Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus Hardcover – Oct 13 2005
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On the heels of an eye-opening pre-Christmas trek to Santa's Kingdom with his six-year-old daughter, Seal commenced mapping the route an unassuming fourth-century bishop took to become a twenty-first-century icon who, surrounded by fake snow, didn't look like the sort "who usually went out of his way to be nice to children." Said to have secretly provided a poverty-stricken nobleman with enough dowry to marry off his three daughters, Nicholas had humble beginnings. Despite achieving the not insignificant distinction of sainthood via good works rather than martyrdom, his road to international fame wasn't easy by any means, what with Christian cities that revered him suddenly falling to non-Christians and banishing all things Christ-related. Then there was that pesky Reformation, when all saints became personae non gratae. Those obstacles came to seem speed bumps compared with others that Nikolai/Mikulas/Nicolaos/Nigul Klaus/Sinterklaas/Santa Claus would encounter. Told as if the generous saint were orchestrating his own popularity from a heavenly perch, Seal's account is chockablock with historical detail and dry humor. Donna Chavez
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
About the Author
Jeremy Seal is the author of several books, one of which, A Fez of the Heart, was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook/Daily Telegraph travel book award. He is also a contributor to London's Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, and Conde Nast Traveller. He lives in Bath, England, with his wife and daughters.
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Seal reveals how the man turned into a legend and how the related traditions evolved by pursuing him geographically, around Europe and into the New World. He shows that Santa/Nicholas is a universal figure, though different in each country, and the saint's legacy changes a bit with each generation.
The book is interesting and has some nice phrasing, but be warned: This is not "Santa: The Musical" - the going gets a bit dry. Still, some of it is also heartwarming, because it's interspersed with anecdotes from the author's own Christmas memories and his children's experiences.
I picked up this book in the discount section of a discount store. I thought it might be interesting reading and a diversion from my usual reading stack. As I began reading the book, it occurred to me that it was actually quite similar to "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" by Rebecca West. The author used a deft combination of geography, history, faith, culture, and personal experience. The book actually proved far more interesting than I thought it would be. It is one of those books that can really foment questions and reflections creating a challenge rather than merely dry comfortable re-telling of the same story.
Speaking of re-telling the same old story, this book is not hagiography in the traditional sense; though it certainly discusses the issue of hagiography. The subject, Nicholas is one of the most mythologized of all saints in Christendom. Any serious study of the saint will embroil the reader in a test of reality vs. myth. The larger question though is does the historical truth really matter when dealing with issues of faith? For example the issue of Nicholas slapping Arius during the First Ecumenical Council ... myth ... but does it really matter? This issue of myth and its creation and impact is addressed in this book though the topic could and should be a whole tome in and of its self.
The book traces the journey of St. Nicholas from his diocese in Myrna ever westward and northward as if he was the main character in the action. It may be unsettling for some readers as it gives the saint a lust for re-known out of the character normally assigned to the saint. However it is a very good device for moving and explaining the journey. To discount the device as frivolous or mere mirth is to deny the actions of and the intercessions of saints when they pass into the heavenly kingdom.
The journey surprised me. The saint changed form with each incremental move west. The rate of change proved uneven though adapted to each culture and its experience and norms. In some ways it conforms to the missionary methodologies of the early Orthodox Christian Church. What remained most constant is the notion of gift giving. For most of the journey St. Nicholas gave gifts in emulation of the famous story of the three daughters not on the days he gave those gifts but on his canonical feast day, the sixth of December. The date changed to January the first in the new world and then eventually to Christmas itself but not until almost the middle of the 19th century.
The appearance and accoutrements of Saint Nicholas changed with each cultural exposure as well. He lost much of his religious appearance during the English and Dutch iconoclasm of the 16th and 17th centuries. Though even in those societies he was still referred to as a Saint. The English eventually morphed him into Father Christmas though that could have religious implications. In some places such as The Netherlands he acquired an assistant "Black Piet" a Moor who helped him. It was not until around 1900 that the image of a white bewhiskered, ruddy faced man in red who drove a reindeer pulled sleigh solidified.
This book provides fodder for serious conversations and as such is a good starting point to look at a variety of issues about faith, memory, values, and society.
This book is essentially a "travelogue" of Seal's journey to all of the sites that figure in the transition from Saint Nicholas, a Catholic bishop from Myra (in modern Turkey), to "Santa Claus" of popular legend. Along the way, however, he provides abundant and historical detail.
Here are some quotations from the book:
"A prosperous nobleman ... fell into poverty. He eventually determined, since no suitors could be found for his three beautiful daughters in their impecunious state, to sell them into prostitution... Nicholas, not wishing to be identified in his philanthropy, went to the nobleman's house in the dead of night and ... threw a bag of gold through the window. In the morning, when the man found the mysterious gift, he was elated and married off his eldest daughter forthwith, using the gold as her dowry... 'Three Daughters,' as the story was commonly known..." (Pg. 28-29)
"The Council at Nicaea was the most significant ecclesiastical event since the missions of St. Paul and the Apostles... The bishop of Myra is conspicuously missing from the early surviving lists of delegates at Nicaea... Nicholas' devotees came to argue that he had not been absent from Nicaea as much as accidentally omitted from the lists. Their insistence paid off. Nicholas would get to Nicaea in A.D. 325; it just took him until the ninth century to do so." (Pg. 81)
"Written accounts of 'Three Daughters' make it clear what the girls were saved from by Nicholas' timely intervention. Symeon does not sound the habitual retreat into coy euphemism..." (Pg. 148)
"The Germans shifted their gift-giving to Christmas and installed in St. Nicholas' old role the replacement that the new date insisted upon: Christkind, or the Christ child." (Pg. 173)
"Clement Clarke Moore was only intending to amuse his own children when he wrote... 'An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.'" (Pg. 180)
"It was plain, wherever Santa was headed, that episcopal robes and stole, miter and crosier would not be traveling with him. The figure that Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore... had eased into the world was no longer a servant of the church." (Pg. 187)
"Popular perception tended to dress Santa in a wide-ranging palette... That all changed in 1869, when a book edition of (Thomas) Nast's Santa illustrations was published using a newly developed color printing process. The new processes did not think much of brown, preferring show-off tones, so Nast put Santa in red... Santa finally had settled on an outfit, at once efficiently insulated and flamboyant." (Pg. 192)
"(O)n Finnish government radio in 1927, they pointed out that Finnish Lapland could provide, among other things, the pasturing for Santa's lichen-hungry reindeer that the North Pole patently could not." (Pg. 201)