December 05, 2010

Is Mrs. Claus a Wellesley Graduate?

Well, not quite.

But she was first mentioned by Katharine Lee Bates, a Massachusetts native and Wellesley professor, in the year 1889.

In her poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride Bates wrote,

Santa, must I tease in vain, Dear? Let me
go and hold the reindeer,
While you clamber down the chimneys.
Don't look savage as a Turk!
Why should you have all the glory of the
joyous Christmas story,
And poor little Goody Santa Claus have
nothing but the work?

Katharine Lee Bates is probably best known for writing America the Beautiful, but introducing Mrs. Claus is also an important accomplishment!

The term "goody" here is not Mrs. Claus's first name (that's unknown) but is short for "goodwife", an old New England term for a married woman. Perhaps Mrs. Claus was a native New Englander who later in life moved to the North Pole?

Katharine Lee Bates herself never legally married, but instead spent twenty-five years in a Boston marriage with Katharine Coman, a Wellesley professor of economics. The relationship only ended when Coman died in 1915.

"Boston marriage" is another interesting term, and was applied to two unmarried women who lived together for a long period of time. Were Bates and Coman lesbians in the modern sense of the word? Like Mrs. Claus's first name, we'll probably never know.

Finally, what about the phrase "savage as a Turk"? If you've ever met anyone from Turkey you'll know they're no more savage than anyone else, so what's up with Bates's Turkophobia?

I think in part it comes from 19th century ethnocentrism - I seriously doubt there were any Turkish students at Wellesley in 1889. The savage Turk image may also come from the old tradition of mummer's plays, which have been performed at Christmas in Britain for centuries and in New England during the 18th century. One of the main characters in these plays is the Turkish Knight, who slays Saint George. Happily, George is brought back to life and everyone (including the Turkish knight) sings, dances and gets drunk. I guess there are no hard feelings!

I got some of this information from Amy Whorf McGuiggan's Christmas in New England. The information about Bates's Boston marriage is from the History Project's Improper Bostonians.


Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

You can still see St. George at the Christmas revels! They've been performing the mummer's plays for 40 years in Boston. See for more information.

Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks for story, Peter! Interesting information, particularly about the 'Boston Marriage'.