“Santa Claus is a bachelor, tireless and gay,” reads a line in an 1884 poem.
At the time, of course, “gay” meant something closer to “merry and bright,” than it did “homosexual.”
But the fact remains that the mythical figure of Santa Claus, despite now having a storied female companion, was once blissfully unattached, before 19th-century texts like the above poem, quoted in historian Gerry Bowler’s Santa Claus: A Biography, introduced the character of Mrs. Claus—one of the many tweaks that has been made to the Santa legend over the years.
In a tale lovingly illustrated by A.P. Quach, Santa’s Husband depicts the day-to-day life of a black, gay Santa Claus and his white husband, both of them bushy-bearded bears who like to “kiss and make up” after the occasional argument, “usually over a plate of milk and cookies.” (They also love to “[keep] each other cozy in the cold,” despite the effects of climate change on their frosty home.)
Predictably, the book has already drawn the ire of a Fox News opinion writer who criticized Kibblesmith by saying that the author “does not offer any advice for parents on how to address questions that might arise from curious youngsters,” like, “why does Mrs. Claus have a beard?”
The explanation—besides the fact that Mrs. Claus didn’t exist until relatively recently in the historical record—is simple, says Kibblesmith.
“You’re going to explain it the same way that you explain that, like, their second-grade teacher is gay,” he told The Daily Beast. “People are gay. That is the extent of the explanation.”
Kibblesmith and Quach are not actually positing that the mythical Santa Claus has been gay all along—or, as The Daily Beast playfully framed it, that Mrs. Claus might have been “Santa’s real beard” this whole time.
Rather, their point, as Kibblesmith says, is that “there are as many kinds of Santa Clauses as there are all families over the world”—and that making Santa a black gay man is a relatively minor adjustment to a character whose core identifying characteristics, like gift-giving and sleigh-riding, remain firmly in place.
“In my mind, it’s more like having a black James Bond or when Robin Hood was a fox in that Disney movie,” Kibblesmith told The Daily Beast. “Presumably, the Robin Hood of legend was not actually an anthropomorphic fox but these characters are interpreted in different ways over the centuries.”
But the modern-day re-signification of Santa Claus does beg the question: When did Santa Claus become a heterosexual, married man in the first place?
Who decided that he should have a Mrs. Claus by his side instead of a white Mr. Claus—and how important are his marital status and sexual orientation, really, to the overall Christmas legend?
The real person at the heart of the Santa myth—Saint Nicholas of Myra, who reportedly died in the year 343–was not exactly a ladies’ man.
“He starts off as a bishop and thus, by law, celibate,” Bowler, author of Santa Claus: A Biography, told The Daily Beast. “So as the leading male saint of the Middle Ages, part of whose job was the patronage of children, he becomes a magical Christmastime gift-bringer—and for centuries he’s the one that kids look forward to getting a visit from.”
The closest relationships that the mythologized version of Saint Nicholas had with women were “celibate friendships,” as Bowler calls them, with female gift-giving figures, like Frau Holle in Germany. Still, romantic entanglements were out of the question.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the more secular, modernized version of Santa Claus even appeared in the United States. Even then, the details of his character had to be ironed out over the course of several decades before anyone could consider what Kris Kringle might be up to in the bedroom.
“People spend most of the 19th century, from the 1820s to about 1900, debating, by proposing various options, just how big he is,” said Bowler. “Is he a jolly old elf? Is he as big as your thumb? Is he adult-sized? Is he young? Old? Bearded? Not bearded?”
The prevailing version of Santa—the boot-wearing man with the sleigh and the reindeer and the elves and the arctic headquarters—was originally single or, as Bowler puts it in his biography, a “well-to-do bachelor, master of his own spacious (albeit remote) country home with extensive holdings in the manufacturing and delivering industries.”
The idea that he has a bride—or even a sexual orientation, for that matter—doesn’t even enter the picture.
“It doesn’t really occur to anybody that he has any kind of anything yet,” Bowler said.
But then American writers started to marry him off.
A Christian missionary from Pennsylvania named James Rees is responsible for the first reported mention of Mrs. Claus in a work of fiction: an 1849 short story that, as writer Ken Zurski noted for the blog Unremembered History, simply references Santa Claus having a “wife” and does not do much more to define her character.
Subsequent poems and stories later that century and entering the next gave Santa’s spouse a bit more shape. But as Bowler details in his book, Mrs. Claus was often simply used as a cipher for long-running debates over marriage and gender relations, like the suffrage movement. (In one satirical play that Bowler uncovered from the early 1900s, she takes over Santa’s job—and botches it.)
The early 20th century is also a time when, as Bowler told The Daily Beast, the Industrial Revolution had essentially just given birth to modern upper-class domestic life, with its “more tender attitude toward child-rearing.”
