|Saint Nicholas in America|
Who was Santa Claus? Where did he come from? How did he become such an essential part of
the celebration of Christmas in America? What about the seeming competition between the
sacred and secular with regard to Christmas?
These and other questions are at the heart of this wonderful, informative biography of the
saintly Santa icon in American lore. As Michael Garvey has noted:
“The book makes use of ancient and medieval sources as well as more modern and widely familiar
poems, sketches and stories to bring Saint Nicholas into sharper focus while avoiding the
quarrel of secular and religious holiday makers. "Christ in Christmas," says Father Ayo,
"is rooted in every child’s memories of an astonishing intervention of love in their life,
found, of all places, in their stockings."
It may be difficult to discern in the heroic and daunting figure of the fourth century Bishop
of Myra, the "jolly old elf" of Clement Clarke Moore’s endearing and sentimental "Twas the
Night Before Christmas" poem. The saint whose feast the Catholic Church celebrates on Dec.
6 may well have been such a pleasantly avuncular gentleman, but he is also remembered as a
powerful leader who rescued many young women from sexual slavery, intimidated vengeful emperors,
came between the executioner’s axe and the neck of a condemned prisoner, plucked despairing
seafarers from perfect storms, and overwhelmed a threatened famine with a miraculous abundance
Writing of these older and more stirring accounts of his patron saint, Father Ayo remarks that
"it does not take much imagination to wonder if the Santa Claus, who descends upon our roof,
or the comic book superman, who swoops down upon our city, owe some of their inspiration and
the cut of their figure to the original aerial wonder-worker, good Saint Nicholas."
He also insists that these older stories are far more than hyperbolic folk tales. In recalling
the story which inspired Gentile da Fabriano’s 15th century painting,"Saint Nicholas Saves a
Ship from Sinking," Father Ayo observes that "here is prayer tested and grace pledged whatever
the trial. The presence of the Church in Bishop Saint Nicholas overcomes the sinking feeling
that human life is doomed and we are about to perish in the vicissitudes of history or the
personal disasters of our lifetime without rescue from a saving God."
High praise for the book came in an early review by Rev. Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C., president
emeritus of Notre Dame, who recommended its "marvelous blend of scholarship and effective
narration," adding that Father Ayo "has traced the stories connected to good Saint Nicholas
(generous spirit and miracle worker) with the development in the cultural context of secular
America of the Christmas season tradition of jolliness and gift-giving for which Santa Claus
is the most popular carrying image."
ISBN 0-9776458-1-9 118 pp.