From the book jacket:
Every child knows about Santa Claus, the jolly man who brings gifts to all on Christmas Eve. There are many stories that tell of his life, but the delightful version related in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is by far the most charming and original. Only L. Frank Baum, the man who created the wonderful land of Oz, could have told Santa’s tale in such rich, imaginative detail.
Deep in the Forest of Burzee, a wood-nymph discovers an abandoned baby and raises him as her child. Young Claus is taught by the wise mythological creatures of the Forest, who love him as one of their own. Though he lives among magical beings, he comes to cherish his fellow humans, especially the children. When Santa Claus whittles his first toy, he knows he has found the way to bring happiness and love to children all over the world.
In The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, L. Frank Baum sets out to provide a complete story of Claus’s origins, from his idyllic childhood spent raised by immortal creatures in a secluded forest until the time when his life of good deeds earns him the precious Mantle of Immortality.
The story, as told, differs from the accepted legends about Santa Claus. For example, Claus (as he is called in the novel) does not live in the North Pole along with Mrs. Claus and a merry band of elves who toil cheerfully to craft toys for all the good little boys and girls of the world. Instead, he lives alone in a place called the Laughing Valley, with four immortal creatures who became his helpers only after the population boomed so much that he could no longer handle the task alone. This Claus also makes no distinctions between naughty and nice children, conceding that even naughty children can be good, and vice versa.
Throughout the story, explanations for various traditional Christmas beliefs and customs are provided, like stockings and Christmas trees and how Claus first came to employ a team of reindeer on his yearly errand (though none bears any familiar name). Baum also works in a rationalization for the involvement of parents, saying they’re Claus’s deputies, and that Claus even sends heaps of toys to stores so that the parents can acquire them for their kids. I wonder if parents point their kids to this book to explain why Santa left a tell-tale price tag on their present.
The edition that I read was published in 2003 and is illustrated by Michael Hague. While many are nice to look upon, I found them rather confusing at times. For instance, the size of the “newborn” Claus changes radically amongst illustrations; in one he looks at least two and very tubby indeed. Also, the immortal creatures from the story appear liberally, but I’m never sure which is supposed to be which, since the images don’t always illustrate a particular, recognizable scene.
There are also a couple of inconsistencies in the story that bother me. In the beginning of the book, there is a line that reads “All the immortals are full-grown; there are no children among them.” This was used to explain why they felt such fascination when Claus was brought into the forest and allowed to be raised in their midst. Yet later, when Claus is outfitting his sledge, he reaches an agreement with the Gnome King (clearly shown as immortal by his presence at the council which grants Claus his immortality) to trade him toys FOR HIS CHILDREN in exchange for sleigh bells.
The second inconsistency involves Claus’s decision to leave the forest and live among mankind. Until his youth, he had known nothing of the existence of other members of his race, and after finally witnessing their suffering, he resolved to quit the forest. The book says that “he went forth bravely to meet his doom—the doom of the race of man—the necessity to worry and work.” Except that he doesn’t. Once he gets to the Laughing Valley, immortals pop up and build his house, promise to keep his cupboards stocked, and essentially take care of his every need.
Despite some grumblings I might have about certain particulars, I found the story to be decently entertaining, especially some turns of phrase. There’s one scene where a lioness called Shiegra is waiting in Claus’s house when he returns from an outing, while his pet cat cowers in the corner. Baum simply writes, “She did not care to associate with Shiegra.” I love that line, as it perfectly evokes a cat’s offended dignity.
I don’t know that I’d care to read this again, or any other Santa origin tales for that matter, but I think The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus would probably be fun to read aloud to a kid, particularly one who was open to embracing differences from the established legend.
Additional reviews of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus can be found at Triple Take.