Review of The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus by Adam C. English
By ALEXIS NEAL
My idea of Santa Claus is based on an amalgamation of Disney specials, Norman Rockwell paintings, and the famous poem by Clement Clarke Moore. I know what every kid knows—that Santa looks vaguely like Edmund Gwenn. But I didn’t know a blessed thing about who he was before he was Santa Claus. Fortunately, Adam C. English was aware of my plight (shared by many Americans), and so he wrote The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus—a biography not of the jolly old elf who brings me presents (or, occasionally, coal) and has a penchant for slightly stale cookies and lukewarm milk, but of the man himself: Saint Nicholas of Myra.
Right off the bat, English is up against it. While Nicholas is the patron saint of, well, pretty much everything, precious little is known about the man himself. The issue is further complicated by the fact that one of the major Nicholas biographies conflates the life of Nicholas of Myra (or Bari) with Nicholas of Sion, who lived some 200 years later. The other primary biographer wrote his life of Nicholas to educate monks on Christian living—Nicholas being one of the few saints who was not martyred and therefore was a great example of Christian faithfulness into old age. However, because of the moralistic and didactic nature of that work, some of the anecdotes and effusive descriptions are rather suspect. The writer’s stories about this venerated saint start to sound like a mother who assures her children that Robin Hood (or Buzz Aldrin, or Babe Ruth, or whomever—insert your childhood hero here) always made his bed and never forgot to brush his teeth.
Still, English makes the most of what he has, and it’s clear that he’s done his homework. Not only has he dug up pretty much everything there is to know about Saint Nicholas of Myra (both during his lifetime and thereafter), but he offers loads of historical and cultural context to help readers appreciate Nicholas’ activities and accomplishments.
Sadly, this leads to one of the major failings of the work—the layout, organization, and, most egregiously, the paragraphing. Because there is such a dearth of material on Nicholas, English fills out the book with information about Nicholas of Sion (a.k.a. the Other Saint Nick), other saints who engaged in similar activities, and even comparable stories from pagan mythology. The trouble is, when English is providing this historical background or other information, he tends to do so not by starting a new paragraph (‘Similarly, Saint X was also said to have performed miracles of this type…’), choosing instead to barrel into the new story or offer a cultural aside or provide historical background in the same paragraph. The end result is sometimes confusing, and often difficult to wade through. However, this may have been more of an editorial failing than an authorial one.
Obviously, this is a biography rather than a devotional or theological work. English cites heavily to Scripture, which I appreciate and applaud, and the discussion of the Council at Nicea (where my man Nick punched a heretic, because Santa don’t play dat) certainly involves important theological doctrines. And of course there is the theological tangle of sainthood itself—the biblical validity of seeking assistance from the dead, the fine line between veneration and worship, etc. (English himself never weighs in on any of these issues, and this is neither the time nor the place to have that discussion). But the overall tenor of the work is historical (or, at any rate, as historical as the relatively undocumented life of a saint can be—particularly a saint to whom so many miraculous activities are attributed). Nonetheless, English does make some interesting theological points, most notably in connection with the tale of the three gifts.
In this story (which, as with all the Nicholas stories, is of rather dubious historicity), Nicholas—who had recently inherited his parents’ fortune—uses part of that fortune to bless a poor man about to sell his daughters into prostitution. On three separate occasions, Nicholas surreptitiously provides the funds necessary for the girls’ dowries, thus enabling them to marry. When he is finally caught in the act of generosity, he makes the father swear not to divulge his role in the matter until after his death. From this tale, English identifies three ways that Nicholas’ good work differs from many other saints and holy men of the time.
First of all, he notes that Nicholas did not just fling his wealth around indiscriminately. Where other holy men were more concerned about divesting themselves of their wealth than they were about doing actual good, Nicholas made an intelligent decision to use his money in a manner calculated to effect meaningful change. He knew the situation, knew the people, and exercised good stewardship in his giving. Second, his gift enabled the girls to get married, thereby affirming the value of marriage—which, in a religious culture that increasingly idealized the unmarried state, was no common thing. Third, Nicholas accomplished this ‘good deed’ using normal human means. There was no miracle here—any man possessed of means could have done the same.
And indeed, this ‘everyman’ quality is a large part of what has endeared Nicholas to his biographers and to those who call upon him in their hour of need. The biographers wanted an example of how to follow Christ when you’re not a martyr—an example they found in Nicholas. And while many more supernatural deeds have been credited to Nicholas, English maintains that this act of generosity is the best known of all his activities—and that it is this which propelled him to his eventual status as patron saint of gift-giving and made his name known worldwide.
This is, I think, a great reminder to Christians of the importance of humble, everyday acts of obedience. Most of us will never participate in or even witness a physical miracle. We can’t calm the sea for endangered sailors or multiply the supply of wheat or ooze magical healing goo from our tombs, as Saint Nicholas is rumored to have done. And even if we have the opportunity to punch a heretic, it might be best to abstain (criminal assault laws being what they are). Nevertheless all of us can be good stewards of whatever blessings we have received. And while our salvation comes not from our good works but from our position in Christ and his atoning death on the cross for our sins, He calls His justified people to a life of obedience. Trusting in His grace and relying on His power, we can obey God in the small things and trust that in His sovereignty He can use these small daily obediences to bring glory to His name in ways we could never imagine.
I received this book through the Patheos Book Club.
Alexis Neal is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area. She regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.