The long white beard shown here on "Santa" was once the tail of a Himalayan yak. Yak tails were once a staple trade item in the Himalayas, especially from Tibet. Walter Koelz collected the one pictured here during his University of Michigan Himalayan Expedition (1932–1934), when he traveled through the Himalayan regions of northern India and western Tibet collecting Tibetan material culture for the University’s Museum of Anthropology (now the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology).
At the time, yak tails were brought by nomads to trade centers in Tibet. From there, the tails, along with sheep wool, were taken on a month-long journey by mule caravan down the mountains to India or China. Tails can be black, white, or gray. The white ones are rare and in high demand, thus they fetch a higher price than the other colors.
Yak tails have been used for centuries to decorate hats of nobility and royalty. They have also been used as fly whisks; as implements in Hindu, Jain, Taoist, and Buddhist rituals; and, once they reached the United States, as Santa Claus beards.
Yak tail hair is perfect for making wigs and beards. It is waterproof, it can be combed, and it holds a nice curl. In post-war America, these tails were the go-to material for Santa beards. However, after the 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution, the United States imposed a trade embargo on Chinese goods. This embargo included yak tails after China seized control of Tibet in 1950. Although it is nearly impossible to determine from which geo-political region a particular yak tail is from (they could also be from Bhutan, Nepal, or India), these items were affected by international trade disputes. Although the trade routes continued to operate after 1949, the price of tails in the United States jumped. In a 1947 New Yorker article, wigmaker Aaron Zauder said that the price of yak hair jumped from $1.50 per pound before the war to $16 per pound. As one might imagine, this had a tremendous impact on the Santa Claus beard industry. The article goes on to say, “Mr. Zauder’s frustration started months ago, when some shipments he did get from the interior of China turned out to be not yak-tail hair but yak-mane hair, which is nowhere near as coarse or crimpy.”
Happy Holidays from the staff at the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology.
Crisis. 1947. The New Yorker. 20 December: 20–21. (http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=1947-12-20#folio=020)
Hanel, Marnie. 2013. Sketch to Still: Creating The Hobbit’s Oscar-Nominated Yak Beards, Hand-Painted Blood Vessels, and Glowing Elf-Skin Makeup. Vanity Fair, February 8 (https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2013/02/the-hobbit-oscar-yak-hair-beard), accessed 17 December 2018.
Harris, Tina. 2014. Yak Tails, Santa Claus, and Transnational Trade in the Himalayas. The Tibet Journal 39(1): 145–155.
Sinopoli, Carla M., and Walter Koelz. 2013. The Himalayan Journey of Walter N. Koelz: The University of Michigan Himalayan Expedition, 1932-1934. Anthropological Papers No. 98. Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.