I hadn’t heard of L. Frank Baum’s Santa Claus origin story until it was chosen as this month’s pick for an online book club I’m in. I’m glad I got a copy of the Macmillan Collector’s Library edition from the library rather than just reading it on Project Gutenberg: I liked looking at the illustrations by Mary Cowles Clark (like this flower at the start of a chapter, or this great picture of Santa atop a chimney) and I appreciated the afterword by Ned Halley as well, which talks about Baum’s life and also touches briefly on the literary context of Santa Claus stories. (This book was published in 1902: Washington Irving had in 1809 “described a pipe-smoking Nicholas flying above the city’s streets in a wagon from which he delivered gifts to good children and whacks from a stick to bad ones”, and Clement Clarke Moore had written “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” in 1823.)
As for the story itself, it’s pretty simple and sweet and emphatically not set at the North Pole. In Baum’s telling, Santa (though he isn’t called that, yet) is found abandoned on the edge of a forest when he’s an infant; he’s adopted by a wood-nymph and watched over by the forest’s various animals and immortal creatures. Eventually, he sees the wider world/realizes he’s not the only human in existence, and decides he wants to dedicate his life “to the care of the children of mankind, and try to make them happy.” This eventually leads to him carving a wooden toy, which is the first toy in history, after which he turns “his living room into a most wonderful workshop” where he makes a whole lot of toys. There is drama, in the form of the Awgwas, spiteful creatures who don’t want children to be happy and therefore declare Claus their enemy; not surprisingly, they do not prevail.
And then Claus properly becomes Santa: we get the origin story of his sleigh, and the reindeer, and Christmas trees, and stockings; we get the story of how he ended up coming down chimneys and how he’s able to cope with new houses that have no fireplaces. It’s all very cute, a nice little December read. At the start of the story I wanted more wintry atmosphere, and was glad when snow started to fall/I love sentences like this: “The face of the moon was hid by dark clouds, and the wind, delighting in the wintry sport, pushed and whirled the snowflakes in so many directions that they could get no chance to fall to the ground.” I only wish I’d been able to read this in the midst of a real-life snowstorm, but alas, it’s just rainy where I live at the moment.