Word Play: The Secret Life of Santa

There are loads of kids brought up with the idea of Santa Claus -- or some version of Father Christmas -- who start doubting his existence early on. These kids ask their parents questions such as: "He couldn't really visit everyone in the world in one night, could he?" and "Aren't you really Santa Claus?"

There is another type of kid that clings to the idea of a benevolent, magical deliverer of gifts, long after the age of reason in other matters. These kids write elaborate letters to Santa with complete mastery of the five-paragraph-essay format. Parents warn their older siblings not to tease them about how silly it is to believe in flying reindeer and fat men sliding down the chimney.

In my family, Christmas was a religious holiday: church, the reading of the Gospel story about the birth of Christ, the jollity extending perhaps to a festive family meal. But we also observed the Dutch tradition of welcoming Sinterklaas -- St. Nicholas -- on the evening of Dec. 5. After putting out our shoes filled with carrots for Sinterklaas' horse -- he arrived on horseback, on a boat from Spain -- we would all sit around the fireplace (or the wall heater when we lived in small apartments), drinking hot chocolate and singing songs about Sinterklaas' uncanny ability to distinguish good kids from bad. Suddenly we'd be interrupted by a great banging on the front door. My brother and I would rush to open the door, where we would find a box filled with presents. Sometimes we'd hear the sound of receding hoofbeats.

This was the pattern until my brother and I realized that one of our parents always happened to be out of the room when the banging on the door occurred, a fact we discussed in secret and slyly let drop the following Dec. 5. Lo and behold, that year both our parents were peacefully seated in the living room with us when the box of presents arrived. That mystery kept us going for another year or two. (David Sedaris has a brilliant and hilarious essay on the Dutch notions of St. Nicholas, titled "Six to Eight Black Men," which is absolutely worth hearing him read on YouTube.)

But whether a child's pleasure is to construct or de-construct a fantasy, doesn't it come down to same thing? We all want to savor the experience of special things that are done for us.

So it's small wonder that one of the most popular genres in holiday books for children concerns the details of Santa's life. Although the genre has exploded in recent years with books on everything from the off-duty antics of the reindeer to Santa's relationship with Mrs. Claus, the interest in Santa's secrets is nothing new. Since Clement Clarke Moore established the main outlines of Santa's yearly trip in 1823 with his classic poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas," more commonly known by its first line, "The Night Before Christmas," children's books have offered explanations and twists. The holiday song, "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," was based on a story written in the 1930s (as a promotion for Montgomery Ward department stores!).

As long ago as 1940, Jean de Brunhoff had Babar go in search of Santa in "Babar and Father Christmas" (Random House: 48 pp., $15). The elephant king discovers Father Christmas living in an obscure corner of Europe, near the Bohemian town of PRJMNESWE. When I read this book as a child, I remember being struck by the fact that Father Christmas had a group of elves protecting his privacy and that it was willing to endure as well as perpetrate violence -- throwing snowballs at trespassers -- in the exercise of its duties.

Having penetrated Father Christmas' secret cave (and in the end being received warmly despite breaking and entering, which I never understood), Babar is taken on a tour of the toy workshops. This theme is taken up by one of my favorite secret-life-of-Santa books, "Santa Claus: The World's Number One Toy Expert" (Harcourt: 40 pp., $16). Marla Frazee's charming book is about what fun Santa must have in choosing and testing toys, and contains the unforgettable image of the rotund Santa Claus bouncing around on a pogo stick. Perhaps more important, it established red sneakers in Santa lore as the obvious footwear of choice for a man with a big job to do.

While Babar's Father Christmas claims to be stretched too thin to be able to add the country of the elephants to his Dec. 25 itinerary, he does accept their invitation to take a rest in their country, where he goes out riding on zebra-back. The stresses of Santa's job and his need to take a vacation are a matter of great interest in the children's holiday book canon, extending even to a concern about his wife, who never gets to go anywhere, in Linas Alsenas' "Mrs. Claus Takes a Vacation" (Scholastic: 32 pp., $6.99 paper).

The best thing Father Christmas does for Babar is to give him a present: "a magic suit which will enable you to fly through the air, and your bag will always be full of toys." That feat is always at the heart of the Santa mystique, and at the heart of the Christmas spirit, for however selfishly we want the gifts coming to us, we also know that Christmas is the one time when, mysteriously, the whole world in included and taken into account.

Lauren Thompson's "The Christmas Magic" (Scholastic: 40 pp., $16.99) shows readers the anticipation that Santa himself feels as the big holiday approaches. The good gift deliverer has lots of preparations to make: There are reindeer to be groomed, harnesses to be polished, woolen socks to be darned, gifts to be sorted and packed. Jon J. Muth's illustrations capture the tingling that Santa feels in his whiskers with the same gentle otherworldliness he conveyed in his popular Asian-inspired books, "Zen Shorts," "Zen Ties" and "The Three Questions." None of Santa's efforts mean a thing without the special magic that makes the evening a success -- and the source of that magic, apparently, is as mysterious to Santa as it is to the rest of us.

Bolle's Word Play column appears monthly at