Tales and Their Tellers Christmas (7): The Prayer of Saint Nicholas

Tales and Their Tellers Christmas (7): The Prayer of Saint Nicholas

By Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner

We call upon Your mercy, O Lord. Through the intercession of St. Nicholas, keep us safe amid all dangers so that we may go forward without hindrance on the road to salvation.

I liked the idea of beginning with the prayer of Saint Nicholas – or, “jolly St. Nick,” as he is known this time of the year – who was an intensely religious man who would one day be transformed though the power of storytelling into the poster child for godless secularism and materialism. According to The Legend of Saint Nicholas by Demi, “As soon as he was born, Nicholas showed amazing and miraculous powers. On his very first day, he stood up in his bath and prayed to God!”

Was baby Jesus himself as pious as this? I think not.

There is a war on Christmas, so we are told. This year, though, it felt different, as though the war was threefold. As though it wasn’t merely a battle between religious and secular forces, but between Good Religion and Evil Religion: Mosques and Qur’ans over here, Hymns and Nativities over there… Which was kind of nice in a sickening way, because it allowed the secular humanists of the nation to take a nice, well-deserved break from being demonized, to sit back and take objective stock of what’s going on. Clearly what we’ve got before us is not a war between religion and secularism at all, so much as it is a war between competing stories. A war between tales and their tellers, as it were.  But can’t we all just get along?

I like Christmas. Last column I waxed romantic about my love affair with Halloween and all things dark and sinister, but Christmas definitely holds a place in my heart as well, immeasurably more so as a parent. Each year, the Christmas mythology takes its hold a little firmer, and Arlo interacts with it more and more.

The first Christmas, he was only one month old, and everything was foisted upon him. We took turns posing with him in front of the tree, lights twinkling in the background, Arlo’s eyes gazing off toward nowhere.

The second Christmas he began to enjoy the decorations more, the bright colors, the funny characters with the pointy ears and the reindeer with the red nose, but I think it came as something of a surprise to him when, on Christmas morning, he was presented with several brightly wrapped boxes, and was told to unwrap them and that he would be able to keep what was inside. He looked at us in delight. What was this wonderful day? What could it possibly mean?

It did not take him long to figure it out. The following year, he was already quite savvy. He could sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” including the entire preamble: “You know Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen…” He had opinions on what life was like in the North Pole, how Santa got around. He knew the Grinch, was well-acquainted with Frosty, and got along well with all of the elves.

Then, a year and a half ago, we began attending church. Suddenly, there was a new flotilla of Christmas-themed stories to tell and to re-tell!

He learned “We Three Kings,” and took pleasure in pronouncing, “star of MIGHT!” He knows all about the Shepherds and the baby Jesus, Mary, the Heavenly Host. (He’s very specific about that.  They’re not angels, they’re a heavenly host.)  This year he even portrayed Joseph in his preschool pageant, delivering the line, “Can we stay here?” with all the weight and gravity due its ancient origins.

There is no discrepancy between these two mythologies in Arlo’s view, not that I can discern. They are not in competition.

Each week we journey to the Glenside Public Library and browse through its many shelves of children’s Christmas books.  During the holiday season, you can only check out three books at a time, and for only one week, so you must be discerning and return often. The books are not separated by any thematic distinction. Santa Calls by William Joyce –  a frenetic adventure-fantasy complete with flying cars and evil elves – is right there next to The Christmas Story by Gennedy Spirin – an absolutely gorgeous book which, on first glance, appears to be a reproduction of classical paintings centered around the birth of the Christ. My favorite illustration is of the angel visiting the shepherds, a huge, golden figure, luminous, slowly touching down with outstretched wings as the tiny figures of the shepherds cower their eyes and run for cover. There are no flying cars.

But it doesn’t stop there. In addition to the several dozen books about the nativity and Santa Claus phantasmagoria, there were several other wonderful gems waiting to be discovered. While the Bear Sleeps by Caitlin Matthews (whom you will no doubt recall as one of the authors of Tricks of the Tale which I mentioned in my How to Spot a Trickster column) chronicles all of the winter holidays and traditions from around the globe. Within its pages you will find the bloody conflict which inspired Hanukkah, Saint Lucia and her crown of burning candles, the winter solstice, and that’ s just the beginning.

In keeping with the multiculturalism, I also found a wonderful book entitled Spirit Child, which was written in 1583 in Aztec and translated into English for the first time in 1984 specifically for this picture book. It is a retelling of the nativity story combined with European folklore and Aztec sensibilities and turns of phrase, yet manages to out-evangelize the more traditional evangelical texts:

His holiness and mysteriousness are exactly the same as the holiness and mysteriousness of God the father himself. It is God the father who has become a human being and has come to live among us. He has come to be our savior. Everyone can be spared. The devil has no power to seize even a single person from the hands of Jesus.

