Bra Burning Santa

By

Bra Burning Santa

Who would have thought that Thanksgiving, 1971, would lead me into an adventure that would give me the title of “The Country’s First Female Santa Claus,” with national publicity to boot! Headlines from major newspapers read “Santa Girl,” “Santa by Day, Beauty Queen by Night” and the one I hated most, “Bra Burning Santa!”

As student at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina, I lived at home with my parents and had a part-time job working in the ladies clothing section at Treasure City Department Store, a one-stop shop for any item you needed for home, garden and personal needs. This was long before Wal-Mart.

Thanksgiving was their biggest shopping day of the year. First of all, nothing else was open in Florence on this gluttonous holiday and, most importantly, Santa Claus arrived by parachute, rain or shine, and landed on the roof with thousands of screaming kids packed like sardines in the parking lot anxious to enter the store and sit on his lap.

This was tradition. However, the Santa that dropped from the sky was a professional paratrooper, while the lap Santa was a store employee seated in a red velvet chair ready for the doors to swing open to begin the most chaotic day of the year. Well, that’s what was supposed to happen, but not this year.

One hour to countdown and no inside Santa.

The manager, Mr. Atlas, was in a panic as phone calls to Santa’s home were going unanswered. Then, with thirty minutes left before the big event, the middle-aged male employee arrives, looking disheveled and reeking of alcohol only to make it into the stock room turned dressing room, and passes out.

Mass hysteria from the management sent shock waves throughout the yet-to-open store. Who could play Santa? There were only two male employees, one being the manager and the other a crotchety old man who worked in hardware. So, being the bold, brazen teenager that I was, I went straight to Mr. Atlas’ office and suggested I could do the Santa role for this day. He said, “No way. Santa is a man.”

“Yes, that is true, but as a cheerleader at FMU I have learned to talk really deep,” as I proceeded to demonstrate with a bass “Ho, Ho, Ho!” “Besides,” I continued in my lowest voice, “You are desperate!”

Next thing I know he sends me to the stock room and asked one of my associates to get some cotton batting from the fabric and notions department to fatten me up. Some one else was sent to the hosiery department to fetch a pair of ladies stockings to put on my head to hide my hair, and a pair of men’s black boots were stuffed with toilet paper until they were comfortable enough for me to wear. I was starting to feel the heat as the cotton securely wrapped around my middle had me sweating bullets, and I did not even have the Santa suit on yet. What had I gotten myself into?

The Christmas bells began to ring signaling the kickoff of the holiday season, and the opening of the doors led shoppers and the media on a red-carpeted pathway to Santa. Yes, I admit I was a little bit nervous with the store’s reputation resting on me, but after fooling several kids with my magical disguise, I was on a roll. Dealing with the kids was a cinch. Trying to tinkle during my ten-hour work-shift and fit my bigger than normal butt into the ladies room stall was the biggest problem. Don’t laugh! When I took off my belt and dropped my pants all the cotton from my upper half fell into the toilet causing me to re-stuff all over again.

This was more exhausting and challenging than I’d ever dreamed, but it was also an incredible “high” for me, because it was the most successful promotion in the history of the store. Not only did they keep me on as Santa for the entire season, they doubled my salary to come back the following year. But, I am getting ahead of the story.

I’m sure you’re wondering if anyone surmised I was a woman. Of course the parents did, and when some of the older kids looked skeptical, I would whisper to them that Santa was sick today and asked me to fill in, but made them promise to keep the secret. They thought that was cool. Most of the younger kids didn’t know any better.

Two days after Thanksgiving, the Florence Morning News broke the story with the headline, “Florence’s First Woman Santa,” accompanied by a photo of me as Santa Claus, along with a picture of me in a swim-suit taken at the Miss Florence Pageant a few months earlier, but that’s where the confusion began. The Associated Press International picked up the story the next day and articles appeared all over the country with warped headlines like “ Ho, Ho, Hot Santa” as seen on the front page of the Anchorage Times, and this one, “Sex Change Santa,” from some daily publication in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Yet, the headline that was used most often, and the one I hated most was “Bra Burning Santa.”

