Book 24; Continent: Asia, Europe

The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life of St. Nicholas by Adam C. English

  • 246 pages (approximately 172 pages of content)
  • A quick enough read that you might finish it while you’re waiting up for Santa—no humbug!

I picked this book because I was looking for something seasonal to finish out my reading project. Because any December in American retail or media is saccharine enough, I was hoping to find something more scholarly than sentimental about a Christmas topic (I find seasonal ads for perfume and jewelry nauseating, so bring it, Jacob Marley). It was harder than you might think, but this book actually filled the bill nicely.

Author Adam C. English offers a very evenhanded, non-cloying account of St. Nicholas of Myra, the saint most associated with Santa Claus. Despite the topic, English isn’t out to proselytize his readers into Christianity, nor does he wish to offer Virginia any warm and fuzzy reassurances about Santa Claus. In fact, the title of his book is a bit misleading in this respect. If you are expecting explanations about fur-trimmed red suits and flying reindeer, then you are apt to be a bit disappointed. Myra (located in modern Turkey) didn’t have an indigenous reindeer population in St. Nicholas’ day.

English does make some correlations to the familiar modern Santa figure in the store windows. St. Nicholas of Myra was indeed associated with gift-giving. One popular story about him is that he threw bags of gold—enough for three dowries—into the house of a poor man and his three daughters at night, allowing the girls to marry. In some versions, he uses the chimney to drop the bags inside. Voila! The theme of anonymous nighttime generosity is born, chimney and all.

Honestly, though, a fourth-century Turkish man could only be puzzled by the popular image of the “right jolly old elf” rather than identifying with him. In fact, St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of seafarers and prisoners, but those themes tend not to be developed in the television holiday specials. Historically, he was best known for preventing the execution of three soldiers who had been framed by the corrupt local governor. Because prominent bishop St. Nicholas had the ear of Emperor Constantine, he was able to save the day. This popular tale is the one that typically appears in church windows throughout the region, not the one about bags of gold.

Locally, the citizens of Myra looked to him for protection from persecution by the empire or its armies (not necessarily the same thing), famine, poverty or disease. The empire of the day did not reach deeply into the local level except to periodically collect taxes. Consequently, once Christianity was legalized, the rural population—most of the empire, in other words—looked to the church leadership to solve even their most secular problems. In fact, bishops in regions like Myra were vested by the official government with the authority to handle petty local concerns. Amazingly, his career as bishop took him from enemy of the state to respected authority figure over a span of mere decades at a time of relatively slow social change.

Given the remarkable span of St. Nicholas’ career, the best reason to read this book is to have a sense of the events, culture and literature that shaped early Christian practices and beliefs. He served as bishop during a fascinating and critical time for the Christian church. St. Nicholas survived torture for his faith (and earned the title “confessor” because he lived to tell about it, which is how a “confessor” differs from a “martyr”). Later, Constantine I, first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, legalized the growing faith, which allowed bishops to become prominent public citizens instead of state criminals. Some of his biographers associate him with the historic council at Nicaea (convened by Constantine I) which wrestled with significant theological questions of the day—he was probably not a major contributor there, however, as his name is omitted from many historical rolls of attendance.

So, having read the book, do I feel like I’ve covered a “Christmas topic”? I guess that depends on your definition. I have not renewed my interest in leaving out cookies for the guy on Christmas Eve (was gingerbread even a thing in fourth century Turkey?). The man I read about is pretty far removed from his modern-day alter-ego. However, the stories about St. Nicholas of Myra restore some of my faith in the ideals of generosity and kindness. Maybe I’m ready to focus on the point of the angel tree at church instead of rolling my eyes at the request for specific brands on so many of the tree’s tags.

Finally, a housekeeping note: this book was my last for 2013, having reached my goal of twenty-four for the year. I plan to post an update to the “Reject Pile” and also to pick my favorites. I might dial it back a bit for 2014: one book every 2 to 3 weeks is pretty aggressive, and I may have less free time.

Photo credit: Lawrence OP / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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