I had a lot of fun reading that aloud to Arlo.

What connects them all is that they’re all beautiful and imaginative, moral and uplifting, all arranged alphabetically without fear of contamination, to be opened and read and loved.

One of Arlo’s favorite Christmas books, however, is of course The Polar Express by the great Chris van Allsburg. It is what you call a perennial favorite, first published 25 years ago and winner of the Caldecott Award in 1986. He was so nuts about it we even had a Polar Express-themed birthday party for him, and have set up the Polar Express model train around the base of our Christmas Tree.

The story is well known by all, I would think. A small boy is awakened on Christmas Eve by the sounds of “hissing steam and squeaking metal,” outside his bedroom window. There, standing before him, bound for the North Pole, and filled with car after car of happy, laughing children, is an improbable express train, waiting to whisk him away for a midnight meeting with Santa.

As always, van Allsburg paints in his very realistic style. He says because the themes of his books are so fantastic, the the illustrations should be as grounded as possible to make the story feel real. My favorite image is the Polar Express traveling through a thick forest, where a pack of wolves have darted their heads up in anticipation of the rumbling locomotive.

The story ends with Santa delivering a silver sleigh bell to the young child. However, when he then shows it to his parents, they assume it must be broken.

At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.

This is a common theme for several of the Santa Claus-centered books. Do you believe? Do you? For how long will you believe? Will you continue to believe even when surrounded by others who do not?

Arlo believes. Why wouldn’t he? Every Christmas morning, he runs downstairs to find that Santa has eaten his cookies and drank his milk. Every year there is that one special present beneath the tree in the special wrapping paper which neither Melinda nor myself know anything about, which contains the very present which he had asked Santa for when he had sat on his lap several weeks previous. (This year, for example, when Santa came around the neighborhood on the back the firetruck and asked, “And what would YOU like for Christmas?” Arlo quickly responded, “I want a double-rotored Hess helicopter!”)

And yet, Arlo can be very skeptical. He’s a big fan of playing detective and using all of the deductive powers at his disposal. So far, he has not found reason to doubt the existence of Santa Claus, but I wonder for how long. When I read The Polar Express with Arlo, even though it clearly states, Yes, don’t worry, Santa really does exist, I have to wonder if it’s actually working against itself by even posing the question in the first place. Why would it even be a question as to whether or not he exists? When we read a book about cowboys, the stories don’t end with, Do you believe that cowboys really exist? Even though you’ve never seen a cowboy, will you continue to believe? Even if grown-ups tell you there’s no such thing as cowboys, will you know deep down in your child-like heart that cowboys are real?

There is also – I can’t help but note – the unspoken and unsettling notion that when one has lost faith in Santa, one has lost something fundamental about themselves.

Clearly, that is a metaphor borrowed directly from the more religious side of the Christmas coin, but curiously I have not found many examples of religious books for children which beg the reader to believe that it is true. No, it’s only the so-called secular stories which entreat us to believe in them, as though belief were only a sort of game to be played at. No one really believes in Santa after a certain age, but isn’t it fun to pretend that there’s something fundamental at stake?

I found the classic story Amahl and the Night Visitors to be an interesting religious parallel with The Polar Express. This is a classic tale originally written in 1951 by Gian Carlo Menotti, which you will know as the famous opera and made-for-television film from 1978. This year, I found a very beautiful illustrated version done by the Québécois artist Michele Lemieux, and really appreciated for the first time what a wonderful story it is.

Both stories feature young lads imbued with a childlike faith as their main protagonists. When we first meet Amahl, he is sitting outside on a cold evening, playing his pipe and waiting for the stars to come out. He seems waiting for an adventure. Except instead of a train passing by his front door on Christmas Eve, it is a procession of camels.  And it is not the North Pole which is their destination, but the manger of Bethlehem, where a magical event is about to take place.

I love the way the wise men are presented. They appear so larger-than-life to the young child, as though they have stepped out of a strange, mysterious storybook. The mother is of course very protective of her son, but she can not keep him from joining them.

The caravan turned a corner, and Amahl could no longer see his mother or his house. Leaning against Kaspar, he brought out his shepherd’s pipe and began to play. He piped all the songs he knew. He piped first for the Christ Child, then for the kings, next for his mother, for the shepherds, for the parrot – even for the page. And as he piped, the caravan moved onward.

I give Arlo one more year until he figures out there is no Santa.  And I can’t help but wonder what will happen if he then turns his skeptical eye toward the religious half of the Christmas mythology. I can only hope he doesn’t hold it against us.

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