Dec 23 2010 2:38pm

Santa Claus in Fairyland: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by Frank L. BaumA little holiday detour here.

Never one to miss a commercial fantasy opportunity, in 1902 L. Frank Baum decided to write a book long tale explaining the origins and life of Santa Claus, a figure of growing popularity in the United States, thanks partly to the Clement Moore poem and to numerous depictions of the jolly old elf. In this relatively early work (after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but before the Oz sequels), Baum took a comparatively serious, explanatory tone, giving a feel quite different than most of his other works.

Set in some misty time long ago—before toys (which, technically, should probably be before the Cro-Magnon period, but Baum was never particular about minor historical details) but after Christmas, with certain decidedly medieval details (including a Baron) suggesting a time that can best be called “magical,” this is a tale of a man who is almost unbelievably good, and almost equally unbelievably and unabashedly secular for a folk figure so associated with a Christian holiday.

As with so many of Baum’s tales, Santa Claus starts in a land of fairies and immortals, who have just encountered a human baby. In the first of many attempts to distance the tale of Santa Claus from the legend of St. Nicholas, a nymph decides to name the baby “Neclaus,” which, as Baum engagingly explains, was later misunderstood as “Nicholas.” This name is later shortened to just Claus, as the baby ages rather rapidly by immortal standards and leaves the immortal forest for mortal lands.

Baum painstakingly explains nearly every detail of the Santa Claus legend: why children should hang up stockings (it saves Santa Claus time); the reindeer (ten in this version, as opposed to the eight in the Clement Moore version, and, of course, lacking Rudolph and the red nose); the chimneys (Santa is in a rush) the very anxious question of what happens if your house has only very skinny chimneys or worse, no chimneys at all because you have, gasp, put in a stove (no worries; fairies can do everything, including walking through walls); and just why no one can ever catch anything more than the merest glimpse of Santa. (Did we mention the rush? Santa’s VERY BUSY, everyone! Hang up that stocking carefully.)

Oh, and even the toys, which Claus invents one dull night, by carving a replica of his cat, an item he later gives to a delighted child. (As the pet of two cats, I was equally delighted with this detail, and by the irritated and offended response by the cat.) The tale also explains why both rich and poor children can expect Santa Claus (it’s not fair for rich children not to get toys, even if they already have ponies and servants, just because they are rich.)

And in a surprising touch, Baum rejects a center part of the Santa Claus legend:

And, afterward, when a child was naughty or disobedient, its mother would say:

“You must pray to the good Santa Claus for forgiveness. He does not like naughty children, and, unless you repent, he will bring you no more pretty toys.”

But Santa Claus himself would not have approved this speech. He brought toys to the children because they were little and helpless, and because he loved them. He knew that the best of children were sometimes naughty, and that the naughty ones were often good. It is the way with children, the world over, and he would not have changed their natures had he possessed the power to do so.

Highly reassuring to those of us who had thrown toys at small brothers and were in seemingly grave danger of losing our visits from Santa Claus as a result.

This is but one of the unabashedly secular points of the tale, which goes to great lengths to note that the decision by Santa Claus to deliver toys on Christmas Eve is purely coincidental and has nothing to do with the Christmas holiday; that parents, but not a church, named Claus “Santa,” after seeing him leave toys for the children and deciding that he must be good. Even more to the point, the story is set in a world ruled by various immortal beings who care for animals and plants and, yes, humans, beings that vaguely acknowledge a Supreme Master who was about at the very beginning of time, but who does not seem to be around much now.

Near the end of the tale, as Claus lies, dying of old age, these immortals gather to decide if they can give Santa Claus the cloak of immortality, an extraordinary gift that can be given to one, and only one, mortal:

“Until now no mortal has deserved it, but who among you dares deny that the good Claus deserves it?”

This would be less surprising in a tale not devoted to a supposedly Christmas legend: surely, much of the point of the Christian part of the holiday is that at least one mortal did deserve it. (Although I suppose the immediate counterargument is that particular mortal wasn’t actually or entirely mortal.)

But then again, the Santa Claus tale has had a decidedly pagan and secular tone to it, and Baum cannot be entirely blamed for following in this direction; he may even have felt it safer to downplay any Christian connections to the jolly saint.

