This is the third version of the life and times of Santa Claus we’ve seen this month. It’s not as funny as A Boy Called Christmas, and nowhere near as violent as Klaus, but L. Frank Baum’s book is easily the most detailed account.
Fresh from his success with the Wizard of Oz, Baum turned to creating not just a biography but a full scale parallel universe for his version of the Santa myth. The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature calls Baum ‘the first writer to create an unforgettable full length original American fantasy.’ In his version Baum sticks to many of the established facts about Santa. He is old, cheerful and delivers presents to children on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. He also looks rather the same as the character developed by fellow New Yorkers Clement Clarke Moore and Thomas Nast. But from here in Baum takes us on a rather extraordinary flight of fancy.
A baby is abandoned by its mother at the edge of the magical forest of Burzee. An immortal by the name if Ak the Woodsman takes pity on the child and delivers him into the caring hands of a wood nymph called Necile. She calls him Claus which in nymph language, means ‘little one’, before modifying it to Neclaus, meaning ‘Necile’s little one’. So you can forget about that ‘Saint Nicholas’ nonsense right away.
It’s fascinating in fact how far Baum ignores traditional religious belief in this book. These outlandish origins are told with a completely straight face – it is intended that readers will accept his version as the gospel truth. Forget Jesus’s birthday, Christmas is all about an immortal guy delivering presents simply because he likes making children happy.
Much of the fun in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus comes from Baum’s exertions to explain how certain things came about. It’s as if he’s drawn up a list of every question his children ever asked him about Santa then set out to answer them.
How does the whole reindeer thing work? Well Claus’s herd don’t fly, they just run really fast and jump extremely high – right on to the tops of houses. Also none of them is called Rudolph.
How does he get into houses without chimneys? Claus has a magic fairy called Nuter who can slip through walls and fill stockings.
How does he deliver presents to so many millions of children? He’s really fast, and then there’s something to do with time zones. Actually we’re still a bit sketchy on this one.
The book contains some genuinely exciting moments, such as Claus’s first ride out on his jerry built sleigh. He’s ably assisted by Flossie and Glossie, a pair of reindeer who must be home by sunrise, or face punishment from their stern master.
There’s also a slightly bizarre interlude in which the eternal forces of good and evil embark on a holy war over Claus. It’s an epic battle that Peter Jackson could make an entire trilogy out of, but Baum dashes it off, almost apologetically, in a few pages. They are packed with great, overblown lines like these:
‘Woe came upon the sharp-taloned goblins when the thorns of the Ryls reached their savage hearts and let their life blood sprinkle all over the plain. And afterward from every drop a thistle grew.’
I was left wondering why none of Baum’s version of the life of Santa has been adopted into the traditional mythos. Perhaps it is just too far removed to allow overlap? Also it is quite shoddily written in places, but with a brisk pace and an occasional knowing wink The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is still eminently readable.
Baum was obviously pleased enough with it, as he returned with further tales about Claus, including a story in which he is kidnapped and a glorious entry in the Oz canon in which he appears as the guest of honour in the city of Oz at Christmas.