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Discover the Real St. Nicholas

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Discover the Real St. Nicholas

By Craig von Buseck -- Craig von Buseck: What motivated you to compile this exhaustive book on the real St. Nicholas -- St. Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas?

Dr. Joseph Wheeler: Most people know me for the 'Christmas in My Heart' series, which is the longest running Christmas series in America -- we've just published number 14 and finished the manuscript for number 15. A number of years ago I did an introduction titled 'From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus' and one of my editors called me one day and said, "Joe, did you learn enough about St. Nicholas, or would you like to learn some more?" So I asked him what he was thinking about and he said they would be interested in doing a serious book on St. Nicholas. He told me about a gentleman in England named James Rosenthal who is the Director of Communication for the worldwide Anglican and Episcopal churches. He said he lives in the palace of the Archbishop of Canterbury and has one of the greatest collections of St. Nicholas memorabilia in the world. He asked me if I would like to visit him, and I said, "Well, of course."

So we flew over to England and the two of us bonded -- and Jim proved to be my mentor. I had a very steep learning curve. It took me four years to write the book. In those four years, I learned everything there was to learn about St. Nicholas. When we were all through there was a change in personnel at my publisher, and then Thomas Nelson got excited about the project. I'm really pleased because Thomas Nelson did an incredible job with the color and the illustrations from Jim's collection. And Jim worked very hard at putting together the page layout so that the illustrations would match the story line.

von Buseck: This book is a balance between illustrations, photos, and text. When you were planning this book, what was the publishing goal you had in mind, and did you accomplish that?

Wheeler: What I was interested in doing was to arrive at the definitive work on St. Nicholas for some time to come. When I started out I still wasn’t sure that St. Nicholas was real. There are so many people that you deal with in our culture that you just assume that they're either real or they're not. I knew that Santa Clause wasn't, but I didn't know where he came from, really. I was afraid that as I got way back in time I would discover that we don't really know whether St. Nicholas lived or not. He lived for seventeen hundred years in our minds and hearts and maybe that's the best I could hope for. But after a very large amount of research I was delighted to discover that he was very real indeed.

St. Nicholas was born in the city of Myra, in what is now Turkey -- he was born in 270 A.D. When he was very young, about three years of age, a plague came through and killed both his parents. So he was raised by an uncle who was a Post-Apostolic bishop. This uncle became his mentor. Nicholas was in his twenties when his uncle died and then he was chosen as the next bishop, which was very unusual for a person that young.

The story goes on how he became involved in the affairs of the Empire. He was at the Council of Nicea, one of the two great Church councils ever called together. He was a key defender of Trinitarianism against the thing that was just exploding across the Roman Empire at that time, which was Arianism. Arius of Alexander had declared that Christ was not Divinely begotten, he was not God's Son, he was just a good man. This heresy was just tearing the Church apart. Constantine, who had cast his lot with the Christians, felt that the very foundation of his empire was shaking at this schism. So he called all the main bishops together from across the empire and St. Nicholas was one of them -- evidently one of the more argumentative ones in terms of the battle with Arius himself at Nicea.

All of these things were part of the picture that I gradually developed. Then I was curious about why 1700 years later does anyone really care? There are plenty of famous people, including Constantine himself, that we know a little bit about, but we don't really care that much in terms of our daily life. Why is St. Nicholas still around? So what I discovered was that he took literally Christ's injunction that when we give, we should do so in secret -- preferably anonymously -- and give sacrificially in Christ's name and not our own. Now as you can imagine, this is a little bit foreign to the Santa Claus world that we live in today, because Santa Claus takes all the credit and allows us to take the credit. Our biggest desire today is that if we give a present, we want to get one at least as good back.

Nicholas was wealthy from inheriting his parent's money. He heard a story going around in town about a man that had been wealthy who had invested his entire fortune in shipping and pirates had taken his entire cargo and he was now destitute. He had three beautiful daughters of marriage age and without money he could not come up with a dowry. Without a dowry in those days, his daughters had but two choices: one was to go into slavery, and the other was to become a woman of the streets. The father prayed around the clock that somehow a miracle would take place. Nicholas heard about this and one night, in the middle of the night, he dropped a sack of gold through a window into the man's house and that saved the virtue of the man's oldest daughter. Later on, another sack saved the virtue of the second daughter. When the third came, the father determined to find out who was doing this and he stayed up all night and when the sack was heaved in he ran down the road and tackled Nicholas. He immediately knew the bishop and tried to give thanks to him. Nicholas said, "No, all thanks go to God, not to me."

The father answered, "I need to let everybody know you did this."

Nicholas responded, "No, you must promise me that not until I'm dead will you let anyone know where that gold came from."

Well, as it turned out there were a number of other stories similar to that about the kind of giving individual that Nicholas was.

In that time period, the early Christian Church was doing battle with the forces of paganism. Pagan Rome and pagan Greece had gods that were very much entrenched. So the Church was casting around for a person of stature that could be used as a counter-force. They stumbled onto Nicholas, who wasn't called a saint back then. The fact that he was at the Council of Nicea, the fact that he had been to the Holy Land, and all the pieces of his character led the early Church fathers to tell stories about him to establish a counter-force.

That is the way he became known in the early Church. This was a period of time when everything was communicated through the oral tradition. Printing, as we know, didn't come in until Gutenberg and that was another twelve hundred years later. With the oral tradition, you just told the stories from person to person and generation to generation. Because of this, a lot of the stories have differences from place to place and time period to time period.

von Buseck: Which brings up my question, where did you get your sources for all of this. It's great material. Where did you find it?

Wheeler: Well I ransacked Rosenthal's library first. Then I went about acquiring all the books, magazines, and newspaper articles that he knew about. We went on the Web and there is a lot of information about St. Nicholas on the Internet. Wherever we could find any information we looked. Then I went to what I consider one of the greatest literary and cultural editions of Britannica ever done, the 1946 edition and it had a great deal about him.

Another source that I came to rely on what Will and Ariel Durant's 'The Story of Civilization' series. They spent a lifetime trying to bring to life the ancient world and working through to Napoleon.

For four years I went to every library that I could trying to find source materials and that's how I put it all together.

von Buseck: Once you started stumbling onto these things then how did you start to construct how the book would be put together.

Wheeler: I love your term 'stumbling' because there was a lot of that involved (laughs). One day, as I was thinking about how scary it is to be an author and editor and how shallow my own wells are, I started thinking about Solomon. When he became king he felt very inadequate. When God asked him what gift he wanted he answered, "I don't feel like I know how to be a king. I'm asking for the gift of wisdom." And God made him the wisest man who ever lived, other than our Lord, of course. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that God wouldn't give that gift to someone else if he or she asked for it. I didn't have the chutzpah to ask for a lifetime supply like Solomon did, but I felt like I could have the courage to ask Him each day. So each day as I write and create, I ask God to give me the thoughts and give me the plots to the stories. And so each day as I write a story or anything else that I'm working on, I ask God to direct my pen that whatever I end up with will be to His honor and glory and not Joe Wheeler's.

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Craig von BuseckCraig von Buseck is Ministries Director for Read other articles and interviews by Craig on


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