gave the concept a boost in 1937, when he announced that his program had gone co-ed. As he told the Associated Press, he planned to graduate two Mrs. Clauses that year, whose job, the story reported, would be to “greet little girls, learn what they want in their Christmas stockings, teach them how to play with dollies, doll houses, dishes and clothes.” The article, however, also quoted Howard as declaring, “And she’ll have to be good looking, too.”
But Mrs. Claus wouldn’t become a mainstay of the Christmas celebration until the Baby Boom era, with the help of Nat King Cole’s “Mrs. Santa Claus” in 1953 and Phyllis McGinley’s 1963 children’s book How Mrs. Santa Claus Saved Christmas.
Meanwhile, the top job, that of the Jolly Old Elf him (or her) self, still was the domain of just men.
Less than a year after the U.S. declared war on Japan, in November 1942, the first female department store Santa seems to have appeared in Chicago. “The manpower shortage has even hit old Saint Nick,” the caption on an Associated Press photo explained. “This lady Santa Claus has turned up—dressed like Mr. Claus except for the whiskers—at a Chicago department store, and youngsters seem just as happy telling her which gifts they are hoping for.” (Though other contemporary accounts would treat her as a full-fledged female Santa, the photo caption hedged a bit, ending with a reference to her as a “Mrs. Santa Claus” who would “pass on children’s wishes to her overworked husband.”)
In December 1942, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that, “Unable to find a man suitable for the job,” an F.W. Woolworth store in Union, New Jersey, had also hired a female Santa. Identified as Mrs. Anna Michaelson, she would “wear a skirt, instead of trousers, but all the other habiliments will be the same as those of the traditional Kris Kringle.” In Michaelson’s case that included a white wig and beard, which the mother of eight obligingly showed off for a news photographer.
The reaction to these new Santas was mixed, ranging from a sort of ho-hum acceptance to mock outrage.
The Washington Post, for example, took it philosophically. “Rather than disappoint the youngsters altogether, it seems better to have a feminine Santa than no Santa at all,” it conceded in a December 1942 editorial.
The Wichita Daily Times, in a November 1942 editorial titled “Invading Another Male Bastion,” examined the pros and cons: “It may jar the sensibilities of the youngsters to hear a soprano voice, instead of a basso profundo one, sounding forth from behind the whiskers. But probably today’s children will make whatever concessions are necessary on that account. They have been wise enough heretofore to pretend not to know that the department store Santa is a fraud: to accept a lady Santa will impose no intolerable strain upon their pretended innocence.”
But a syndicated newspaper columnist named Henry McLemore claimed to have gotten “the shock of my life” when he stumbled upon a woman Santa in a nameless department store. “If there is such a thing as a minor horror, then a minor horror of this war is female Santa Clauses,” he wrote. “Kristine Kringle! Sarah St. Nicholas! Susie Santa Claus! Holy Smoke!”
He went on to describe the cause of his distress as “a little ol’ wren of a Santa Claus. The pillow she used for a stomach didn’t help and neither did the soprano voice that squeaked through some cut-down gray whiskers.”
And he wasn’t done yet: “She didn’t walk like Santa Claus walks,” McLemore lamented. “He lumbered and flat-footed around, the result of years of carrying that massive pack on his back. This female Santa Claus minced around on size 3 shoes and worst of all, she giggled. The real Santa Claus never giggled.”
A report in the Geneva Daily Times in upstate New York speculated on whether female Santas would take Manhattan next. “News that Chicago had a Mrs. Santa reached New York Saturday,” it announced. “Notice of such a break with tradition was not received lightly. The Santa at Stern Brothers [a New York City department store] said he would like to meet a woman Santa and give her his picture, but he thought a Mrs. Santa could not stand the strain a real Santa has to undergo.”
A Macy’s Santa named Jim Willis “said he thought a feminine St. Nick would spoil the illusion for children,” the story added, “and that anyhow there were enough cheery old gentlemen to take the place of any Santas who might go off to war.”
New York City would indeed get its first female Santa, or something close to it, in December 1943. That’s when Daisy Belmore, an older British actress, took up residence at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Though Belmore referred to herself as Mrs. Santa Claus and said she was there to fill in for her busy husband, she represented a clear departure from the subservient Mrs. Clauses of the prewar years. Belmore was a solo act, with a throne of her own and all the magical gift-granting powers of her male peers.
Belmore, whose acting credits included small film roles in 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front and 1931’s Dracula, was described in a United Press article as a “white haired, blue-eyed woman” who “wore a suit like Santa Claus,” except that her red wool stockings showed below her skirt.” Contemporary photos show that she also skipped the beard.
Like her Chicago counterpart, Belmore had little trouble getting kids to share their wartime wish lists, according to a writer for the New York Herald Tribune:
“Why, the little girls all want nurses’ kits and the boys want medical things,” she told the reporter, who went on to describe her in action: “She stopped at this point to pat a small newcomer on the head. ‘And what do you want for Christmas?’ she asked. The customer was a little girl about seven years old. Miss Belmore leaned closer to hear her reply. In a moment she looked up.
“’There,’ she said triumphantly, ‘the little girl wants a machine gun.’”
Though still a relative rarity, women Santas now seemed to be in it for the duration of the war.
In December 1943, the Hollywood make-up artist Max Factor Jr., who’d led earlier efforts to standardize the look of America’s male Santas (at least 5’ 9” and 180 pounds, with a belt size of 48 inches or more, among other specs) turned his attention to the women as well. Factor believed that seeing too many different-looking Santas in movies and real life was befuddling to young believers.
A widely published wire service photo showed his vision of an ideal “Lady Santa Claus”—who might easily have passed for the male version except for her nail polish. Factor’s advice to aspiring female Santas: “lower their voices, puff out their cheeks with cotton and put on false noses.”
By Christmas 1944, female Santas were coming out in force.
Even comedian Bob Hope weighed in, quipping in his newspaper column that “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 after all. Who can do a better job of filling a stocking than [famous actress] Betty Grable?”
The Volunteers of America, a charity whose Santa-suited bell ringers raised funds on city street corners, fielded seven female Santas in New York alone.
One, Mrs. Phoebe Seabrook, a 62-year-old grandmother, was described in an article as “five feet tall, weighing 123 pounds.” For those who might be wondering, it explained, “she fits into the Santa Claus uniform by tucking the waist surplus into her belt and the bottoms of the over-long trousers into her boots.”
Though she wore a “flowing white beard,” Mrs. Seabrook noted that her voice and shoe size were often a giveaway even to the youngest children. In that case she explained that she was actually Santa Claus’s wife—which may or may not have done anything to lessen their confusion. When challenged by kids who said they didn’t think Santa even had a wife, she was known to reply, “Well, he’s got one now.”
The following Christmas, however, the war was over. Germany had surrendered in May 1945. Japan had followed suit in August, signing a formal instrument of surrender in September.
The breakthroughs women achieved in other male-dominated occupations would be longer-lasting, but the brief era of female department store Santas had largely come to an end.
Daisy Belmore, perhaps the most famous of them all, had already returned to the Broadway stage. Her last major role would be in the original 1951 production of The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams. She played The Strega, an elderly woman rumored to be the local witch. It was a far cry from Kris Kringle—but then again, she didn’t have 7-year-olds on her lap pleading for machine guns.