Sunday, December 04, 2011

Santa Claus: Baum vs. Everyone Else

Santa Claus has many forms all over the world, but the most popular version is how he's evolved in the United States. Our version is an amalgamation of many worldwide traditions. The popular image of Santa Claus was established by the end of the 19th Century, mainly by Clement C. Moore's famous poem, "The Night Before Christmas" and the the drawings of Thomas Nast.

America's Santa Claus lives in the North Pole where he spends the year making toys for good children, assisted by Elves (normally depicted as brownie-type beings) and, sometimes, Mrs. Claus. Every year on Christmas Eve, Santa visits the homes of children to deliver gifts. Some maintain that Santa keeps track of which children have been good and which ones have not, these traditions being that only good children get toys while bad children get coal, switches for their parents to spank them with, or nothing. Santa makes his visits by night, carried by eight reindeer (or nine, for those who add Rudolph) on an airborne sleigh.

Santa Claus normally wears red and is a chubby fellow (some depict him as stocky built, some make him obese), and makes his entrance in people's homes by descending through chimneys.

It seems that one Lyman Frank Baum didn't go for this. Baum never had that Santa in his fantasies. The first time Baum wrote about Santa Claus was in the story "Little Bun Rabbit," the last entry in Mother Goose in Prose, his first published children's book.

I described the story in full on this blog two years ago. In it, no mention is made of Santa neglecting naughty children. Santa lives in a castle on a hill with Mother Hubbard, his only assistant. As the rabbit in the story says he can run home from Santa's workshop, it appears Santa lives somewhere in America. In fact, only ground travel is implied.

Later, Baum gave Santa Claus a complete overhaul in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, quite possibly one of the oddest fantasies he ever penned. Most of his fantasies were linear stories, while Santa Claus is a history with many sections told in detail, which is unusual for a biography.

I've blogged about the book many times in the past, but I'll sum it up here. The book features Immortal beings, one of whom is Ak, the Master Woodsman of the World, who finds an abandoned baby on the outskirts of the Forest of Burzee. The child is raised by a wood-nymph and is named Claus, and later, he is taken by Ak to see the sufferings of his fellow humans. Feeling compassion for children, Claus determines to bring joy to their lives while he can, becoming a friend to all the children he meets.

Claus goes to live in Laughing Valley, where the Immortals build him a home. He visits children until winter, when the weather forces him to stay home. He makes his first toy, a wooden image of a cat and soon realizes that children like these to play with and begins making many more to give away.

One winter night, two reindeer offer to help Claus deliver toys by pulling a sledge he quickly fashions. It is at this time he begins his nocturnal visits and going down chimneys and leaving toys in stockings to save time. He is allowed to use ten reindeer to make an annual visit to children, assisted in making toys by ryls and knooks, fairies of nature that Baum created. For his visits, Claus is called a saint, which, over time, turned into "Santa Claus."

One little bit flies in the face of an established Santa Claus tradition:
...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.
Baum himself did not approve of punishing children severely, believing that kindness was a more powerful alternative. One of Baum's sons reported that his mother had made his father spank him as a punishment, but Baum was troubled at this and later apologized to his son and vowed never to spank any of the boys again, a vow he kept. Thus, Baum's dismissal of the rule that "naughty children don't get toys" makes sense for his outlook on life.

Later, when Santa Claus is about to die, the Immortals quickly meet and vote to extend his life indefinitely by giving him the Mantle of Immortality. The biography ends with an explanation of Santa Claus' deputies among the Immortals and even parents.

Surprisingly, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus has proved popular, especially in adaptation. (Having uploaded clips from the most prominent adaptations to YouTube, I've noted they have received many fond comments.) However, Baum's Santa Claus—which dismissed Mrs. Claus, Elves, the North Pole, and the rule of only eight reindeer—has yet to become the more popular version. Perhaps the appeal of the story is how simply novel it is to have a Santa Claus that still delivers toys in a reindeer-pulled sleigh on Christmas but yet shares no connection to any other version.

For me, I simply love that Baum gave Claus a background. Some criticize his Santa for having no defining character traits, but that's to be expected given that he's raised in Burzee, which is more or less a fantasy Garden of Eden. He had no evil influences in his life so that when he did come across them, he could resist them easily. It actually makes sense for his character.

Anyway, if you're an Oz fan, Laughing Valley is right beyond the Deadly Desert. In fact, Baum's Santa Claus visits the Emerald City in The Road to Oz with some ryls and knooks. So we know Baum's Santa Claus has to be real. Are we going to say Ozma isn't real either?
Santa Claus in Oz


Nathan said...

I believe Road also mentions Santa living in a castle. I guess he had to upgrade his dwelling when he began employing more workers.

Nuria "iluvendure" said...

An impressive post!

Among all versions, my Santa Claus favorite is the creation of Baum (although this is a "Santa Claus" something pagan and the Norwegian version, Joulupukki, is also very beautiful)
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is an exciting and wonderful reading for children, I am looking forward to reading it to my nephews