It’s kind of like that game of “Telephone-Tell a Friend,” where one person whispers to the next and by the time the story gets back to the first person, it is a totally different account. Keep in mind this was 1971, and some thought this pageant-girl turned Santa was a women’s lib stunt, hence the “Bra-Burner” headline that caught on nationally. Anyone who knows me is smart enough to know that I never thought of burning my bra then, nor would I be able to now without a huge case of midriff bulge, if you get the ugly picture. But this sold newspapers.

My instant celebrity status got me marriage proposals, letters from men behind bars and, yes, even an offer from Playboy, which my mother and I thought was a joke, but found it to be embarrassingly legitimate. Yes, I turned it down and never looked back. Hey, I was the President of the South Carolina Catholic Youth Organization for goodness sakes. What would the Pope think?

The saddest part of the job was the many children who asked me to bring their daddies home from Viet Nam. As tears filled my eyes, all I could say to them was that their fathers were protecting our country, and they should be very proud of the job they are doing. Then I’d hug them and start in on the toy conversation, never promising delivery, just looking for suggestions to curtail any possible disappointment for the kids whose parents just could not afford to produce the entire wish list.

Being Santa Claus was one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever had, but it was a grueling four weeks. I loved the mission, but the beard gave me a rash, the mustache chapped my lips, I got a bladder infection from not tinkling as often as I needed, and the suit was so heavy and hot that the sweating enabled me to loose sixteen pounds! Halleluiah – faster than Weight Watchers!

The boss loved me. Not only had I saved his butt, but the store received national publicity, crowds of unbelievable proportions, the biggest sales volume in the history of the store and even created a new phenomenon in the pet department, as I recommended that the kids buy rabbit pellets to feed the reindeer. Obviously, I was offered the job though eternity, but only continued one more Christmas.

So while most of you face the holidays with cravings of your grandmother’s fruitcake or your mom’s gingerbread or reminisce about the good ole days of live trees and silver tinsel, I get a little twinkle in my eye every Christmas as I fondly recall my notorious past, when I brightened the hearts of children as the nation’s “Bra Burning Santa.”

About this writer

  • Who would have thought that Thanksgiving, 1971, would lead me into an adventure that would give me the title of “The Country’s First Female Santa Claus,” with national publicity to boot! Headlines from major newspapers read “Santa Girl,” “Santa by Day, Beauty Queen by Night” and the one I hated most, “Bra Burning Santa!”

    As student at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina, I lived at home with my parents and had a part-time job working in the ladies clothing section at Treasure City Department Store, a one-stop shop for any item you needed for home, garden and personal needs. This was long before Wal-Mart.

    Thanksgiving was their biggest shopping day of the year. First of all, nothing else was open in Florence on this gluttonous holiday and, most importantly, Santa Claus arrived by parachute, rain or shine, and landed on the roof with thousands of screaming kids packed like sardines in the parking lot anxious to enter the store and sit on his lap.

    This was tradition. However, the Santa that dropped from the sky was a professional paratrooper, while the lap Santa was a store employee seated in a red velvet chair ready for the doors to swing open to begin the most chaotic day of the year. Well, that’s what was supposed to happen, but not this year.

    One hour to countdown and no inside Santa.

    The manager, Mr. Atlas, was in a panic as phone calls to Santa’s home were going unanswered. Then, with thirty minutes left before the big event, the middle-aged male employee arrives, looking disheveled and reeking of alcohol only to make it into the stock room turned dressing room, and passes out.

    Mass hysteria from the management sent shock waves throughout the yet-to-open store. Who could play Santa? There were only two male employees, one being the manager and the other a crotchety old man who worked in hardware. So, being the bold, brazen teenager that I was, I went straight to Mr. Atlas’ office and suggested I could do the Santa role for this day. He said, “No way. Santa is a man.”

    “Yes, that is true, but as a cheerleader at FMU I have learned to talk really deep,” as I proceeded to demonstrate with a bass “Ho, Ho, Ho!” “Besides,” I continued in my lowest voice, “You are desperate!”

