One day, a human infant is discovered by the immortals living in the Forest of Burzee. A wood nymph named Necile finds herself drawn to him and ends up taking responsibility for his care. Once he grows up, the young man, known as Claus, settles in a valley just outside the forest. He visits nearby human villages and becomes friends with all the children there. He carves wooden toys for them to play with and eventually finds his purpose in life by bringing toys and treats to all the children of the world. Eventually, the immortals decide to let him join their number so that he can continue his efforts forever.
L. Frank Baum, the author of this book, is much more well known for one of his other inventions: Oz. This one sort of overlaps with those, as Santa makes a brief visit to the Emerald City for Ozma’s birthday party in The Road to Oz, but otherwise this tale, taking place as it does on “Earth” of the far distant past, is separate and self-contained when compared to the mainline Oz and even some of the other books set in the Baum universe. This is fortunate, because the Oz books especially suffer very much from revisionist history syndrome, with the backstory changing frequently and contradictions arising all over the place. They are still lovely stories (I did name my daughter Dorothy, after all), but they are not internally consistent.
This particular tale by Baum, originally published in 1902 (and consequently out of copyright), is also more well known in another form — it served as the basis for a Rankin and Bass stop motion Christmas special. It was on my memory of this special that I’d long ago formed the intention of reading the original book. I had hoped to catch it on television this year so I could refresh my mind and compare the two, but I managed to miss the lone airing it got on ABC Family one early morning. BitTorrent was also a wash, but YouTube came to my rescue. And, as it turns out, I was confusing this special with another one called “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”! The actual special and the book’s plot are fairly close, though the former is simplified and several characters are composites or added to provide an easy method of exposition.
The book is divided into three parts: Claus’s youth in the forest with the Wood Nymphs, his early adulthood and the trials he faced in establishing himself, and finally his mature years, where he dealt with the dual problems of running a global business and serving an increasing population.
In the first section, Baum takes the approach of having Claus raised away from mankind, thus remaining innocent of the world and its problems until he is grown. Even after he comes into contact with other humans, he retains a childlike quality, allowing him to remain detached from the economic, social and political problems of adults. He is uninterested in them and focuses instead on the children, desiring to fill their lives — which, unlike his own childhood, must be lived out in harsh reality — with happiness and fun.
Once Claus starts interacting with the outside world, Baum begins to focus on his slow transformation into Santa and the creation of the traditions surrounding him. It is, of course, impossible to read this story, and any other story in which adults take a pointed interest in children and their doings, without wrestling with twenty-first century cynicism and sex offender panic. These feelings, forced upon us not just by the sex offenders themselves, but also by a fear mongering, sensationalistic government and media, make it difficult to evaluate the story within the context of its era and its original intent. There isn’t much here that could be misinterpreted, but I don’t doubt that it would be possible to do so.
There are only a small handful of children who receive enough individual attention to get names of their own. For the most part, the human populace is dealt with as a generic whole, with persons and places more or less interchangeable. I think this is a good choice, since it avoids the sense that judgements are being made upon cultures and ways of life. There’s just one real scene where the representation of a family is questionable, but even that brief bit is very vague and open to many interpretations.
This book, similar to a number of other Baum books, does not have a central villain or obstacle that Santa must overcome (other than his own mortality); the obstacles he does face are mostly isolated and do not return once conquered. The chapters, though arranged chronologically, are not always direct continuations of what came immediately prior. They’re more like a collection of anecdotes about Santa over the course of his first sixty or so years.
My favorites of the anecdotes center on Santa’s nighttime visits to houses, after he’s expanded his operations enough to begin requiring reindeer assistance. During his initial efforts, he is chagrined to discover that all the house doors are locked and everyone is asleep, making it impossible for him to get inside and deliver his toys. He finally lights upon the chimneys as a convenient alternative means of entrance, and uses that successfully for quite some time. Until! The relentless advance of technology eventually renders the chimney flues too skinny for him to use. He nearly gets stuck several times before one of his fairy helpers mentions in passing that they can walk through walls. You can practically hear Santa think, “And WHY am I still stuffing myself through chimneys?!”
Overall, this is a really cute Santa Claus origin story, suitable for any age. The Oz books were and are popular for a reason, and Baum’s imagination is in good form here as well. The story only suffers a little from Baum’s tendency to make up a multitude of fanciful places and names, and for the most part, these are not superfluous to the plot. With the accompanying special to recommend it, I’m surprised this book isn’t more popular.