Published December 6, 2012
It might be the defining characteristic of modern Christmas celebrations that we consider the televised Christmas special/movie as one of our most beloved traditions. For many people, it doesn’t feel like Christmas without the Grinch, a lamp that looks like a leg, a suicidal Jimmy Stewart, and the animated specials released during the 60s and 70s by Rankin-Bass. My personal favourite is “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town,” but a friend of mine suggested I take a look at this one because unlike almost all of the other Christmas specials, it’s Mrs. Claus that is the real hero.
I always found the characterization and concept of Mrs. Claus interesting. First off, it’s kind of funny that “Claus” is used as a last name, when “Santa Claus” literally just means “Saint Nicholas.” If anything, she should be Mrs. Kringle. Another interesting thing is that, although there is a strong consensus that Santa Claus is indeed married (the historical Saint Nicholas, being a priest, wasn’t), we know nothing about her, and she seems content to step back and let her more famous husband get all the attention. Even in the Toronto Santa Claus Parade, which is over 100 years old and originated the practice (take THAT, Macy’s) didn’t feature Mrs. Claus in the parade until only last year. Doesn’t really make sense, does it?
So “The Year Without A Santa Claus” is an interesting Christmas special just because Mrs. Claus is basically the main character in it. The only other Christmas special I know of where Mrs. Claus is a significant character is “A Chipmunk Christmas” from 1981. (She was played by June Foray there, and may that woman live forever) It’s one of the few Rankin-Bass specials I didn’t grow up with, so I have the unusual ability to look at this without wearing the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia. It’s by no means feminist, but it just comes so close to getting there that it’s worth discussing.
Santa Claus seems to be a ridiculous bumbler in this special, compared to his highly capable wife. It’s kind of a variation on the “dumb husband, smart wife” stereotype that is constantly used in commercials and sitcoms. I found it kind of ridiculous that Santa immediately bought into the cynical rants of one grouchy doctor when he, more than anyone else who has ever lived, would know whether people have the Christmas spirit and goodwill or not.
I have to wonder what Mrs. Claus spends her time doing. We see her doing domestic chores like laundry (inexplicably hanging it outside in, you know, the North Pole), ironing, and caring for her husband. Does she assist the elves in toy making? Does she care for the reindeer? Assuming she shares her husband’s magical immortality, she probably has other magic abilities too. And if this is a semi-sequel to “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” (as Mickey Rooney plays Santa in both), Mrs. Claus was a former teacher, and thus wouldn’t be entirely happy just devoting herself to domestic tasks.
When Santa decides that he’s going to skip giving out the presents this year, Mrs. Claus sings a song about her plans to fill in for him. She then immediately gives up these plans when the elves Jingle and Jangle recognize her. This makes absolutely zero sense. #1, she wasn’t wearing a beard or anything, just the suit, so of COURSE she was recognized, #2, Jingle and Jangle already know her, but nobody outside of the North Pole does, and #3, nobody sees Santa while he’s doing his work anyway (or at least they’re not supposed to – this film has Santa appearing to practically everyone) so what does it matter whether she looks like Santa or not? This was throwing away a perfectly good idea. Why can’t Mrs. Claus fill in for him? Why must it be Santa or no one? Can we say…patriarchy, boys and girls?
While Santa gripes about his illness and revels in disappointing the children (what the hell, Santa) Mrs. Claus is the one who comes up with all the ideas to change his mind. Sending Jingle and Jangle (riding on Vixen) out into the world to find evidence of goodwill and Christmas spirit, she shows that she understands the people better than Santa does. And that Santa is more likely to believe a grumpy doctor than his own wife. Once again, what the hell, Santa.
When Jingle and Jangle run into a problem (the mayor of Southtown, where they have landed, promises to encourage the world to show Christmas spirit if they can make the area snowy) it’s not Santa they turn to, it’s Mrs. Claus. And boy, does she come through. Jingle and Jangle aren’t terribly smart apparently. They have physically met the Snow Miser, but don’t think that maaaaybe the Snow Miser can, I don’t know, make things SNOW? Fortunately, Mrs. Claus seems to be the only person in the North Pole who isn’t a colossal idiot.
Snow Miser and Heat Miser are the two things people remember most about this special. They’re not evil, but they are jerks, and Mrs. Claus has incredible patience for putting up with their antics. I’m actually shocked she didn’t even object when the Heat Miser demanded that the North Pole be added to his territory. Lady, you live there, don’t you think you have the right to speak up a little? Maybe it’s Mrs. Claus who should be the saint. She just seems to be endlessly willing to go along with the Misers’ demands just so one jerkass mayor can have a White Christmas.
But she is at least resourceful and clever enough to realize that the Misers are unreasonable, and that she has to appeal to a higher authority – their mother, Mother Nature. She makes a big fuss about how nervous she is to visit her, as they’ve never met before…and then Mother Nature just turns out to be a powerful but kind and feminine older lady. Kind of an anticlimax, really. I was hoping for the female version of the Winter Warlock. It’s a shame Mrs. Claus and Mother Nature only discussed her sons, as we could have had a Bechdel Test pass here. Maybe Mrs. Claus will visit her more often now that she knows there’s no need to be intimidated.
The Misers’ fear of their mother is interesting, to say the least. She appears to be a very traditional type of woman in Victorian clothing, serving tea and chatting amiably with Mrs. Claus and her friends. Is their fear a subtextual message to the audience not to underestimate the power of women? Or is it just a comedic bit making light of the Misers’ emasculation? It all depends on your interpretation.
The film’s biggest failure is that it doesn’t celebrate Mrs. Claus nearly as much as it should. It was she who came up with the solutions for every problem, but as soon as Santa decides that he doesn’t want to be a jerk after all, the film is all YAY SANTA IS BACK! No thank you to Mrs. Claus for actually encouraging and helping her husband to be the man everyone expects him to be? The film even seems to give more credit to the children sending weepy letters to him. Yeah, that was cute, but…c’mon. Give the old lady her dues.