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Book Review - The True Saint Nicholas Why He Matters to Christmas by William J. Bennett c. 2009

William J. Bennett served as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H. W. Bush and as Secretary of Education and Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Reagan. He holds a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy from Williams College, a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Texas, and a law degree from Harvard. He is the author of such bestselling books as The Educated Child, The Death of Outrage, The Book of Virtues, and the two-volume series America: The Last Best Hope. Dr. Bennett is the host of the nationally syndicated radio show Bill Bennett's Morning in America. He is also the Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute and a regular contributor to CNN. He, his wife, Elayne, and their two sons, John and Joseph, live in Maryland.

Saint Nicholas was a historic 4th century Greek  Catholic Bishop of Myra part of Turkey today in Lycia. Source:

Nicholas was born in 280 A.D. in Patara, Greece. He was the only son of wealthy parents who died during a plague when he was a young boy. He went to live with his uncle Nicholas who was an Abbott in a nearby monastery. He decided to study for the priesthood and gave away his possessions including the inheritance he got from his parents. He was ordained as a priest.

Later he was promoted to be Bishop of Myra. Nicholas spent his life in Myra serving his people and spreading his Christian faith. He visited the sick, collected donations for the needy, counseled those in trouble, befriended the lonely, baptized converts, ordained priests, married couples and buried the dead.

Nicholas heard of a needy family whose father had three daughters who needed dowries. He dropped off a bag of gold coins at three different times. It was said that Nicholas dropped coins into children’s shoes that were left outside their homes.

When the Roman government was persecuting Christians because of their religious beliefs and their refusal to worship the Roman emperor and sacrifice to the old Roman gods Nicholas was put in jail. While in prison he conducted Christian worship services among the prisoners and tended to the sick there the best he could.

In 313 A.D. Roman Emperor Constantine granted freedom to all religions. Nicholas was let out of prison. When famine struck Lycia he convinced some visiting ship captains who were carrying grain to Constantinople to sell a part of their grain to the Lycia area so the people there were able to survive the most difficult time of the famine.

In 325 A.D. Nicholas was a member of a group of Bishops assembled together in the city of Nicea, Italy by Roman Emperor Constantine to settle a theological dispute. The Nicene Council as it was called drew up a statement called the Nicene Creed that affirms faith in the Holy Trinity stating that Jesus Christ is “one substance with God the father.”

“Nicholas died December 6, 343 A.D. in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church. A liquid called manna flows out of his grave that is said to have healing powers. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day, December 6th (December 19 on the Julian Calendar). During the Middle Ages people began to exchange gifts on this day.

In the 11th century Myra fell into the hands of Muslim Turks. Italian sailors brought the remains of Nicholas to Bari in the southeastern part of Italy.

After Nicholas’ remains were brought to Bari, the healing manna liquid continued to flow from his new grave. Vials of manna from his remains have been taken all over the world for centuries, and can still be obtained from his church in Bari. Even up to the present day, a flask of manna is extracted from the tomb of Saint Nicholas every year on December 6 (the Saint's feast day) by the clergy of the basilica. The manna is collected from a sarcophagus which is located in the basilica vault and can be obtained in the shop nearby. Source:

“Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas' life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need.” Source:

The author relates stories of how Nicholas miraculously through God’s help saved generals from execution, and sailing ships from stormy destruction.

Stories of Nicholas spread throughout Europe. The Vikings who attacked and settled in Europe from about 800 A.D. to 1000 A.D. took home stories and tales about Saint Nicholas. Sailors claimed him as their protector and would pray to him for help during stormy voyages. Christopher Columbus in the 1490’s named a couple of places after Saint Nicholas when he landed in Haiti. In 1624 Dutch colonists settled in Manhattan bringing with them tales of Saint Nicholas.

Names for Saint Nicholas abound: England - Father Christmas, France - Pere Noel, Germany - Weihnachtsmann, Netherlands – Sinterklaas, USA – Kris Kringle which refers to the Christ child from German origin and Santa Claus.

The American version of the Santa Claus figure received its inspiration and its name from the Dutch legend of Sinter Klaas, brought by settlers to New York in the 17th century.

Santa Claus got his current garb, sleigh, reindeer and activity of gift giving to children from such Americans and institutions such as: author Washington Irving, seminary professor Clement Clark Moore, illustratorThomas Nast, Coca-Cola, and Montgomery Wards.

In 1809 Washington Erving published a mock history of New York under the name Diedrich Knickerbocker in which he described Saint Nicholas riding a wagon with horses that flew over tree tops in which he would drop presents down chimneys or go down chimneys to bring gifts to children.

In 1823 Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas that included such details as the names of Santa’s flying reindeer; referred to Santa as an elf, and how he returns up the chimney to his sleigh. He mentioned Santa Claus coming on December 24. Christmas became a holiday for children – children all snuggled in their beds.

Illustrator Thomas Nast depicted a rotund Santa wearing a red suit for Christmas issues of Harper's magazine from the 1860s to the 1880s. Nast added such details as Santa's workshop at the North Pole and Santa's list of the good and bad children of the world. Source:

In 1891 President Harris said he would have a Christmas tree and be Santa himself for his grandchildren. Parents became secret Santa with the help of the Sears catalog. Norman Rockwell put Santa Claus on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. In 1924 Santa began appearing in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

Artist Haddon Sundblom introduced a human-sized Santa Claus in a series of illustrated ads for Coca-Cola in 1931. Rudolph, the ninth reindeer, with a red and shiny nose, was invented in 1939 by an advertising writer for the Montgomery Ward Company. Source:

By the mid- 20th century Saint Nicholas the bishop had disappeared in the U.S. and in his place had become Santa Claus who had come to town.

In 1897 eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the New York Sun newspaper asking whether there was a Santa Claus since some of her friends had been telling her he was not real. Editor Francis P. Church responded to her in an editorial that has become the most famous one in the U.S. – Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus…

Bennett states that the stories of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus are arguably true in a moral way. They offer generosity, kindness, justice, and self-sacrifice over cruelty, injustice and self-indulgence. They are about the celebration of human closeness and decency, and about the caring of others. They are about raising the sights and efforts toward a better life. Santa Claus stands for compassion, service, selflessness and largeness of spirit.

According to Bennett one essential truth of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus is the goodness of offering a gift with no expectation of anything in return. Santa Claus is the result of a Christ- inspired goodness that has rippled across 17 centuries from Nicholas’ time to our own. The history of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus is like a miracle in itself that resonates with God’s love.

Bennett tells who Saint Nicholas was and how Santa Claus came to be. The true spirit of Christmas is the message of loving one another brought to us by a babe in a manager so long ago.

Christ is the reason for the celebration of Christmas and his example is what Christians strive to follow. Saint Nicholas appears to be a good example of successfully following Christ’s example of living and following his commands. I related the history of Nicholas and Santa to impress upon you the importance of his influence upon others to love and be helpful to one another.

The 116 page book is a quick read. Bennett quotes the Bible frequently to support his narrative. He has listed other sources at the end for further reading on Saint Nicholas.

I would recommend this book to adults and teens to learn about the origin and histories of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus and the true meaning of Christmas of which they represent. - MA


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