One evening this month I sat down to read a Christmas picture book with two of my daughters. “Way up North in the land of ice and snow stands a cozy little house. And beside the front door hangs a neat little sign. S. Claus, says the sign. Because that is who lives there—Santa Claus. Mrs. Santa Claus lives there, too, of course. She keeps house for Santa Claus, and for all the elves who work in Santa’s toy shop.”
The cacophony of sexist words pounded against my head and my heart. The image of a little old woman tending Santa’s house, cleaning up after his elves, endlessly, endlessly making cookies was enough to drain the energy from my body. What did Mrs. Claus ever do to inherit an eternal identity as the nameless cleaner and baker for Santa’s busy household? I say nameless, because that is what was on my mind that particular day. Mrs. Santa Claus…it isn’t so much a name, as it is a title that causes this mythical female character to be subsumed by her husband’s identity. We know her not by who she is, but by whom she is married to. Mrs. Santa Clause. Who is she?
The reason this was on my mind is because I had been reading earlier in the day from a book called “The Creation of Patriarchy” by Gerda Lerner. Yes, my husband rolled his eyes when he heard me teaching my daughters about the creation of patriarchy in the middle of reading them a children’s picture book. “…the divine breath creates, but human naming gives meaning and order….name-giving is a powerful activity, a symbol of sovereignty. In Biblical times, in line with Oriental tradition, it also had a magical quality, giving meaning and predicting the future.” Pg. 181-182
Power lies in the ability to name things. It creates order and meaning in the world around us. When you really think about the power that comes from a name, it makes sense. I thought about how my husband and I had agonized over what to name our children. I thought about how much meaning each name had for us. “No, we can’t name her that because a girl I hated in second grade had that name.” “I don’t like that name because it reminds me of this or that.” Once the name was given, the name became synonymous with the life that embodied it. I remember holding my last newborn baby in my arms, envisioning the life contained in her tiny little body, and whispering her name, the beautiful word that would define her entire existence. What power there was between us, the namer and the named!
As her individual life took root and began to sprout, she started to recognize her own name. Her name gave her a sense of identity, separating everything that makes her who she is from everything and everyone else. I loved to hear the first vocalizations that she made of her own name. Now as a two-year-old, she speaks about herself in third person with great pride. She points to pictures and lovingly says, “That’s my Annie baby!” It’s amazing that a whole, complex life can be contained in one small name.
If so much power lies in a name, then the opposite must be true of a nameless entity. How does it feel when you walk through a cemetery and see a small tombstone that simply says, “Baby Girl”? How does it feel to sit in the temple with a name card that says, “Mrs. Anderson,” or “Mrs. Anderson’s daughter”? I always feel sad when I don’t have a full name to think about. That’s also how I have felt when I’ve heard other people say lately, “Who cares if we don’t know the names of Joseph Smith’s wives?”
As I thought about all of these things, I realized that when I was little, I did not have a conscious understanding of who Mrs. Claus was. Her identity was buried beneath the flamboyantly altruistic character of her husband, Santa Claus, St. Nicolas, Kris Kringle. I want my daughters to grow up with a conscious understanding of the identity of all women, even our mythical characters. So I asked them if we should give Mrs. Claus a name. But how do you begin to give a name to someone you know nothing about. I felt that the power was beyond my capacity.
In my quick google search, I found only one reference to an actual name for Mrs. Claus, from the 1970 animated film “Santa Clause is Coming to Town.” Jessica, a teacher who meets a young man named Kris Kringle and falls in love.” Jessica Claus! How powerful is a simple name that gives her an identity outside of her male counterpart! As I read the picture book to my daughters now, replacing Mrs. Claus with Jessica, I could feel the power emanating from my spoken words. Just by giving Jessica Claus a name, I felt that I was empowering her to rise above her enslaved position of keeping Santa’s house, to fly side by side with Santa Claus as together they brought joy to all the little children of the world.
If feminine power can come from the simple act of naming this mythical character, how much power will we gain when every female, historical, mythological, and theological, has a name? This funny little experience with Jessica Claus reminded me of the increased power I felt when I started using the name of Heavenly Mother in my thoughts and spiritual practice. How sweet it was when I first discovered the beautiful name that describes the life, energy, and love that embodies her existence. Like the moment I held my infant in my arms and whispered her name, I also held the Mother Goddess in my heart, feeling her energy and loving power in my body, and whispered, Sophia, Goddess of Wisdom!
This is so true, Jenny! It reminds me of a favorite children’s book, The Night You Were Born, which says something like, “the sound of your name is a magical one, let’s say it out loud before we go on.” That’s such a great quote from Lerner’s book.
Maybe a linguistics person could explain this, but it’s almost like things don’t fully exist for humans until they are named. The first thing Adam did was name things, according to the creation story. I don’t know why we humans are this way, it’s a remarkable thing to consider.
My 4 yer old son recently encountered the concept of Mrs. Clause. His first question was what HER name was–Santa is his name, she can’t just be Santa’s Wife–what’s her name? And when I said I didn’t know what her name was, he instantly lost interest in her. She can’t be real or important if she doesn’t even have a name.
I’m a bit of a “Peanuts” fan and in the comics (and in the 1992 Charlie Brown Christmas movie), there is one story arc where Sally decides to write to Mrs. Claus and she asks Charlie Brown what her name is. He says that some people think her name is “Mary Christmas.” And she thinks that’s interesting. When she writes the letter, she starts it with, “Congratulations on deciding to keep your own name.” I LOVE that!
Ha ha! I love that! Mary Christmas.
I really love this. I’ve always been bothered by being referred to as “Mr. & Mrs. Husband’s Name,” and when you wrote “Jessica Claus” I suddenly had a much different view of what Santa’s wife would look like. She seems smart now! And strong! And like she probably has some snark. I love it. I’m going with Jessica Claus from now on.
The names of the righteous will be subsumed by the name of the Savior. And though it’s important to recognize and, indeed, rejoice in the names of all living (as did Adam), those who are bound and determined to stand on their name alone will forever be alone–single and separate.
” Behold all ye that kindle fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks, walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks which ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand—ye shall lie down in sorrow.”
I never thought that my identity was being subsumed by Christ when I took His name on me. I think Christ values our individuality because without it, we can’t build the Kingdom of God. We don’t replace our own names with Christ’s, we write His name on our hearts the way He has already written all of our names on His.
You’re right–Christ’s sacrifice was a manifestation of God’s boundless love for each and every one of His children. Salvation is for individuals. But even so, He invites us to come to
Him and be called by His name (as per King Benjamin) that we, as His children, may approach throne of God. There is no other Way.
Love these thoughts, Jenny. They remind me of a project I heard about a year or so ago — to give names to all the nameless women of the Bible. No longer is it “the woman with the issue of blood.” Her name became Veronica, etc. I love the idea of us giving ourselves the power of naming those that history/folklore/theology has rendered nameless.
That sounds like a really great project!
Interesting post and definitely something to think about but I’m surprised no one has offered this counterpoint:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Very true! But still, somehow in the nature of our humanity, we need a name for it in order for it to be real to us. If it wasn’t a rose, it would have to have another name.
I really like this perspective, Jenny, and I agree that naming clearly has power. This is probably obvious, but I wonder if part of it isn’t that naming conveys importance. You name the people (and things) that matter. When we say Joseph Smith had thirty-something wives, we don’t typically name them all (like you mentioned). When the Hebrew Bible says Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines, it doesn’t name them all. They’re only important in that they’re filling a role, so they can be simply numbered. So I think that’s at least part of the reason naming has power: it conveys that the individual matters, and isn’t just a number or a role.