"What if we've got the Santa story a bit wrong?": Sibéal Pounder on the girls who invented Christmas
Published on: 10 December 2020
Why should Santa Claus get all the credit? Tinsel author Sibéal Pounder explains why she wanted to write a story about the amazing women who make Christmas magical.
The mysterious Mrs Claus
Mrs Claus has always fascinated me. Everyone knows who she is and yet no one really knows her at all. If you ask someone to tell you a fact about Santa, they’ll have facts coming out of their ears – everything from his impressive skillset to his snack preferences. Mrs Claus is usually met with, ‘Um, she’s Santa’s wife.’ And, ‘She’s old.’
When I was little, the general consensus seemed to be that Mrs Claus was responsible for cooking food for Santa and the many elves. Thousands and thousands of elves. I did the sums: there are 1,440 minutes in a day, so with a cooking time of 30 minutes and space in the oven for 20 mince pies at a time, that allows for 48 batches in 24 hours, which gives 960 elves a mince pie, or 959 if Santa wants one too (which according to the stories he definitely does). So that means either Mrs Claus is a woman with many, many ovens, or she spends all day and night making mince pies for not even every elf in the place (assuming there are at least 1,000 elves to make the presents for every child in the world). This seems highly far-fetched to me and I’d argue it’s much more likely the North Pole is filled with thousands of tiny elf ovens and the elves do most of that themselves.
We don’t even know her first name! That’s another thing. She’s called all sorts in stories. According to the internet, she might be called Anya, Martha, Holly…
We know more about the reindeer and the politics of their herd than we know about her (the other reindeer intensely dislike Rudolph because they’re superficial and his nose is a luminous red colour. But the nose gives him an edge in the workplace and now he’s their boss so they have to sing things like “you’ll go down in history!” so he doesn’t fire them).
The only conclusive information we have about Mrs Claus is… she’s Santa’s wife.
Bringing Blanche to life
What we know about Santa (the commercial version of him – the large jolly man in the red suit, with the sleigh and elves) was discovered mostly in the Victorian era and many of the details are attributed to Thomas Nast, including the introduction of Mrs Claus. It got me thinking about how women were seen back then and how in many ways Mrs Claus is a relic of those times – a mere background character, known and yet completely unknown, in a world that didn’t imagine much of women. It makes perfect sense that when the Victorians saw a figure flying through the sky they assumed it was a man. Women weren’t even allowed to be carters on the ground in London back then, so to look up and imagine a woman flying a sleigh would be quite a leap.
Once I realised who had formed her, the whole Santa story unravelled and in its place was an alternative version that made complete sense. I could imagine this “Mrs Claus” character when she was a young girl – her name is actually Blanche Claus and we’ve kept her in the background for over a hundred years. But not anymore!
I wanted to bring back some other Christmas characters too and give them different roles. Santa features in equally loveable form. And then there’s the evil Christmas Krampus, only he’s not a devil but a real man – a wealthy and powerful one who tangles himself in the story just because he can. I toyed with the idea of making him a supernatural being, but there is something much more terrifying about a person determined to do bad things, walking amongst us in a world built to protect him. His cane forks at the top, making two horns – a very obvious reference to his original form in the stories of the past.
Blanche and her best friend Rinki take centre stage, while the other two main women in the story (if you don’t count Carol the elf) are by contrast somewhat mysterious and nameless. There is the old woman with the bauble and Cook. We never know their names and that is deliberate – they represent the women of the past who lived in the background of stories, but quietly passed on their wisdom and power and let it snowball through time. Both characters pass on something important. The old woman gives Blanche the bauble, and with it the power to see the possibilities in the world – showing her that adventures and friends are out there, even when it doesn’t feel like it. And Cook gives Rinki the recipe for the Brussels sprout brew, which is key to protecting them from Mr Krampus. The recipe book for the brew itself was passed down to Cook and is rumoured to link all the back to the Italian Christmas witch Befana.
The women who built bridges
I also had fun putting in some real historical references, like the bridge that Blanche sleeps under. Although I don’t reference it by name, there is a clue at the end of the book and anyone who spots it will know that I am talking about Waterloo Bridge, which is sometimes called The Ladies’ Bridge. Many years after Blanche is gone, the bridge is taken down and rebuilt – and it is rebuilt by women.
That’s a true story. Waterloo Bridge was taken down and rebuilt by women, though in the opening ceremony to mark the new construction in 1945, it was declared, “the men that built Waterloo Bridge are fortunate men.” Little documentation existed to prove women had worked on it, and so for many years it was considered only a rumour. Five years ago, however, a historian named Christine Wall set about trying to prove the rumour was true. After much digging, she uncovered a series of photos taken by the The Daily Herald newspaper showing women welders hard at work on Waterloo Bridge. The true history has now been officially acknowledged in the records and women have been put back in the story, where they belong.