The “lady Santa” controversy of 1979

Many shoppers at Scarborough’s Morningside Mall were shocked to discover that its Santa was a woman. And many Ontarians were appalled when she was fired
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on December 20, 2018
a newspaper article from 1976
Headline from the December 12, 1979 edition of the Scarborough Mirror. Photo appeared in the December 25, 1979, edition of the Globe and Mail, above the headline “Yes, folks, there really is a lady Santa — again.”

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Take a 20-year-old drama student. Add body stuffing, a pair of size-13 boots, a set of hockey pads, and a splash of aftershave. Hide their face under bushy white eyebrows, a beard, and a wig. The result? A shopping-mall Santa with the physical energy and creative mind to handle any kid sitting on their lap.

But the approach did not go down well with store managers and several customers at Scarborough’s Morningside Mall 40 years ago — not because of the Santa’s age or lack of experience, but because their real name was Nancy Fulford. Santa should not be a she, critics complained, and after only two days of listening to children’s wishes, Fulford was sacked.

Fulford had beat out two men for the job. Although the mall’s manager was skeptical that she could pull it off, she was given a four-week contract in mid-November 1979. “I think I made a very good Santa but I didn’t happen to be a man,” she told the Toronto Star. “I think for the most part the kids and parents couldn’t tell. I even had some middle-aged women flirting with me. If children are fooled by a false beard, red suit, a story about an arrival from the North Pole via reindeer, then they’ll be fooled by Santa’s sex.” When a boy noticed her skinny wrists and asked whether she was a woman, Fulford explained that, to avoid looking “like a blubbery whale on the beach” during a post-holiday trip to Florida, she’d been “avoiding Mrs. Claus’s cookies and trying to thin down.”

Some mall merchants, though, were horrified by Fulford’s presence, saying that customers had complained that a female Santa was disgusting and destroyed the myth for youngsters. A number of parents decided that they would have to go elsewhere for their festive cheer. “Santa has to be a man,” one parent told the Globe and Mail. “You don’t play around with such ideas with a child — that’s low.”

After two days, mall management fired Fulford over the phone. She recommended that her younger brother replace her. After she filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission on November 28 alleging gender discrimination, though, her brother was also fired. (He was told that he’d been dismissed because he refused to wear a full costume — but he had, in fact, used the same kind of padding his sister had worn.)

When Fulford’s story hit the press in early December, she wasn’t the only Canadian female mall Santa making headlines for having been fired. In Edmonton, 52-year-old Pauline Hennigan had been axed after merchants complained. Hennigan had not pretended to be a male Santa: she’d worn the full traditional costume but hadn’t added a beard. After she threatened to file a human-rights complaint and the mall received hundreds of supportive telephone calls, Hennigan was rehired a day after her dismissal. To please everyone, the mall then also hired a male Santa.

While Fulford wasn’t rehired, she did have her defenders. The Globe and Mail ran a number of supportive letters, including this one from East York resident Terence Stortz: “Congratulations to the store owners at the Morningside Mall. Everyone must do his part to pass along our society’s rich heritage of sex bias. Santa Claus is for children, and if the kids accept Nancy Fulford as Santa, who can argue? Santa Claus isn’t male or female, black, white or Oriental. Santa is a spirit that embodies part of the magic of Christmas — and has been long before the department stories and shopping centres got a hold of him (her).”

Other letters noted the history of gender-blind casting for Shakespeare and Peter Pan and wondered what had happened to people’s sense of imagination. As for the parental complaints, a Globe and Mail editorial declared, “And a ho, ho, ho to you too.”

Just before Christmas, Fulford was hired to play Santa at Mr. Gameways’ Ark, a Yonge Street toy store. She didn’t wear a beard, a wig, or padding as she greeted customers and handed out candy canes — and the response was generally positive. “Some of the children seem a bit bemused, but there hasn’t been one complaint about my sex,” she told the Globe and Mail. “Most people seem to think it’s funny.”

“It’s the principle of the thing that’s important,” said store promotion manager Ron Pappin. “Santa Claus is an ideal, not a stereotype. And the ideal transcends any conflict of the sexes.”

Fulford’s human-rights complaint was resolved in late January 1980, and she received $500 from Morningside Mall’s owners (the mall’s lawyer claimed that they had settled for “pragmatic reasons”). When the Globe and Mail tracked her down in 1987, she was playing Mother Christmas for children at a YMCA in her new home of Wellington, New Zealand. (The character, she said, shows “that a woman can be magical and mystical too.”) Fulford joked that “the kids will probably grow up thinking that anybody who comes from the North Pole has a Canadian accent.”

Sources: the December 7, 1979, December 10, 1979, December 11, 1979, December 15, 1979, December 18, 1979, December 25, 1979, January 31, 1980, and December 24, 1987, editions of the Globe and Mail; the December 12, 1979, edition of the Scarborough Mirror; the December 7, 1979, edition of the Toronto Star; and the December 9, 1979, edition of the Toronto Sun.

Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer/researcher specializing in historical and contemporary civic matters. 

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