Katharine Lee Bates was a popular American poet and songwriter who will forever have a place in the hearts of all Americans. She wrote a poem which was set to music and it became one of her country’s favourite anthems – America The Beautiful. Perhaps her second most famous piece of work added to the legend of Santa Claus by giving the fabled old man a wife who actually accompanies him on his Christmas Eve delivery rides. In her poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride, written in 1889, “Mrs Claus” is the Goody of the title (a shortened form of “Good wife”). Here she takes responsibility for the sleigh and the reindeer while her husband makes his deliveries via the chimneys. The story goes that on one occasion she was actually allowed to descend a chimney herself to spread her own bit of Christmas magic. Having filled a child’s Christmas stocking she thus declares herself the “gladdest of the glad” because her husband has allowed her to exercise “her own sweet will”.
Katherine Lee Bates was born in August 1859 in the Massachusetts town of Falmouth. Her father was a Congregational minister and she received a good education at Wellesley’s High School, and then it’s College, where she gained a Bachelors’ degree at the age of 21. Further studies followed at Oxford University and then another spell at Wellesley to get her MA.
She soon realised that she had a talent for writing poetry, children’s books and travel guides. Her collection in 1889 called Sunshine and other Verses for Children included the above mentioned poem about Santa’s wife. She occasionally wrote under the pseudonym James Lincoln when writing in various periodicals, such as Christian Century and the Boston Evening Transcript. Besides writing though she filled a number of teaching post and eventually rose to the level of professor of English literature.
Politically, she was a self-declared Republican and yet, in 1924, she supported the Democratic candidate for the Presidency. This was in protest against her country’s involvement in the League of Nations. Her busy life in literature and politics left no room for marriage and she once gave a witty retort to the idea that “free-flying spinsters were the fringe on the garment of life”. Bates dismissed this slur on her marital status with:
She did, however, live with a fellow teacher, a woman called Katharine Coman, for 25 years and many reports have described this as a lesbian relationship. Others called the relationship a “Boston marriage” which was “deeply intellectual” in which the pair “fostered verbal and physical expressions of love.”
Katharine Lee Bates will be best remembered though for the inspirational American anthem America the Beautiful which she wrote in 1893 having been inspired by the magnificent views from Pikes Peak in Colorado. She said:
Her words were set to music most famously by Samuel A. Ward and have been sung with great patriotic fervour ever since. Here are the first and last verses:
Katharine Lee Bates died on the 28th March 1929, aged 69.