Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas NonFiction: Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas)

Santa Who? (ages 5 and up) by Gail Gibbons  
Text Summary:
The origins and evolution of the myth of Santa Claus are explored.   The original Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra.  He was known for giving gifts to children and to the poor.   Surprise gifts were often credited to his generosity.  After his death, a special gift-giving holiday was celebrated in his honor.  The legend of Saint Nicholas includes stories of gifts being sent down chimneys and him flying through the air.  Various cultures contributed to the contemporary image of Santa, like the Dutch who put out stockings and the northern Europeans who believed elves were gift givers.  Many cultures have a variation of Santa or a similar person, such as Befana, Father Christmas, and Babushka.  Clement Clark Moore’s poem called “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” and Thomas Nast’s pictures in Harper’s Weekly magazine were influential in bringing many different cultural myths together to create a definitive, modern image of him. 
Engaging, vibrant watercolor illustrations accompany a single paragraph on each page. The text is written in a clear, concise manner.  Just the right amount of information is given to provide a sound overview of the origins and evolution of this beloved holiday character. People of all ages will find Santa Who? informative and fascinating. 

The Real Santa Claus (ages 9 and up) by Marianne Mayer 
Text Summary:
The opening few pages reprint Clemet Clark Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” as well as a brief synopsis of the evolution of the Santa Claus myth.  The majority of the book focuses on Saint Nicholas, the bishop of Myra.  The story begins with his parents, devout Christians longing for a child.  They were elderly when he finally arrived, so they both died when he was a young boy.  Fortunately, they left him with a substantial inheritance that he used to help others.  His first great act of generosity was to a destitute man with three daughters.  Nicholas gave him a bag of gold for each one’s dowry.  He became a bishop by divine appointment.  According to the text, he raised three murdered youths from the dead, saved sailors on the high seas, and appeared in a vision before Emperor Constantine.  Due to Nicholas' wide range of miracles and generous acts, many see him as a patron of children, brides, unmarried women, sailors, pawnbrokers, perfumiers, travels, and several countries. 
This biography of Saint Nicholas is the most exhaustive I have come across in the area of children’s literature.  It is a picture book with medieval inspired illustrations in reds, blues, and neutrals.   The material is denser than a typical picture book.  There is often a full-page of text with a corresponding full-page watercolor picture.
I found this book informative and engaging, but I had one nagging problem.  Saint Nicholas is portrayed in a god-like fashion.  People prayed to him as well as gave him credit for blessings and miracles.  While I believe God could have done miracles through Nicholas, it is God who should get the glory, not the man.  Nicholas was merely an instrument of the giver of all good things--God.  Overall, I enjoyed learning more about a legendary figure in The Real Santa Claus.

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