Points of Articulation
Santa's Little Helpers
L. Frank Baum is best known for The Wizard of Oz But that was hardly the only book he wrote; there were over forty Oz books, fourteen of them written by Baum himself, and dozens of other books that somehow involved Oz or an Oz-related land.
One character who pops up in the Oz books is a fellow named Santa Claus; for instance, Santa toasts Queen Ozma in The Road to Oz. But Baum wrote several books solely about Santa, the first of which is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. This bizarre story (made into an equally bizarre Rankin/Bass special) posits that "Claus" was an abandoned child, adopted by fairies and subject to "the Great Ak." After a breezy childhood in the enchanted forest of Burzee, Claus is taken into the wide world by Ak, where Claus discovers the difficulties of human existence. Claus is particularly troubled by the plight of the world's children, and decides then and there to dedicate his life to alleviating their misery. But how?
While the book is a jarring read for anyone familiar with the origins of Santa as detailed by Madison Avenue (and Rankin/Bass's own specials, such as Santa Claus is Comin' To Town), it does contain one memorable scene:
So passed many days and many long evenings. The cupboard was always full, but Claus became weary with having nothing to do more than to feed the fire from the big wood-pile the Knooks had brought him. [...] One evening he picked up a stick of wood and began to cut it with his sharp knife. He had no thought, at first, except to occupy his time, and he whistled and sang to the cat as he carved away portions of the stick. Puss sat up on her haunches and watched him, listening at the same time to her master's merry whistle [...] Claus glanced at puss and then at the stick he was whittling, until presently the wood began to have a shape, and the shape was like the head of a cat, with two ears sticking upward.
As I've discussed before in this column, I sometimes get a bit disenchanted with the toy industry and toy collecting in general. For someone who's very concerned with the environment and the gradual transformation of the world's natural resources into garbage and pollutants, it's hard to justify owning heaps of plastic "collectibles," which serve no useful purpose.
But this passage reminded me of why toys exist, and what purpose they serve. The book contains many scenes in which a child is delighted by receiving a toy. But more significantly, the passage reminds us of the artistry and skill necessary to create a new toy. Santa was a toymaker first and a toy distributor second.
For a large part of the twentieth century, the image of the "toymaker" was subsumed by mammoth corporations employing armies of nameless, faceless sculptors. But we now live in an age (at least in the action figure industry) where the sculptors of a toy are not only named but often celebrated. These days, the sculptor is often part of the selling point (witness NECA's promotion of Kyle "Tankman" Windrix, for example).
When H. Eric "Cornboy" Mayse, one of the sculpting group known as the Four Horsemen, sits down to whittle together a few weapons for Trapjaw, or Jay and Chris Borman craft an amazingly realistic, accurate firefighter action figure, when Phil Ramirez perfectly captures the Incredible Hulk, what we are seeing is the work of true helpers of Santa. These artists (elves?) represent a return to some of the dignity and tradition of toymaking. This holiday season, let us be thankful we have a toy industry that not only bears such talent, but openly acknowledges and celebrates it.