Santa's Big Secret

time-traveling children’s adventure offers origin story for St. Nick

Tom Giffey, photos by Serena Wagner

VICTORIAN ERA VIRTUAL REALITY GOGGLES. Author David Tank shows off a vintage stereoscope containing one of the 19th century Christmas images that inspired his new book for young readers, Secret Santa.
VICTORIAN ERA VIRTUAL REALITY GOGGLES. Author David Tank shows off a vintage stereoscope containing one of the 19th century Christmas images that inspired his new book for young readers, Secret Santa.

For Menomonie author and photographer David Tank, the magic of Christmas has always been tied up with the magic of 3D photography. On Christmas mornings during his childhood in the 1950s and ’60s, he’d inevitably find a new package of View-Master slides in his stocking. (A favorite set featured scenes from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.) These eye-popping images helped spur a lifelong interest in stereoscopic photography, a subject Tank has written a pair of nonfiction books about.

It’s only natural, then, that the inspiration for Tank’s first book for young readers was a set of 19th-century stereoscopic cards, which he bought a few years ago on eBay. The cards – which were made to be placed into a stereoscope that gives the viewer the illusion of three dimensions – bore images of a peculiar incarnation of St. Nick.

“If there’s one way to describe the Secret Santa mystery, it’s an origin story for Santa, and a darker, more steampunkversion than we’re used to." – author David Tank, on his new book for young readers

“I thought that is the worst-looking Santa I’ve ever seen,” Tank says. “He’s skinny. He’s obviously got a fake beard and fake hair. Why would they ever use him as Santa Claus?”

In an attempt to answer that question, Tank penned Secret Santa: The Mystery of the Stereoscope, a Christmas fantasy aimed at middle-grade children. The main characters – “almost” 12-year-old Sam and 7-year-old Abby – confront the same question when their grandfather gives them a stereoscope and the images of the scruffy Santa, and their curiosity leads them on a holiday-themed time-traveling adventure. They are transported back to 1893, where they encounter characters and settings both historical and fantastical, including globe-trotting journalist Nellie Bly, famed inventor Nikola Tesla, and the Chicago Worlds Fair. Eventually they discover the truth behind Santa Claus’ true identity. (It seems that the beloved poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” – a.k.a. “Twas the Night Before Christmas” – is part of a conspiracy to obscure the truth about the “right jolly old elf.”)

“If there’s one way to describe the Secret Santa mystery, it’s an origin story for Santa, and a darker, more steampunk version than we’re used to,” Tank explains.

While the story hinges on elements of fantasy, the historic facts are grounded in reality. Tank, who is retiring from his job as an English and communications instructor at UW-Stout at the end of the semester, previously worked at the Chippewa Valley Museum and says he had a blast researching the story’s historic elements, from the timetable of the train that the protagonists ride to Chicago to the contents of the next day’s Chicago Tribune. The historic Cook-Rutledge Mansion in Chippewa Falls was also an inspiration for one of the story’s locales.

Tank has high hopes for the book, noting there hasn’t been a popular retelling of Santa’s original story since the 1994 Tim Allen film The Santa Clause. “My ultimate goal for the story is it becomes the next Christmas movie,” says Tank, who imagines a sepia-toned film with a Victorian setting would be beautiful.

While the book is brand new, Tank says he’s gotten good feedback from early readers in its target age group, including his own 8-year-old grandson and a co-worker’s 8-year-old daughter. The latter reader paid him a big compliment, he recounts: “I really, really, really liked it,” she said. “When’s the next story in the series coming out?”

Tank is already seriously pondering that question, which means that a sequel to Secret Santa may find its way into your stocking on some future Christmas morning.

Secret Santa: The Mystery of the Stereoscope, is available at Bookends on Main, 214 E. Main St., Menomonie; The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire; and online at planertcreekpress.com and elsewhere. To learn more, visit secretsantamystery.com and facebook.com/planertcreekpress. Tank will talk about and sign copies of the book from 1-3pm Saturday, Nov. 28, at Bookends on Main.

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