Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Legend of Saint Nicholas

The true story of St. Nicholas - a real man who served God well on earth - is a favorite in my home. My children love hearing about "the real Santa Claus" and why he's remembered today. Anselm Grun's The Legend of Saint Nicholas, then, ought to be a welcomed addition to our family bookshelf...

The book recounts the major stories surrounding Nicholas, who lived in the 4th century A.D. It begins with his birth, which the author says happened only after his parents prayed for a child. Nicholas becomes a priest, and his parents die, leaving him quite an inheritance. This Nicholas uses to help the needy.

There is one father in Nicholas' town who is so poor, he considers selling his three daughters in order to help support the rest of his family. Hearing this, Nicholas secretly drops a bags full of money into the man's home. The family rejoices; now the daughter's can marry. (The author neglects to mention that in those days, women needed a dowry of money in order to wed.)

Nicholas becomes bishop, and some time later, some sailors are caught in a terrible storm. They call out for Nicholas, and soon Nicholas appears, walking on water. He helps the sailors get their ship under control, then disappears.

Now there is a famine, and Nicholas prays for the people. God tells Nicholas to go to the harbor the next morning - there is a ship there that will feed everyone. But the captain of the ship is worried; the emperor will punish him if the grain is underweight. Nicholas promises the grain will measure out perfectly, even if he shares the grain with the people. Miraculously, there is enough grain for two whole years - plus the grain the emperor ordered.

Nicholas dies, and a nobleman asks St. Nicholas for help; he wants a son, and promises to make a golden cup for the saint if he gets one. His wife gives birth to a son and the nobleman has a cup made - but it's so beautiful, he decides to keep it for himself. He has another cup made for the saint, and he and his son travel by water to deliver it to the church of St. Nicholas. The son falls into the water and drowns, but the nobleman takes the second cup to the church anyway. He tried to put the second cup on the alter, but it keeps falling off. Then his son, whom he thought was dead, runs in and places the first cup on the alter, saying St. Nicholas saved him from drowning.

Finally, the book mentions Nicholas' kindness to children and St. Nicholas' Eve, where children traditionally leave their shoe by the door with the hope that Nicholas will leave them a gift.

What I Like: The illustrations, by Giuliano Ferri, are rich in color - and while they have a sort of primitive look about them, do a good job of telling the story and showing the emotions of the characters.

What I Dislike: Almost everything.

This book is historically inaccurate, which is a real shame. For example, Nicholas' parents died when he was still a boy. He was raised by his uncle and certainly wasn't a priest at the time. Grun's writing is also really dry, making what could be a interesting story ho-hum. The legends the author includes offer some details I've never heard before; for example, I'd never heard that Nicholas supposedly walked on water or that the father was considering selling his daughters as slaves. I don't know whether this is because the legends in this book are inaccurate or if these are just aspects of the legends that aren't commonly told.

Protestants will probably be uncomfortable with the last legend in the book, where the nobleman seems to pray to St. Nicholas. And the ending seems really tacked on - telling us about the less familiar St. Nicholas' Eve, but not about Nicholas' connection to Christmas.

And since this book is written in such a straight-forward manner, with no hesitation to talk about some of the more difficult legends surrounding St. Nicholas, I'm surprised it doesn't even mention that he was persecuted because of his faith.

For those looking for a better, more kid-friendly picture book about St. Nicholas, I recommend The Legend of Saint Nicholas by Dandi Daley Mackall or Saint Nicholas by Julie Stiegemeyer.

Overall Rating: Ho-hum.

Age Appeal: I'd say about 6 - 12.

Publishing Info: Eerdmans, 2014; ISBN 978-0802854346; hardback, 26 pgs., $16.00

Buy at Amazon for $12.97

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