Tracking Down Santa

One of the Fantasy Encyclopedia's regretful throwaway lines is that so few adult literary fantasies feature Santa Claus. The old guy is known worldwide, he's authentically mythical, and yet he doesn't get anything like the enormous fictional product placement of his colleagues Dracula, King Arthur and Sherlock Holmes.

Of course Santa pops up frequently in children's books. Incredibly obscure fantasy fact: L. Frank Baum of Wizard of Oz fame published an entire fairytale biography of our man in 1902, entitled The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. May I never have to read it.

Meanwhile, C.S. Lewis shoved everything but the kitchen sink into his Narnia stories, and Santa gets a bit part – looking out of place among talking animals and refugees from Greek myth. There's a classical double-take as Lewis (in Prince Caspian) suddenly realizes he's writing about the Greek Bacchanalia, traditionally full of hot sex orgies and copious drunkenness ... and hastily explains, for the sake of the kids, that of course the only refreshment on offer is lots of really fresh grapes. He must have been a bunch of fun at Christmas, mustn't he?

Passing over Tolkien's The Father Christmas Letters with the necessary shudder, my candidate for grown-up fantasy's first Santa sighting is in Max Beerbohm's 1912 collection A Christmas Garland. Beerbohm really disliked Rudyard Kipling, and his parody of a Kipling Christmas story has a toadying narrator admiring the philosophy of brutal policeman Judlip: "Not as 'ow we ain't fallible. We makes our mistakes. An' when we makes 'em we sticks to 'em. For the honour o' the Force." Judlip gets his chance for an arrest when this "airman" dressed in red, surely a German spy, starts acting suspiciously on the rooftops. The spoof ends with the boot going in and Santa Claus being hauled to the nick while the narrator, who sounds awfully like Kipling himself, shrieks, "Frog's-march him! For the love of heaven, frog's-march him!" All very regrettable.

More seriously, the best adult fantasy with a Father Christmas vignette has to be John Crowley's Little, Big (1981), which offers a brief comic glimpse of the harassed fellow wondering how the hell to handle difficult "Dear Santa" requests like (to paraphrase): "Please stop my husband having it off with my sister."

When you think of all the hopeful kids whose letters to the North Pole don't produce the wanted expensive presents, schemes for gory revenge on Santa Claus suddenly seem not only logical but inevitable. For the Terry Pratchett fans who take it as an article of faith that all his ideas are stolen from previous sources (usually in Klingon), I point out that long before Pratchett's elaborate assassination attempt in Hogfather, there was a barely-foiled plot to liquidate Santa in Mervyn Wall's The Garden of Echoes – first published 1982. What goes around, comes around.

More fun in terms of what the Encyclopedia calls REVISIONIST FANTASY are stories in which the old buffoon with his sleigh and reindeer turns out to be ... the bad guy. An anagram of "Satan". You see tiny hints of this in the stroppy, snow-hating curmudgeon of Raymond Briggs's Father Christmas graphic novels. Or, indeed, in the way the already-mentioned Hogfather has much in common with Death – like having to make such a lot of house calls. Tom Holt took the Sinister Santa idea and ran with it in his Grailblazers (1994), where wicked Father Christmas is under an eternal curse just like the Wandering Jew, for having turned up at that stable in Bethlehem with a totally inadequate present (socks).

Even more REVISIONIST is the concept that the Santa role might be a cover for something completely different – a secret agent! Harlan Ellison's "Santa Claus vs. S.P.I.D.E.R." (1968) shows our hero waking in his Arctic grotto with a blonde at his side and being summoned to save the world from insidious forces. The reason for his apparent huge bulk is soon explained in a quick lecture from Q Division:

"Well, you've got the usual stuff: the rockets, the jet-pack, the napalm, the mace, the throwing knives, the high-pressure hoses, the boot-spikes, the .30 caliber machine guns, the acid, the flammable beard, the false stomach that still inflates into a raft, the flame-thrower, the plastic explosives, the red, rubber nose-grenade, the boomerang, the bolo, the bolas, the machete, the derringer, the belt-buckle time-bomb, the lock-pick equipment, the scuba gear, the camera and Xerox attachment in the hips, the steel mittens with the extensible hooks ..."

The list goes on and on. This is surely the dream Santa we'd all like to be. After all, the two best-loved characters of Britain's traditional winter TV festival are Father Christmas and James Bond.