We Need to Re-Evaluate L. Frank Baum's "The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus"

Content Warning for discussion of genocide and accounts of severe historical racism.

We've reviewed L. Frank Baum's Life and Adventures of Santa Claus in the past, we've written about the Rankin/Bass special, and we've talked it about multiple times. But, in the process of watching the 2000 animated adaptation for the first time, I wanted to go back and revisit the book, as well as its sequels.

So I did. I wrote an extremely long article discussing the merits and flaws of the work (some of the writing is pretty but most of it is kind of boring) and how influential it was (it probably created one of Santa's two primary origin stories, it's more or less the basis for all the Rankin/Bass specials, and its sequels, "A Kidnapped Santa Claus" and "How the Woggle-Bug and his Friends Visited Santa Claus," are probably why we have Nightmare Before Christmas).

I went through the plots, the characters, all of it. It was a lot of work, and I think I did a pretty good job.

You're not reading that article, though. When I reached the conclusion, something was gnawing at the back of my head, so I started digging a little more into a facet I really should have explored years ago. And in doing so, I stumbled on something that caused me to delete the entire article and start over. Because...

Oh, Jesus. Oh, holy fuck. We need to talk about the Awgwas.

Actually, we need to talk about L. Frank Baum. And the Awgwas. And some editorials. And Christmas, 1890.

That's twelve years before Baum wrote The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. He was working for a newspaper in South Dakota, and he had some thoughts about current events. I'm not going to go into those yet - first I want to quote from a section at the end of that editorial:

The Kris Kringle or, Santa Claus, is a Relic of the ancient Yule Feast, so that the festival of Christmas is a curious mingling of ancient heathen and Christian customs, albeit a very pleasing and satisfactory celebration to the people of today.

Now then, let's talk about the Awgwas, the only antagonists in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. They're only in the book for a couple chapters around the middle, though they tend to feature more prominently in subsequent adaptations. They hate Santa for spreading happiness, since they only exist to spread misery. Their lives are miserable, in fact: unlike the immortal beings who aid Claus, they can be killed. And unlike humans, once killed, there's no further existence waiting for them.

They try to assassinate Santa a few times, but his magical friends save him. Then they steal his gifts, prompting Ak, the leader of the immortals, to demand they stop. Instead, they vow to kill Claus and declare war. Ak brings an army of fairies, knooks, and ryls, while the Awgwas show up with dragons, goblins, and giants as backup. But, while the immortals look unimposing, their magic is fierce. Pretty soon, all the Awgwas are dead.

To be clear, literally every Awgwa gets wiped out. This would be genocide, perpetrated by the supposed good guys, in the kid's book that inspired a great deal of the modern Santa mythos you find in seasonal specials. More than that, it's written in a way that explains this in a child-friendly manner. It is, quite literally, genocide simplified to a fairy tale and defended.

Needless to say, the Awgwa chapters always struck me as odd, but I never gave the section much thought. While I could clearly see how it might be read now, I assumed it was intended as nothing more than a fairy-tale adventure. After all, Baum clearly didn't mean for it to reference real-world events, did he?

Ahem. Let's jump back to December 1890. Sitting Bull had just been killed outside his home, prompting Baum to publish the aforementioned editorial. Here's a passage a little before he references Santa Claus and sends his readers Christmas wishes:

With his [Sitting Bull's] fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlers will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians.

The editorial is attempting to do two things: it's praising Sitting Bull, a man Baum ostensibly admires, then arguing in favor of the complete annihilation of his people. Racism is never logical, but this is utterly incomprehensible.

Baum seems to be saying America's indigenous populations were once great but now, after centuries of atrocities, have been reduced to a point where he believes genocide is the best option. Or, in his unbelievably awful words from the same editorial:

History would forget these latter despicable beings, and speak, in latter ages of the glory of the grand Kings of the forest and plain...

This passage illustrates another bizarre facet of Baum's outlook that seems to permeate Life and Adventures. Reading his description of the immortals who raised Santa Claus, you almost get the impression they were partially inspired by Native Americans (or perhaps more accurately by Baum's skewed impressions of Native Americans). It comes up several times that they are caretakers of the land around them - to the point they won't destroy plants or harm anything (exempting the war and genocide, obviously). Baum almost echoes that "Kings of the forest and the plain" line twelve years later when describing the leaders of the immortals: Ak "rules the forests and the orchards and the groves," while another immortal "rules the grain fields and the meadows and the gardens...."

It feels as though the immortals who adopt and teach Santa are standing in for ancient Native Americans and the Awgwas are how Baum viewed those still alive in his time. It's certainly possible I'm reading too much into the immortals. They could just as easily be inspired by any number of sources (or more likely several).

But I no longer think there's much doubt what the extermination of the Awgwas was supposed to represent. The framing of the war and situation is too similar to Baum's outlook in the editorial. In Life and Adventures, Santa is a solitary settler with the savage tribe of Awgwas controlling the land between him and civilization. The immortals decide to exterminate the Awgwas both to protect him and because the Awgwas, "are of no benefit to the world."

And because of his editorial, we know that Baum associated Christmas with this idea. That passage I quoted earlier alludes to Santa Claus as a figure transitioning between pagan and Christian cultures. In context, I don't see how else to read that than as drawing a parallel between the annihilation of pagan European culture with the genocide going on in America.

I suspect was he thinking back on this editorial when he wrote about the Awgwas, distilling a notion he knew was horrific down into a sort of fairy tale. I do think it's worth noting Baum may have later realized what he'd said was shameful. His follow-up to Life and Adventures was a short story called A Kidnapped Santa Claus that essentially retold the Awgwa conflict with a very different resolution. This time the villains are Daemons, and there are five. The last is the Daemon of Repentance, who (obviously) repents for his actions and helps Claus escape. Santa then intercepts the approaching army of fairies, pixies, etc. and prevents a war.

If I was feeling especially charitable, I might interpret this as Baum "repenting" his previous writings, but I suspect that's reading too much into it. I do think it's likely he felt he'd stepped over a line by including an extermination of a race of sentient beings in a children's book and wrote A Kidnapped Santa Claus as a sort of mea culpa for that, but I wouldn't assume he ever realized that his position itself was inexcusable.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter what he intended in the sequel or even in Life and Adventures. His editorials weren't merely a bad opinion; they were unforgivable, and it's a travesty of justice that history hasn't stamped this across his legacy.

But it's not really Baum's legacy I'm concerned with here: it's the legacy of Santa Claus. The character isn't just an iconic symbol, he's perhaps the most powerful folk hero our culture has, the one true piece of living mythology of our time. And while Baum certainly didn't invent Santa Claus, Life and Adventures helped mold him into his current form. Every special we watched growing up was shaped by this book and its sequels.

What's that mean?

I think it means that Santa Claus, an American creation, is tarnished by the history of the nation that invented him. It's not uncommon to see Claus celebrated as a product of America's diversity of cultures, and there's certainly truth to that. But America isn't just diversity and progress: as a nation, we have a lot to answer for.

In Baum's novel, Santa doesn't participate in or even know about the war, but he certainly benefits from it. And of course this is no less true of our nation's past. Most of us are still benefiting from these atrocities. The least we can do is acknowledge that.

Personally, I regret failing to examine this aspect of Life and Adventures until now. Baum's racism has been public knowledge for quite some time. Had I thought to ask the question before, I'd have found the answer. And - as someone who's previously praised this work - I really should have looked into this instead of writing off the Awgwa sequence as nothing more than fantasy.

Note: Passages from Baum's editorial from Robert W. Venables's "American Indian History: Five Centuries of Conflict & Coexistence, Vol. 2."