[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”1602586349″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51yxwXYJc6L.jpg” width=”216″ alt=”Adam English – The Saint who would be Santa Claus”]The Man Behind the Santa Claus Myth
A Review of :
The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra
Hardback: Baylor UP, 2012.
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Reviewed by Wendy Bilen
When I see Santa hawking a Chevy, I am not sure what to feel. The flushed senior in the power suit might appreciate the humor, but I suspect the real Saint Nick would be mystified at the very idea and trying to make sense of a commission that does not involve Matthew 28.
It is this Nicholas, follower of Christ and lover of justice, whom Adam C. English brings to life in The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus. Most of us understand that such a saint existed, but we’re not sure we want to know him. We tend to be rather possessive with our cultural Christmas traditions, emotionally clinging to our Rudolphs and silver bells. Santa supports our commercialized illusions, but we fear Nick will dump the spiked eggnog or put the kibosh on tinsel. Still, we’re curious. Somewhere behind all the myth and lore lies a raw belief, or desire to believe, in something beyond ourselves, and maybe Nick can take us a little closer.
Nicholas, Turkish-born wonder child of the late third century, emerged as a leader earlier than most: even as an infant, the story goes, he knew to suckle only once on fast days. The product of a middle-class Christian family, he knew privilege and comfort; religious ritual and education anchored large parts of his young life. After a teenaged Nicholas lost both parents, likely to the plague, he learned of a man who, in a dire financial situation, planned to prostitute three daughters. During the night Nicholas bagged up some of his inheritance and tossed the gold through the man’s open window. The next morning, the man found the gold, which provided an ample dowry for his eldest daughter. Hearing of this happy result, Nicholas tossed another sack of gold through the window, money enough to rescue the second daughter. The third time, the father caught his benefactor, learning Nicholas’ identity. “And like that,” English says, “Nicholas entered the pages of history as one of the greatest gift-givers of all time” (63). (His gold coins also became the universal symbol of pawnbrokers.)
By any standard, Nicholas racked up a series of experiences worthy of admiration. In his thirties he became a bishop who achieved the status of “confessor,” having survived torture under the cruel ruler Diocletian. Once Constantine gained power, the systematic persecution of Christians stopped, and Nicholas continued his pastoring under the first Christian Caesar. In 325, Nicholas participated in the historic Council of Nicaea, which produced the enduring Nicene Creed. From there, the tales spin in all directions. After Nicholas rescued innocent men from the executioner’s blade and castigated the governor for such injustice (“The Story of the Military Officers”), Nicholas became the go-to guy for prisoners in trouble. When Nicholas’ image appeared to a crew of terrified sailors, guiding them safely to shore, he became a lifeline for the seafaring. And so the stories go, sculpting Nicholas as the patron saint for an impressive collection of need. Though he simply died an old man, a pastor, he is revered by a long eclectic list that includes firemen and dockworkers, soldiers, butchers and brewers, the unemployed, lawyers, and florists.
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As with many stories of faith, English notes, “the history of Nicholas presents a tantalizing riddle” (3). Nicholas of Myra left us no writings, no major historical incidents, and no followers or contemporaries to write about him. Only hundreds of years later did “fragments and rumors begin to surface like driftwood in the water” (3). Relying heavily on the oldest surviving biography of Nicholas, written by Michael the Archimandrite, circa 700 A.D., English carefully probes the saint’s sparsely documented life, which has been stretched, rearranged, and regularly a case of mistaken identity.
English uses his historian’s bent to evaluate the largely anecdotal accounts, compare them to pagan tales, and establish likely scenarios, much of which makes for an intriguing read. Still, he cannot provide what does not exist, and much of Nicholas’ life remains unknown. English faces the same dearth of information as other biographers of ancients, including Amy Frykholm, the author behind Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography. While Frykholm chooses to reflect on the kind of person Julian might have been, crafting a story from imagined—though researched—scenes, English opts to fill out Nicholas’ life with historical context, which, while serving its purpose, can cause the narrative thread to be lost for pages at a time. Perhaps English was understandably most concerned with collecting and organizing the facts, but the scenes and stories that give substance to the illusion of such an iconic figure serve as the most captivating piece of the legacy. They simultaneously affirm the human and the divine, reassuring us of what we seek on Christmas morning.
Those who open Saint expecting to learn how Nicholas became Santa Claus will be disappointed. English’s goal here remains as his title indicates: to tell the story of the real Nicholas and determine how such an unknown became so known (17). Like most biographers, English deals with his subject from birth to death, and then the later movement of Nicholas’ bones from Turkey to Italy. The metamorphosis of Nicholas’ popular image is sprinkled throughout the pages, a series of dotted lines among anecdotes, the feast day of Nicholas (December 6), artistic portrayals, and the commoners’ mythologizing of saints. “By the twentieth century,” English writes, “children pervaded the pictures and stories of St. Nicholas such that the two were bound together; the modern-day St. Nick cannot be imagined apart from his relationship to little ones” (53). Then, Coca-Cola took it one step further with a brilliant advertising campaign in the 1920s that forever ingrained Nicholas in popular consciousness as a jolly old man in a red suit.
The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus makes a convincing case that Nicholas is someone worth knowing, someone brave and strong, gentle and compassionate, generous and selfless, an arrow to his King. Adam English introduces us to a heroic figure whose story adds to our understanding of and love for Christmas, not takes away from it.
Wendy Bilen is the award-winning author of Finding Josie. She is working on a biography of Horatio Gates Spafford, the man behind the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul.” She teaches English at Trinity College in Washington, DC. Find her online at www.wendybilen.com
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com