Especially when Santa is being chased by Evil Santas who want to shut down his entire operation to make way for human corporations. (These days, almost everyone gets outsourced, even Santa.) So it’s not entirely surprising to hear that Santa—or at least, a Santa—has had a terrible accident, and is going to need some help from children if Christmas is going to be saved.
Author Cornelia Funke is probably best known to English-speaking readers as the author of the Inkheart trilogy. In 1994, she wrote Als der Weihnachtsmann von Himmel fiel, which, thanks to the success of the Inkheart translations, was translated into English by Oliver George Latsch and published by Scholastic in 2006 under the title of When Santa Fell to Earth. Two quick disclosures: one, I haven’t read any of Funke’s other works, and two, my German is non existent, so I can’t say anything about the accuracy or quality of the translation. I can, however, say that the English version is definitely amusing, and can provide very appropriate holiday bedtime reading.
The story starts in the middle of an action bit, with Santa—well, one of the Santas—falling to earth thanks to a major storm. (It’s not entirely clear if this storm is completely natural or just slightly magical). As Funke quickly explains, this particular Santa is Niklas Goodfellow, one of many Santas, but the only Santa still holding to traditional Santa Practices—working with angels and elves and making traditional Real Christmas Presents. The rest of the many, many Santas have decided to follow the lead of Gerold Geronium Goblynch, a former Santa Gone Very Bad Indeed. Santa has decided—gasp! to outsource the making of toys to humans and—gasp! gasp! turn reindeer into salami. (GULP).
In a touch that convinces me that Funke may possibly have seen The Nutcracker at far too young an age, Goblynch uses Evil Nutcrackers to enforce his deeds. If he catches Santas, and pulls off their boots, they will turn into chocolate, allowing their heads to be easily removed. (And making me just slightly suspicious of all of those chocolate Santas on sale this month, which may well have been Funke’s point.) Niklas is on the run, which is slightly tricky to do when you are a rather obvious Santa Claus, but then again, he does have a couple of angels and some elves to help him.
To hide from Evil Santa, Niklas has focused his true Santa efforts on neighborhoods where most Santas don’t go—neighborhoods that are too poor to enjoy major celebrations or have lots of toys. The accident, however, lands him in a considerably wealthier neighborhood than his usual haunts, streets where the children have plenty of toys. But in a nice touch that reminds children that just having things isn’t everything, Niklas finds two children in the neighborhood, Ben and Charlotte, who are pretty miserable anyway. Charlotte doesn’t have any friends, and Ben is doing very badly in school, even with cheating on his math homework, and is also not getting along very well with his parents, especially his father. It’s not that they are bad parents, exactly, but for the most part they have forgotten how to relate to their kid (and they aren’t thrilled about his math grades, either).
I fear many of Ben’s issues, in particular his “what, we have to go on a VACATION? YOU PEOPLE SUCK!” and “What, I HAVE TO PLAY WITH A GIRL????”, are not going to be resound well with adult readers, but his general loneliness—he seems to have only one friend, and is a target of teasing and bullying—does come across well, and helps make him somewhat more sympathetic, even if he did not exactly leap into my list of All Time Favorite Childhood heroes. Charlotte, although mostly seen through Ben’s eyes, and thus not all that well, comes across as considerably more likeable.
Anyway. The two children, naturally, find themselves having to help Santa—while getting just a little help for themselves. Ben, for instance, can temporarily solve a problem with a local bully if Santa makes it snow, which Santa can do, although it’s an arduous and, given the Evil Santa situation, dangerous task. This, rather less naturally, ends up including a hilarious journey via invisible reindeer through various Christmas store displays. I kinda wanted a follow-up to this scene; sure, the reindeer is invisible and magical, but the damage was quite, quite real, and yet somehow gets ignored later.
I suppose it stands out because the Santa worldbuilding is quite good, both working with the Santa legend and explaining the less explicable parts. For instance, how does Santa reach so many houses on Christmas Eve? Easy: multiple Santas, each assigned to a specific area. How does Santa fit so many toys into that sack? Easy: real Christmas presents (those made by elves, as opposed to ones you just buy at the store) shrink magically so they can fit into the sack, and grow once touched by a child. Or, as the end of the book reveals, a hopeful adult.
(But the chimney stuff? Just a legend. Santas are seriously allergic to smoke. And now you know.)
Funke throws in other delightful details throughout, for instance telling us that angels don’t like to wear coats with hoods because the hoods knock their halos off. (The two angels in this book are very practical. Also, excellent cooks.) And that Niklas has one genuine vice: coffee. (The angels are always getting after him about this.) The opening of Santa’s workshop has a magical feel. And since Goblynch, unlike Niklas, looks just like a real Santa (or, more specifically, like all of the fake Santas in shopping malls who look remarkably unlike poor martyred St. Nicholas), Funke is even able to sneak in a small lesson about not judging by appearances.
But that’s one of the few moral lessons in a Christmas book surprisingly lacking in other morals. Ben, for instance, cheats on his math homework, and not only does he get away with it, it improves his life. Getting angry also doesn’t lead to punishments; sticking up for himself (or, more specifically, for the little Christmasy glow things Niklas stuck on Ben’s tree) does. I’m not saying that a Christmas book has to have moral lessons, exactly. I just find it odd that this one doesn’t really have any, other than the general thought that believing in magic is a good thing.
I have to admit that I found my attention wandering more than once—and this is not a particularly long book. I’m somewhat troubled, too, by the last chapters, for a couple of reasons. First, [spoiler!] the big evil Santa has finally been defeated (and although he’s now made of quality chocolate, thankfully, nobody tries to eat him). But, and this is a big but, as far as we can tell, none of the characters, and specifically Niklas, the angels and the elves, bother to do anything to help the other Santas, at least some of whom were coerced into being Bad Santas. I get that Christmas is coming in just a few days and Niklas is in a bit of a rush, but, still.
The other bit is more troubling. Ben has spent much of the book quietly wishing that things were different at home. In the last few pages, after some magical gifts from Santa, things suddenly are—his father and mother are suddenly, Funke tells us, more like the children they used to be, eager to play with him and share in the magic of Christmas. This is all very nice and sweet.
But it’s not because the parents chose to be different—up until Santa’s arrival they are still grumpy and unintentionally unsympathetic. Nor is it because they have Learned the Error of Their Ways in classic A Christmas Carol style. Nor is it because Ben has changed, or learned how to talk to them. (Reading through the lines, it seems clear that Ben’s difficulties with self-expression—a problem he has with adults and kids his own age—have caused part of the problem.) No, it’s because Ben helped transform an Evil Santa into a Chocolate Santa and earned magic for his parents, which allows them to be magically transformed into nicer people.
I’m all about magic, really I am. And yes, I mostly think that Ben earned his magic. But something about this scene left me uneasy. Perhaps because Ben’s parents were never actively evil, and although they were depressed when their vacation was cancelled, they also didn’t seem to be actively looking for a change, either. It’s a classic child’s wish fulfillment, to change your parents into exactly who you wish they were, and yet somehow, something about these last few pages feel wrong.
Next time, back to Roald Dahl.
Mari Ness does not know what happened to the chocolate Santas in the refrigerator. Maybe the chocolate reindeer ate them. She’d ask, but the chocolate reindeer also appear to be missing.