Third-century saint was model of charity and justice, author says
Jesus is the reason for the Christmas season, but the man who gets much of the attention this time of year isn’t our Savior who was born in a Bethlehem manger 2,000 years ago. It’s the “jolly old elf” in the red suit riding a sleigh and delivering presents to good girls and boys. We know him as Santa Claus or St. Nick — a commercialized version of a real saint: Nicholas of Myra who lived in the third and fourth century in what is now Turkey and who was known for his generosity and commitment to justice.
Adam English, an associate professor of theology and philosophy at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., has written a new book, “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra,” telling the story of Nicholas’ faith and his role in shaping the early Christian church.
English believes the life of St. Nicholas, whose feast day is Dec. 6, can be a model for refocusing on the real meaning of the season. As one reviewer noted, “Having devoted his life to serving Jesus Christ, the real St. Nicholas invites us to a truer and more joyful celebration of Christmas.”
The following is an edited version of a Nov. 28 interview with Adam English, author of the new book, “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra.” It was conducted by Joe Towalski, editor of The Catholic Spirit.
Q: I assume that, growing up, your ideas about St. Nicholas were like a lot of other kids’ ideas about St. Nicholas, that he was Santa Claus?
I grew up in a Christian home and my parents had some misgivings, as many Christian parents do, about Santa Claus. They wanted to reinforce that Jesus is the reason for the season. But, at the same time, they also wanted us to experience the joys of Christmas morning, discovering presents under the tree. On Christmas Eve, we would read “The Night Before Christmas” and the biblical story from Luke.
That’s another reason I became interested in St. Nicholas, because I really see that the historical person of St. Nicholas gives us a way, as Christians, to reconcile these two seemingly incompatible things — Santa Claus and the birth of our Savior. Here you have St. Nicholas, a Christian pastor, a bishop [of Myra], who models for us Christian charity and Christian virtue. So you have this connection. As Christians, I don’t think we have to simply say no to Santa Claus; we can say yes to St. Nicholas.
Q: If we thought of Santa Claus more in light of St. Nicholas, and if he were modeled a little more after the real St. Nicholas, how might that change our approach to the Christmas season?
I think it would broaden it in so many ways because part of what St. Nicholas challenges us to do is expand our scope for Christmas. If all you do is Santa Claus, it’s a purely domestic sort of celebration centered on the hearth and home and warm family memories. But to bring St. Nicholas into the tradition, he’s going to challenge you to move outside of your own home, to involve your community, to give beyond your own immediate family. His example is charity, not presents for his own family, but for those he didn’t even know.
I think it can challenge us to do even something simple — like bake a batch of cookies with your kids and leave cookies for your neighbors, or bag up groceries and leave them anonymously on the doorstep of someone who needs them, or go to [a store] and pay off someone’s layaway bill, as we hear of people doing from time to time. That’s really the challenge that Nicholas gives us: to say your giving has to be more than to the people you love, it has to be those on the outside.
Q: Do you have a favorite story that you really appreciate about St. Nicholas?
One of the earliest stories that circulated about Nicholas is the story in which he saves three innocent men from beheading. What I love about that story is that it makes us appreciate that Nicholas was not only interested in charity. We associate him with gift-giving and that’s right and true, but then he was also associated with justice — defending the innocent and demanding that justice be served and that people be treated fairly.
There’s a side of him that was very much the lawyer, the social activist, the person that was not afraid to get his hands dirty and get in the mix of things and defend those who needed defending. We still have some residue of that when you think about Santa Claus with his list of naughty and nice, kind of weighing out deeds, maybe that’s the American residue of this virtue, of this trait. It was very much in Nicholas, this very deep concern for justice.
Q: Did St. Nicholas play a significant role in early Christian history? Is he more than just the gift-giver we hear stories about?
He lived at a very transitional moment in church history. When he was born [sometime after A.D. 260], Christianity was an illegal minority religion. When he died [in 343], Christianity was a legalized and a highly favored religion on the ascendancy. He attended one the most famous, most important councils in church history, the council of Nicea in the year 325.
