WE NEED A “FRANK BAUM” CHRISTMAS!

By John Fricke

[Above: This glorious poster trumpeted the initial publication of THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS, L. Frank Baum’s 1902 fantasy novel for children. The original Mary Cowles Clark graphic was adapted by superlative Oz illustrator/designer Dick Martin for the wraparound cover of the Christmas 1965 edition of THE BAUM BUGLE – then (since 1957) and now (to this day and beyond!) the thrice-yearly “journal of Oz” publication of The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc. (ozclub.org)]

One plain and simple fact should come as no surprise to anyone reading here: L. Frank Baum had a limitless imagination and — to be sure — extraordinary real-life adventures. That combination led him to write not only about Oz and its countless unique citizens and hamlets, but to pen dozens of additional sagas of other original peoples and lands. Baum could also, when he began to dream with paper and pencil in hand, fathom the chronicles of already legendary or thought-to-be-mythic historical figures. Fortunately for us, one such realization came to the master storyteller in his comprehension of the narrative he put forward as THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS in 1902.

The book was first announced – in January of that year — for forthcoming publication by The George M. Hill Company of Chicago. They heralded as SANTA CLAUS: HIS LIFE AND ADVENTURES with the promotional declaration: “We confidently believe [it] will make the biggest sensation known to the juvenile book world since ALICE IN WONDERLAND.” When the Hill combine declared bankruptcy in March, however, rights to Baum’s SANTA CLAUS were allotted to Bowen-Merrill publishers (soon to be Bobbs-Merrill), who changed the title as referenced in the preceding paragraph.

[Above: Baum discovered that the young Claus was befriended by countless fairy folk as a boy. Shown with him here are the Ryls, whose active existence is explained just below. This color plate by Mary Cowles Clark is from the first edition of THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS.]

In Baum’s story, Claus is a mortal baby, adopted by a fairy wood nymph and raised among the immortals in the enchanted forest of Burzee. Among his closest companions are the Ryls and the Knooks. Baum specifically describes both in his evocative text: “The Ryls are required to watch over the flowers and plants . . .. They search the wide world for the food required by the roots of the plants, while the brilliant colors possessed by the full-grown flowers are due to the dyes placed in the soil by the Ryls, which are drawn through the little veins in the roots and the body of the plants as they reach maturity.” The Knooks have been created “to watch over the beasts of the world, both gentle and wild.” The anxieties of such work “make the Knooks look old and worn and crooked,” but they and the Ryls are among Claus’s prime helpers when he leaves Burzee, relocates to the adjacent Laughing Valley of Hohaho, grows to manhood, and is inspired to bring joy to children.

How Claus came to create or invent toys and dolls; to conceptualize Christmas trees and Christmas stockings; to magically travel on Christmas Eve – and on and on – is best left to all of you to discover when you read Baum’s biography of the gentleman. When Claus (against many odds) becomes immortal, the recounting of that situation is offered by the “Royal Historian” in what seems to me to be one of the most touching and meaningful of his writings.

[Above: Baum included Santa in several of his works over the years, most notably the fifth Oz book, THE ROAD TO OZ (1909). Therein, the jolly old soul is a venerated and revered guest for the story’s grand finale: Princess Ozma’s birthday celebration on August 21st. John R. Neill drew this lavishly detailed, full-page illustration to picture Santa’s arrival at the Royal Palace in the center of the Emerald City. He is preceded by the sprightly, charmed Ryls and followed by the gnarled but wondrously powerful Knooks.]

Baum’s THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS initially remained in print for two decades. In recent years, it’s been republished, abridged, adapted into two animated versions, and presented in a comic book and multi-part Japanese anime series – among other incarnations. It’s not nearly as well-known, of course, as THE WIZARD OF OZ and the Oz books, yet it deserves a new edition; it would be ideal for reading aloud to youngsters of ages four through seven – or for their own joy by any reading-precocious and fantasy-prone youngsters.

(Above: A “tele-op” slide – or screen card — designed to advertise showings of the first animated version of THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS. Originally broadcast by CBS-TV in December 1985, the fifty-minute Rankin/Bass stop-motion production remains a tender, yet emotionally stirring condensation of Baum’s story; seek it out on home video or cable at this (or any!) time of the year. 😊 ]

This is, of course, the logical, annual All Things Oz blog in which to recall Baum’s “book for 1902.” Given his Chittenango birthplace, however, it’s perhaps even more appropriate to veer away from the professional and embrace the personal. It’s thus a privilege to share here a recollection contributed by L. Frank Baum’s third son, Harry Neal, to the Oz Club’s magazine, THE BAUM BUGLE, in their Christmas 1965 edition. (Harry was then honorary president of the organization, and the summer lodge he and wife Brenda operated at Bass Lake, IN, was the site of the Club’s original conventions.) There could be no better combination of words than those Harry selected to describe Frank Baum’s approach to the holidays for his family:

SANTA CLAUS AT THE BAUMS’ by Harry Neal Baum

“We always had a Christmas tree, and this was purchased by Father and set up in the front parlor behind drapes that shut off the room. This, Father explained, was done to help Santa Claus, who was a very busy man and had a good many houses with children to call upon.

“Santa Claus (Father) came a little later to deck the tree, and we children heard him talking to us behind the curtains. We tried to peek through cracks in the curtains, but although we could hear Santa Claus talking, we never managed to see him and only heard his voice.

“On Christmas Day, when the curtains were opened, there was the Christmas tree that Santa Claus had decorated – a blaze of different colors, and the presents for each of the boys stacked below it! It was an exciting and thrilling experience, and we had no doubt that Santa had really called at our house and left these wonderful presents for all of us. “Note: One Christmas, we had FOUR Christmas trees – one for each of the four boys – in the four corners of the room!”              

[Above: The cover of my own 1902 edition of THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS. I bought it in the mid-1960s at a Milwaukee, WI, used-bookstore for $5.00, and – while a number of other early acquisitions have had to be sent on their way over the years – it remains a personal treasure and pleasure. Baum originally dedicated the book, “To My Son, Harry Neal Baum”; some sixty-three years later, that son penned the brief reminiscence shared above. And when I attended my next International Wizard of Oz Club convention a few months later, I took the book along, and Harry kindly autographed it, “With all good wishes . . . .”]

As must be obvious, this month’s essay also offers “all good wishes” for the season and coming year, whether you’re having the sort of “Frank Baum Christmas” described by Harry Neal – in your own family manner and traditions, of course – or you’re enjoying a Baum-y holiday by enjoying THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS on the printed page, on home video, on cable, or via streaming.

Whatever your celebratory circumstances or customs, may you all know the heart happiness that Mr. Baum so often purveyed in his entertainments — and may you be warmed in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead with blessed good health and good experiences. As the primary “Dorothy Gale” of so many memories sings in her 1949 film, IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME: “May the ones you love be near you, with the laugh of friends to cheer you . . ..”

Thank you, Judy.

Thank you – especially and always – L. Frank Baum.

And thank you, all of you, for coming here for another year of sharing and reading.