He can, however, be blamed for writing an entire novel without much of a plot, or, worse, humor. Baum had written novels that were little more than loosely connected tales before this, but those had been leavened by jokes, puns, silliness, adventure and joy. This book has little adventure (Baum does tell of the difficulties between Claus and some rather nasty Awgwas, but as typical of Baum, the battle scenes are hurried over and poorly done, and although the battle is about Claus, he is barely involved.), few jokes, and a rather serious, explanatory tone throughout. And aside from the Awgwas and one Baron, nearly everyone in the book is painfully, oppressively good. This does not prevent the book from having many magical moments (although I am perhaps biased about the cat toy scene) but it does prevent the book from being as much fun as his other tales. And, like a couple of his other books, this is decidedly, in language and tone, a book for children. It is not a bad book to read to a child on a cold winter night, especially a child eager to learn about the fairies that help Santa make and deliver toys, but adults may not be as engaged. (Illustrated editions decidedly help.)

Nonetheless, Baum was fond enough of his characters to bring them back in cameo appearances in The Road to Oz and in their own tale, “A Kidnapped Santa Claus. ” Neither one of these was enough to prevent the book from falling into general obscurity for some time, although it is now widely and easily available on the internet in both online and print editions, with various illustrators doing some wonderfully inspired work for the book.

Regrettably enough, Mari Ness has now decided that she can safely be naughty this holiday season, which means more cookies. Perhaps this is not that regrettable. She wishes all of you the happiest of whatever holidays you may celebrate, and promises to return to the Maguire books shortly after this little Santa detour.

Stefan Jones
1. Stefan Jones
Rankin / Bass made a very interesting adaptation of Baum's book. It was released in the mid 80s and gets played on the Family Channel around this time of year.

It isn't fully faithful to the book (which you can find the text of on Project Gutenberg) and the stop-motion animation and set pieces look a bit clunky.

But I'm going to stick my head out and say that the Rankin/Bass story is actually more interesting than that of the book. More conflict, less 19th century goop about faries, more spectacle.

The immortal nature spirits are interesting characters; the show opens with them gathering to decide whether Santa should be granted the Cloak of Immortality. Along the way there's a great battle between the Agwas (and their giant and demon allies) and the forces of the nature spirits .

Also, on seeing this special, and having read the book, I get the feeling that Baum's book provided a lot of inspiration for Rankin / Bass's wonderful "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Kind of a first pass, with the serial numbers scrubbed off.
Stefan Jones
2. Kethry Chlurain
The Rankin-Bass version *just* got released on DVD last Christmas, which sent me completely over the moon - I grew up watching it, and I adore it, even at 27. It's a little different from the book, but very engaging for a young watcher, if slightly pagan-feeling. Definitely showing it to my kid when I have one, and maybe a bedtime reading, too! ^_^
Stefan Jones
3. Stefan Jones
Aha! The Rankin-Bass adaptation is playing on the ABC Family Channel tomorrow, Friday 12/24, at 7:00 am in the morning.

I found the pagan-feeling one of the most intriguing things about the special.
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@Stefan Jones and Kethry Chlurain --

I haven't seen the Rankin-Bass adaptation in years. I recall loving it, though. Alas, I do not have cable, so I will be missing it tomorrow morning - but perhaps I can search for the DVD next year.
Joe Romano
5. Drunes
The Rankin-Bass adaptation can also be found on You Tube. The colors are a bit washed-out and the video's a bit blurry, but it's there to watch.
Cathy Mullican
6. nolly
Will you be moving on from Baum to Ruth Plumly Thompson at some point? I grew up with, and still own, a family copy of her book The Curious Voyage of Captain Santa; as I recall it, it's far more entertaining than this sounds, though it's been years since I last read it.
Wesley Parish
7. Aladdin_Sane
Actually, Baum got it wrong, completely wrong.

Claws is actually Santa's family name. How else do you think he can climb down chimneys? I mean, get real! It was the humans who saw him and heard his name, who mistook it for "Claus", and who retconned it to "Nicholaus" - and of course, Baum never interviewed the Fangs family, the Claws family's cousins, either.

So he never got to hear the (suppressed) story of Santa Fangs, who has been constantly misrepresented by the Claws family and their hangers-on ....

Nothing to do with fairies, nothing to do with them at all!
Mari Ness
8. MariCats
@Drunes - Something for me to look for tomorrow morning, then. Thanks!

@Nolly - I won't be reviewing that book this year, at least (even if I had a copy on hand, I can't submit anything else to until January, and by then I think the Christmas spirit will be gone :) ). Possibly next year, though.

@Aladdin_Sane - Ho, ho, ho. Thank you so much for continuing with the Baum tradition of puns :)
Cathy Mullican
9. nolly
I wasn't expecting it this year; just wondered if it was on the radar at all. :)
Mordicai Knode
10. mordicai
I am finally making my wife & friends watch it this year for Christmas!

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