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Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus    by Jeremy Seal order for
by Jeremy Seal
Order:  USA  Can
Bloomsbury, 2005 (2005)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Jeremy Seal's Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus presents a witty, erudite account of the author's quest for Santa's origins around the world. It alternates between travel writing about the places where Saint Nicholas originated and his attributes evolved through time, and amusing modern day perspectives on the parent/child and parent/commerce relationships at Christmas time. In the latter, dreams are compared with the dross of reality.

Though not much is known of the original St. Nick, Seal traces him back to a bishop in Demre, Turkey. In those days martyrdom was the common path to sainthood, but this was not Nicholas' route. He apparently lived (among the people) a long life filled with kindness and good deeds, including that of the famed Three Daughters. They were about to be sold into prostitution by their impoverished (but noble) father, when Nicholas anonymously intervened - in Russia he was always known as Nicholas the Helper. He became a saint of the shoreline, his renown spread through the patronage of sailors, and by Christian pilgrims. A further territorial move came through a (forced) exchange of minorities between Turkey and Greece.

Seal speaks of 'the most celebrated heist of the age' when three ships from Bari descended on the basilica in Myra in 1087, after the saint's bones. There was a big business in relics in that era, and supposed bits and pieces of Saint Nick spread far and wide through Europe 'as an expanding international brand'. In Amsterdam (a trading center), he arrived from Spain as Sinterklaas accompanied by the Moorish Zwarte Piet. He showed up in Austria, France and Germany, with conditional gifts. Protestantism expelled him from the church into the home. He accompanied immigrants to the New World, where 'Santa's literary midwives' (Washington Irving and Clement Moore) eventually completed his transformation. He even made it back to Europe again.

It's a fascinating story, well written, a whimsical tracing of the spread of interest in this saint of kindness through history and the world's trading routes, and of the morphing of the myth from that of a Christian bishop to a chimney hopping jolly old elf with strong ties to the imagination of childhood and to commercialism. Seal even speaks of a 'gathering backlash' against the current manifestation, and ends in his own home with a modest family celebration. I enjoyed Nicholas very much, and would be happy to see a mild backlash succeed to the point of reducing the commercialism and re-emphasizing the kindness that started it all.

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