A married Santa, Bowler believes, “fits in” with this gentler milieu.
It is also, I might add, the time period that historians of sexuality like Jonathan Ned Katz and Hanne Blank identify as the birthdate of the social and medical category of “heterosexuality,” which came into popular use largely due to the stigmatization of another new type of person that had just appeared in the psychiatric literature: the homosexual.
As Blank, author of Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, put it in an interview with Salon, this was the era when our modern-day cultural obsession with being sexually “normative” first began—when people first began to define themselves as not gay in order to “give themselves a valid identity in [the] new world order” that was forming around the turn of the century.
(A man in this era might subconsciously be thinking, as Blank ventriloquized in that interview, “I’m not a degenerate, I don’t want to sleep with other men, I am this thing over there that is normative and acceptable and good and not pathological and right, that’s what I am.”)
From a broad, historical perspective, it is perhaps not a coincidence that Mrs. Claus first appears—thereby making Santa both straight and domestic—during a time of social upheaval, when our present notions of family and sexuality were being formed.
Mrs. Claus might not be Santa’s beard, but she may be doing a certain sort of sanitizing cultural work for his once-wilder character. The old bachelor had to settle down.
And if Mrs. Claus is mostly a historically contingent accessory, then she might not be all that essential to the enduring Christmas imaginary. In fact, as Bowler noted, a certain red-nosed reindeer might have already surpassed her in terms of cultural significance.
“If we looked at the canon of Santa Claus, it remains pretty standardized,” Bowler said. “About the only thing that’s been added has been Rudolph. So there will be some attempts to portray Santa as with a wife, and some without. She’s an entirely optional figure in the history of Santa Claus.”
So why does the right-wing outrage machine that descended on Kibblesmith’s book—including outlets like Breitbart, The Blaze, and Newsbusters—feel such a strong need to defend Santa’s heterosexuality?
And why do some of his critics, as Kibblesmith noted on Twitter, appear to believe that Mrs. Claus looms larger than she does in history?
The answer, ironically, might lie in another favorite right-wing scapegoat: Hollywood.
It is the silver screen, as Bowler told The Daily Beast, that truly cemented our current image of Mrs. Claus, largely because filmmakers found the idea of a married Santa to be “irresistible.”
One of her most popular early appearances in visual media was the 1964 television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, in which she wears an apron, refers to her husband as “Papa,” and raises her hands in shock as Santa does important things like consulting the weather report.
“Usually, it’s a very domestic, heteronormative grandmotherly-grandfatherly kind of pair,” Bowler said. “Generally speaking, she’s very domestic and cookie-baking—and doesn’t take on managerial responsibilities.”
This special, which still airs annually on CBS, might be the most common way that people today encounter Mrs. Claus. (They’re probably not poring over 19th-century Santa poetry.) So when Kibblesmith encounters anti-LGBT critics who seem to think that he’s disrespecting history by displacing Mrs. Claus, he scratches his head.
“To me, it’s unclear whether they’re talking about Catholic history or Protestant history or American pop culture history or Coca-Cola advertising history,” he told The Daily Beast. “I think that one of the reasons we get responses like that so frequently is because people celebrate Christmas every year, so those traditions feel like they’re set in stone rather than something that’s constantly evolving.”
The Colbert writer was, of course, aware that the book would incite some controversy, although he and Quach worked hard to make sure it was not just a “trolling book,” but a sweet story in its own right.
He knows that homophobic critics who think “being gay is inherently wrong and inherently pornographic” will obviously fume at the idea that a children’s character like Santa is anything other than a strict Kinsey Zero.
But given Mrs. Claus’ relative immateriality, Kibblesmith believes that there’s nothing stopping him from rewriting Santa as a gay man. One historian, he told The Daily Beast, pointed out to him that “in a 132-page book we’ve written as much about Santa’s husband as has been written in over 100 years about Mrs. Claus.”
Bowler, who by now has three books on Christmas under his belt, says he sees a new gay Santa come along “every few years,”chuckling at the notion. His latest book, Christmas in the Crosshairs, explores how, as he describes it, “Christmas inevitably attracts cultural conflicts” just like this one. He takes no particular side on the matter but, as a longtime chronicler of Christmas, he does have an opinion about whether “gay Santa” could catch on.
“Believe me, it’s not going to be canonical,” Bowler told The Daily Beast. “It’s a provocative and one-off sort of thing.”
But even though Santa’s white husband might not find a lasting place in the Christmas canon, Mrs. Claus’ precarious position isn’t much more enviable. Indeed, sexual orientation has never been the most vital piece of information about the beloved chimney-sliding globetrotter.
Gay or straight, single or married, the most important thing about Santa isn’t whether he likes women or men, but that he brings presents to girls and boys.