By Gail Gibbons
Children's book review by P.J. Rooks
Santa Who? is an outstanding introduction to the true history of Saint Nicholas -- a globe-trotting tour de Yule that families who have opted out of "doing" Santa will especially enjoy.
Gail Gibbons' colorfully illustrated picture book covers the New Testament era of the Santa myth, beginning, of course, in a stable in Bethlehem. Although she very briefly touches on them, Gibbons does not complicate the many legends of Christmas by tracking back through pre-Christian days of solstice celebrations, Mithraism, paganism and Saturn, or by explaining how Roman Emperor Constantine instituted the first official Christian Christmas at the same time as the much more prevalent pagan festivities so that the pagans, thus distracted, would leave the new Christians alone (and maybe not feed any to the lions on that day.)
After a very brief, one-page overview of Jesus' birth, Santa Who? moves into the legends that sprung up after the death of the Bishop of Myra, a.k.a. Saint Nicholas. Gibbons' rather etymological timeline takes us on a whirlwind tour of the last 1,700 years of Santas 'round the world.
The Bishop of Myra, remembered for his anonymous gifts to the poor (sometimes dropped down chimneys in the middle of the night) was canonized by the Greek Orthodox Church after his death in 343. His feast day was December 6.
From there, the Dutch renamed him "Sinter Claes," sinter for saint and Claes, a nick-name for Nicholas. Provisions for the traveling ghost of Christmases future and his donkey were placed at the fireplace along with the children's shoes, which, at first light, were found filled with gifts.
Old English "Christes Masse" sprung up in the 1500s as some religious leaders protested the giving of gifts to celebrate the feast days of the saints. Jesus' celebration was moved to December 25.
The German "Christkindl," the Spanish "Niño Jesús," the French "Petit Noël," the Italian "Gesù Bambino," the English "Father Christmas" and many others became symbols of gift-giving. Norway, Sweden and Denmark added helpful elves, Jule-tomar or Jule-Nisser, to the tale. The Italians tossed in a legend of a wandering spirit named Befana who left presents for all children as she roamed the earth seeking the Christ child.
When the Dutch arrived in New York in the early 1600s, the local kids liked their Sinter Claes better than their own Father Christmas, and again, legends merged. Washington Irving, in 1809, released his wildly imagined and widely received Dutch Christmas fable in Knickerbocker's History of New York.
Quick on Irving's heels was Clement Clark Moore's famous poem, now known as The Night Before Christmas, (originally titled An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas) which again added many fanciful renderings to the growing fairy tale.
Santa Who? tells us that Christmas became an official U.S. holiday in the middle of the 19th century and in 1863, was bestowed it's current image by the artistic renderings of Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly magazine and here is where our timeline pretty much leaves off.
Gibbons goes on to explain, briefly, some of the more familiar versions of our modern Santa, such as the creation of a wife to keep him company at the North Pole and how it seems that Santa is on every street corner this time of year.
"He's found in stores and malls, listening as children read their Christmas lists. He appears on Christmas cards, in movies, on wrapping paper and in songs. Over the years, many cultures have added to our image of Santa Claus. What a jolly and joyous gift-giver he has become," she writes.
Now isn't the truth so much more interesting than the fiction? In creating Santa Who?
, Gibbons has sifted through a mountain of information and has successfully whittled it down to a small set of facts that is both manageable and within the attention span of most little kids. Her book is an objective history in which no one myth, religious or otherwise, is given extra face-time at the expense of the others. Uncomplicated by long-winded explanations or twisted historical sub-narratives, readers follow a clear thread as Christmas evolves through time and circles the globe to finally become the nostalgic holiday that we know today.
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An end note -- Just in case you're scratching your head and wondering, after all this, why didn't Santa Who? explain the colossal involvement of the Coca Cola company in designing our modern visage of Santa, check out this story on Snopes. As it turns out, that's just another Christmas legend in itself. While it's true that Coca Cola seized upon Nast's concept of Santa and used it heavily in their marketing, the image was already quite well-known due to the popularity of Harper's Weekly.
Read more of P.J.'s reviews.
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