Okay, maybe that is a silly title, but it got your attention. You see, just before Thanksgiving, I received an early Christmas present in the mail — an intriguing copy of The Saint Who Would be Santa Claus by Adam C. English of Campbell University.
English does a masterful job of weaving together the stories that make up the life of St. Nicholas of Myra. His goal is to separate what we know about the lives of St. Nicholas of Myra and St. Nicholas of Symeon, two very separate early Christians who over the years have been joined into a legendary third St. Nicholas, the saint who ultimately became known as the source for our modern, Coca-Cola created jolly old elf known as Santa Claus.
While this is where his journey begins, English quickly turns to the primary sources, untangling the lives and the legends of the two saints. He masterfully reassembles them within the context of place and time, and in the process writes a fascinating tale of the early Christianity of the great Persecutions and the Christianity that just preceded and was contemporary with the apparent conversion of the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea.
Some readers and some scholars might be uncomfortable with English’s story telling style, but I could not help but be drawn in the possibility of the tale he tells, particularly his imaginative placing of Nicholas at the first Council of Nicaea (despite the fact that the evidence of his actual participation is far from clear):
Nicholas broke open his letter, prepared for anything. To his surprise it was a request that all bishops assemble at the emperor’s personal residence in Nicaea in order to convene a council. … Nicholas might have looked at the piles of brick and stone of his new church and sighed. Everything would have to wait In May of 325, he obeyed the emperor’s summons, packed his bags, and headed north toward the small town of Nicaea, present day Iznik, Turkey, more than 400 miles away. (pg. 97)
We have the letter summoning the bishops to Nicaea We do not have the personal copy summoning Nicholas to join that meeting. But frankly, I do not care that English stretches the evidence in that way. For in this moment, and throughout the book, he invites me to stand with the saints that came before and to try for just a moment to feel the excitement and the risk and the calling that must have been true for those who struggled to protect and grow the fledgling faith that I now share with them. It is a feeling that we all need to remember, as we ourselves live in a time when the church is battered and assaulted from both the inside and the outside.
The remainder of the book is devoted to an account of the ways in which Nicholas was venerated by later generations and his general importance as a saint of the faith. In the end, this is a book that is less about Nicholas of Myra and Santa Claus than it is a book about the world into which he was born and in which he lived the life that caused us to remember him. And for someone like me who has lived a faith life in traditions that do not encourage the veneration of saints, this wonderful book nudged me to open my mind and understand the importance of stories such as this and other Hagiographa in the communication of our faith. After all, what is more Baptist than to testify?