How to deal with Santa? That’s the question many Christian parents ask. It’s impossible to keep all images of Santa away from children in our culture, yet not all Christians want to celebrate this make-believe man in a traditional way, feeling he may take away from the true focus of Christmas. So, many parents have chosen a middle road: They teach their children about the historical Santa.
Saint Nicholas (The Real Story of the Christmas Legend) by Julie Stiegmeyer is designed to do just that. In this short picture book, we’re introduced to the historical Santa Claus, a monk (called a “pastor” in this book) named Nicholas who lived in modern-day Turkey about 300 years after Jesus lived on earth.
The author says that every day Nicholas “swept through the village in his long robes” (which are shown, in the illustrations by Chris Ellison, to be red with white trim), speaking with and being kind to the children of his village. “He shared Jesus Christ’s overflowing love with the people in all he said and did,” the author writes. One day, Nicholas runs into a little boy named Satka, who is crying because his father is upset. Nicholas, wanting to help, finds Satka’s father. The father’s heart is heavy. He has three daughters, but he cannot afford a dowry for any of them. (“In those days long ago,” the author says, “when ladies wanted to get married, they needed money or other things of value to set up a home. This was called a dowry.”) Nicholas tells the father to pray and trust in God.
As Nicholas prays for the family himself, he gets an idea. That night, he sneaks into Satka’s house and leaves three bags of gold in the shoes of Satka’s three sisters. Now they have a dowry, and may marry. The girls’ father prays: “Lord, from Your bounty You gave us Your own dear Son. Now Your blessings have poured out to us again. We give you thanks and praise.”
There is also an author’s note about St. Nicholas Day, when “many families…[have] the children in the home place their shoes by the door when they go to bed…When they awaken on the morning of Dec. 6, their shoes are filled with bags of gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins." The author concludes: "The significance of Nicholas for us today is that his response to God’s great love for us in Jesus was to care for other people.”
The last page of the book is a glossary, including many terms that aren’t found in the text of the story, but which apply to the story nonetheless. This includes definitions for baptism, generosity, Father Christmas, Lord’s Supper, pastor, and saint. (The latter's definition is: “ This is a word from the Greek language that means ‘holy one.’ A Christian is holy by faith in Christ, our Redeemer.”)
What I Like: I appreciate the effort to show the historical Santa Claus in words a child can readily understand. Overall, the author does a good job of explaining one of the famous legends about St. Nicholas. The illustrations in this book are classic in style, choosing to portray ancient Turkey in a fairly realistic fashion, and the illustrator does a nice job of showing expressiveness in the faces of the characters. And if you want to celebrate St. Nicholas Day in your house, there is no better book to introduce the holiday to your child.
What I Dislike: This story is portrayed as “real.” While we do know St. Nicholas exsisted at this time and place, and while the story of his providing a dowry for these girls is known, the latter may or may not be true. It is more legend than fact. Since this book is most likely to be read by parents who want to impart “Santa truth” in their children, this may be a strong negative. To correct this, all the author would need to do is write something along the lines of: “Some people say…” before getting into the dowry story. However, if this detail bothers you as it bothers me, you can easily add these words yourself as you read to your child. Or, discuss the difference between fact and legend when you’re done reading the story.
Overall Rating: Very Good.
Age Appeal: According to the publisher, 4 - 8, but my two year old likes this book, also.
Publishing Info: Concordia, 2003; ISBN: 0758603762; hard back, $12.99.