Decked in red velvet, Darla Bicknell has spent this holiday season hightailing it around Dallas. She has made appearances at four country clubs, four preschools, three banks and three parades. On Dec. 23, she will attend a Dallas Cowboys game and then return home with the team's owner, Jerry Jones, to present his nine grandchildren with gifts.
It's the busiest time of the year for Dallas' pre-eminent Mrs. Claus. "I can't fulfill all the requests that come in," she says. "There's no way I can get to all the children that want a Mrs. Claus."
America's Santa industry has long been a male-dominated one. An estimated 5,000 professional performers break out their Santa caps each winter, headlining parades and tree lighting ceremonies. Many have attended Santa training schools, where they are taught to maintain their beards and project their "ho, ho, hos."
But, increasingly, Santa's better half is breaking loose. Holly Valent, the co-dean of the esteemed Charles W. Howard Santa School, says she saw a record-breaking 63 Mrs. Clauses enroll for this October. Independent female performers like Bicknell can now bring home more than $10,000 per season — a haul previously unheard of for the North Pole's First Lady.
Five years ago, "there was rarely a stand-alone opportunity for Mrs. Claus," says Stephen Arnold, president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas. "Mrs. Claus was just considered a trinket."
But times are changing up North. "It's not a good old boys' club anymore," says Arnold. Since the 2,000 members of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas voted to allow women in 2016, 200 Mrs. Clauses have joined. (Though, Arnold notes, Mr. Clauses must still must maintain authentic facial hair to enroll.)
Three years ago, the first holiday school exclusively for women was founded to take into account the growing crop of Christmas performers "who don't care how to whiten their beard," says Judith Broderick, who runs Santa Nana's Holiday University with fellow retiree Deanna Golden. Aspiring Mrs. Clauses are taught Christmas myths, marketing tricks and makeup tips for women over 50.
Golden says her pupils are all "equal opportunity joy-makers."
"We're not a prop, we're not an appendage to Santa," says Golden. "We don't have to fit the stereotype." The instructors say they've seen an increasing number of Mrs. Clauses ditch the character's signature mobcap and apron.
Freelance writer Ann Votaw bristles at the old-school depiction of Mrs. Claus as a supporting character, tending the reindeer that Santa gets to ride and baking the cookies that he gets to eat. Instead of making cookies solely for her husband, she says, her character cooks on an industrial scale.
"That was hard, at first — to grapple with her as just a cookie maker," says Votaw. "I've decided that she has an international baking company,"
Renate McIntosh prefers balloon-work to baking. She says there are gigs all over Smyrna, Del., for a solo Mrs. Claus who shows up bearing reindeer and sleighs made of balloons. What she can't find is an appropriate sleigh driver's license.
"I wanted something that said I could fly a sleigh, like a regular driver's license — but the ones I came across for Mrs. Claus had things like baking cookies and helping with the reindeer," says McIntosh. "It sounded like something from the 1950s." She plans to bring up the disparity at next year's Santa convention in Lancaster, Pa.
Rick Rosenthal, the dean of Atlanta's Northern Lights Santa Academy, says these are just the growing pains of a budding business.
"The Mrs. Claus industry is still the wild west," says Rosenthal. Performers are pondering whether her first name should be Molly or Mary, and businesses aren't sure what to pay her. Belinda Ellis, a top Mrs. Claus in Elk Grove, Calif., says she makes $125 to Santa's $200.
But Rosenthal predicts it will all work out for the long-neglected Claus. He points to entertainers like Dallas' Darla Bicknell, who just unrolled Christmas Eve "tuck-ins," 20-minute home visits during which Mrs. Claus can wish your child sweet dreams.
"As Mrs. Claus comes of age in American culture, she's going to be more valuable than Santa with ease," he says."She's got no limits."
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