Santa Claus, A Century Ago

Born in the 1960s, I was in the prime audience for Rankin/Bass Studio’s stop motion animation productions. For me, movies like 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, 1970’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and 1974’s The Year Without a Santa Claus defined what I knew about the guy in a red suit who delivered toys on Christmas Eve. In fact, even though I was in college by the time it came out, it was a 1985 Rankin/Bass production that opened my eyes to a wider world of Santa lore. That year they released a production of L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. This was the first time I’d learned that the guy who created The Wizard of Oz actually wrote a Santa story. It also struck me that the Santa portrayed was somewhat different than the one portrayed in those earlier Rankin/Bass productions. He lived in a magical land, not at the North Pole, and he had a whole assortment of magical helpers and foes, not just the little elves I’d known from the shows I’d grown up with.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was published in 1902. As it turns out, this was during the era when the popularity of Santa Claus really began taking off, not only in the United States but around the world. It’s also the era when Santa really began to take on his most familiar characteristics. As you can see in the book cover, when The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was published, the publisher didn’t feel the need the put Santa in his now-iconic red suit. Here we see Santa in a black suit with leopard fur and red pants. Up until this point, the most iconic Santa had been the version popularized by Thomas Nast, who portrayed Santa in a number of different colored coats (when he appeared in color) and often with a hat that was more fur or holly sprigs than red with a white pom-pom.

Curious about how the modern Santa developed from the beginning of the twentieth century through World War I, I started looking for images online. I found a wonderful article tracing the development of Santa Claus in illustration at The Public Domain Review, which is the source of the illustrations in this post. Go there if you want to see even more about Santa’s development.

Our modern, iconic image of Santa is often credited to a series of advertisements painted by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola beginning in 1931. However, the article at The Public Domain Review suggests that Santa in his modern form first appeared on the cover of Puck magazine in 1902, illustrated by Frank A. Nankivell. This is also the earliest illustration I can recall with ladies showing their appreciation for Santa’s gifts. As a bearded man who had grown somewhat broader around the mid-section as I’ve grown older, I must admit a certain appreciation for this trope.

Puck, Christmas 1902

As I continued my explorations of Santa Claus’s development through the early part of the twentieth century, I came to the blog “A Signal from Mars,” which discusses material from the Lowell Observatory archives. In it, I found a wonderful post depicting several photos of Percival Lowell, the man who popularized the idea of Martian canals, dressed as Santa on the observatory grounds in 1911. You can view the images at: https://asignalfrommars.wordpress.com/2018/12/03/up-on-the-rooftop/

Public Domain Review shares evidence of Santa’s growing worldwide appeal with the following 1914 illustration of Santa from Japan. We also see that Santa’s now-iconic image is making its way around the world a few years before the Coca-Cola ads.

Santa Claus visits a child in 1914 Japan.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself wondering how Santa fared during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. I couldn’t find many photos from that period, but I did find an account of a visit by Santa to western Nebraska. Santa arrived in town by Union Pacific Railroad on December 2 and was immediately mobbed by children. Unfortunately, this put Santa in violation of a public gathering ordinance. The police soon arrived and stripped poor Santa of his hat and beard and put him in jail. The kids came together, though, and raised Santa’s bail money.

US Food Administration Poster

I’ll wrap up with this poster produced by the US Food Administration in 1918 showing Santa, Uncle Sam, and a soldier. It’s message “Peace: Your Gift to the Nation” seems especially apt today in the wake of a contentious election. I hope as COVID-19 vaccines roll out and a new year dawns, our nation can once again find peace and unity. Wishing you all a happy and peaceful holiday season!

Lessons from Oz

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to see Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful with my family. I enjoyed the movie and thought it was a respectable prequel to L. Frank Baum’s wonderful series of fantasy novels. It was by no means a perfect movie. I felt many of the characters lacked depth and many of the performances could have been stronger. Still, I liked how it told the story of a flawed man could find a way to live his ambition and be a good man at the same time. In many ways it seems true to the story of L. Frank Baum himself and many of us who want to entertain others through our stories.

Marvelous Land of Oz

I almost dread it when a new Oz film comes out. Invariably people who talk about it will compare it to the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland. Before I proceed, let me say that I absolutely love the film and think it’s a fun adaptation of the first book in the series. However, because it’s only an adaptation of the first book in the series, it only scratches the surface of the whole wonderful world that L. Frank Baum created. People who only know the 1939 movie have never met Queen Ozma, Jack Pumpkinhead, the Hungry Tiger, or the mechanical man TikTok. They have never traveled to the countries surrounding Oz such as Ev and Ix or known villains such as the Nome King or the witch Mombi.

What’s more, the 1939 movie popularized one of the clichés that’s almost guaranteed to set my teeth on edge when I read it in a submission to Tales of the Talisman. That’s the ending where “it was all a dream.” The 1939 Wizard of Oz did that ending well, and partly it was done well because there are subtle hints that it really wasn’t a dream after all. I don’t recall seeing the ending done well in any submission to the magazine and it’s almost grounds for an automatic rejection. I won’t tell you not to do it, because you might be the person who convinces me they can do it well—but go there at your peril! Just to note, that is not the book’s ending. In the Oz books, there’s never a doubt that Oz is a real place.

One of the things I find especially fascinating about the greater world of Oz and L. Frank Baum as a writer is that he not only wrote stories and books, but he experimented in other media as well. He wrote one of the first ever newspaper comic strips, Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz which appeared in 1903. He also had a film studio and made at least three Oz films in 1914. It’s not entirely clear to me whether Baum viewed these ventures as primarily promotional or as artistic explorations in their own right. In either case, I applaud him and think writers can take a lesson from this. Writers should be encouraged to step away from their comfort zones and try telling stories in different media from time to time. These days, there are many possibilities open from audio to computer animation and beyond. Trying something new can only further your growth as a writer and take you to a wonderful new place in this journey called life.

Open your eyes to grand visions, experiment with other media and other forms of writing, avoid clichés (but if you don’t want to, just make sure you’re going in with your eyes open!). These are just some of the lessons we can take away from L. Frank Baum’s marvelous world of Oz. Learning some of these lessons might just help you achieve a few of your ambitions in ways you never expected.