This is where things get difficult as a historian because Nicholas, although he lived through all these things, he did not seem to necessarily contribute anything of enormous historical importance at the time. It really is after his death that people begin to notice him for the small things.
There’s a story I spend a good bit of time recounting in the book about how he gives dowry money. There are three young girls who were on the verge of destitution, one foot in the poorhouse, and he anonymously in the middle of the night goes by their windows and tosses in a bag of gold three separate times so that each of them can use it as a dowry to marry. That act, although really of no historical importance — it’s not an empire-shaping kind of event — really grabs the imagination of the people at the time, as it does even for us today. It really demonstrates: What is Christian virtue? What does Christian charity look like?
He doesn’t leave us sermons or theological tracks or legislation. He leaves us a witness, a model. And, really, I think that’s what people need. Many people are not going to take time to read a lengthy expositional sermon, but if you can capture, in just a picture: Here’s what Jesus would do, here’s what Christian charity demands — that’s what captures people’s hearts and imagination. That you find somebody who is on that brink of hopelessness and you help them out in the name of Jesus, not because they deserve it, not because they’re high and important, but because it’s the right thing to do. He gives, for the ordinary Christian, this amazing example of Christian charity and Christian justice.
Q: Is there a meaningful way for Christians to incorporate St. Nicholas into their spiritual lives during this Advent season?
I would really love to see families more fully celebrating St. Nicholas Day and using St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6, to reach out into the community as a family or as a church to make that a day of giving and a day of service, to do something for your neighbor.
You have a 10-year-old daughter. When you talk to her about St. Nicholas, having done all this research and writing the book, is it a little bit different than it might have been before you did the research?
I could bore her to death with details now that I couldn’t do before [he laughs]. We have always tried to tell her the truth; I guess that’s been our policy. Which is to say we’ve always told her that Nicholas was a good, loving Christian pastor from very old times who is now dead, and that parents relive St. Nicholas and relive some of the wonderful things he did by playing the role of Santa Claus for their children and giving gifts in the same way that St. Nicholas gave gifts during the middle of the night.
I guess [this approach] does lose some of the childish mystery of Christmas eve, but we just really felt that we didn’t want to be telling her that Santa Claus was real and at the same time saying also, by the way, Jesus is real and we’re celebrating his birth on this day. And then at some point saying, ‘Oh, and by the way, Santa Claus is not real, but everything we told you about Jesus is real. I guess we just felt that if she can’t trust us on the one, how’s she going to trust us on the other?
So she still is happy to get the presents, even though she knows they’re from us, and not from the North Pole. That’s the way we’ve handled it, but I definitely feel that each parent needs to do what he or she feels is right.
New books offer wealth of options for spiritual reading during Advent
- “Exploring Advent With Luke: Four Questions for Spiritual Growth” by Timothy Clayton. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Ind., 2012). 149 pp., $13.95.
- “A Catholic Family Advent: Prayers and Activities” by Susan Hines-Brigger. Franciscan Media (Cincinnati, 2012). 50 pp., $7.99.
- “Advent and Christmas Wisdom from St. Vincent de Paul” by John E. Rybolt, CM. Liguori Publications (Liguori, Mo., 2012). 128 pp., $10.99.
- “Italian Christmas Eve: The Feast of Seven Fishes: A Reminiscence with Recipes” by Linda and Rocco Maniscalco. StataBuon.com (2010). 77 pp., $12.95.
- “Holy Days: Meditations on the Feasts, Fasts and Other Solemnities of the Church” by Pope Benedict XVI. Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2012). 94 pp., $12.
- “A Mary Christmas” by Kathleen M. Carroll. Franciscan Media (Cincinnati, 2012). 94 pp., $12.99.
- “Holy Family Prayer Book: Prayers for Every Family” by Missionaries of the Holy Family. Liguori Publications (Liguori, Mo., 2012). 111 pp., $8.99.
- “O Radiant Dawn: 5-Minute Prayers Around the Advent Wreath” by Lisa M. Hendey. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Ind., 2012). 32 pp., $1.25