    Next thing I know he sends me to the stock room and asked one of my associates to get some cotton batting from the fabric and notions department to fatten me up. Some one else was sent to the hosiery department to fetch a pair of ladies stockings to put on my head to hide my hair, and a pair of men’s black boots were stuffed with toilet paper until they were comfortable enough for me to wear. I was starting to feel the heat as the cotton securely wrapped around my middle had me sweating bullets, and I did not even have the Santa suit on yet. What had I gotten myself into?

    The Christmas bells began to ring signaling the kickoff of the holiday season, and the opening of the doors led shoppers and the media on a red-carpeted pathway to Santa. Yes, I admit I was a little bit nervous with the store’s reputation resting on me, but after fooling several kids with my magical disguise, I was on a roll. Dealing with the kids was a cinch. Trying to tinkle during my ten-hour work-shift and fit my bigger than normal butt into the ladies room stall was the biggest problem. Don’t laugh! When I took off my belt and dropped my pants all the cotton from my upper half fell into the toilet causing me to re-stuff all over again.

    This was more exhausting and challenging than I’d ever dreamed, but it was also an incredible “high” for me, because it was the most successful promotion in the history of the store. Not only did they keep me on as Santa for the entire season, they doubled my salary to come back the following year. But, I am getting ahead of the story.

    I’m sure you’re wondering if anyone surmised I was a woman. Of course the parents did, and when some of the older kids looked skeptical, I would whisper to them that Santa was sick today and asked me to fill in, but made them promise to keep the secret. They thought that was cool. Most of the younger kids didn’t know any better.

    Two days after Thanksgiving, the Florence Morning News broke the story with the headline, “Florence’s First Woman Santa,” accompanied by a photo of me as Santa Claus, along with a picture of me in a swim-suit taken at the Miss Florence Pageant a few months earlier, but that’s where the confusion began. The Associated Press International picked up the story the next day and articles appeared all over the country with warped headlines like “ Ho, Ho, Hot Santa” as seen on the front page of the Anchorage Times, and this one, “Sex Change Santa,” from some daily publication in Las Vegas, Nevada.

    Yet, the headline that was used most often, and the one I hated most was “Bra Burning Santa.”

    It’s kind of like that game of “Telephone-Tell a Friend,” where one person whispers to the next and by the time the story gets back to the first person, it is a totally different account. Keep in mind this was 1971, and some thought this pageant-girl turned Santa was a women’s lib stunt, hence the “Bra-Burner” headline that caught on nationally. Anyone who knows me is smart enough to know that I never thought of burning my bra then, nor would I be able to now without a huge case of midriff bulge, if you get the ugly picture. But this sold newspapers.

    My instant celebrity status got me marriage proposals, letters from men behind bars and, yes, even an offer from Playboy, which my mother and I thought was a joke, but found it to be embarrassingly legitimate. Yes, I turned it down and never looked back. Hey, I was the President of the South Carolina Catholic Youth Organization for goodness sakes. What would the Pope think?

    The saddest part of the job was the many children who asked me to bring their daddies home from Viet Nam. As tears filled my eyes, all I could say to them was that their fathers were protecting our country, and they should be very proud of the job they are doing. Then I’d hug them and start in on the toy conversation, never promising delivery, just looking for suggestions to curtail any possible disappointment for the kids whose parents just could not afford to produce the entire wish list.

    Being Santa Claus was one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever had, but it was a grueling four weeks. I loved the mission, but the beard gave me a rash, the mustache chapped my lips, I got a bladder infection from not tinkling as often as I needed, and the suit was so heavy and hot that the sweating enabled me to loose sixteen pounds! Halleluiah – faster than Weight Watchers!

    The boss loved me. Not only had I saved his butt, but the store received national publicity, crowds of unbelievable proportions, the biggest sales volume in the history of the store and even created a new phenomenon in the pet department, as I recommended that the kids buy rabbit pellets to feed the reindeer. Obviously, I was offered the job though eternity, but only continued one more Christmas.

    So while most of you face the holidays with cravings of your grandmother’s fruitcake or your mom’s gingerbread or reminisce about the good ole days of live trees and silver tinsel, I get a little twinkle in my eye every Christmas as I fondly recall my notorious past, when I brightened the hearts of children as the nation’s “Bra Burning Santa.”

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