Notre Dame professor takes a closer look at Saint Nicholas

Author: Arts and Letters


“Saint Nicholas in America:Christmas Holy Day and Holiday,” by Rev. Nicholas Ayo, C.S.C., professor emeritus in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame, was recently published by Corby Books.

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 of grain.

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.”

Undoubtedly, the infectious joy of this plump, ebullient and snowy-bearded saint disguises the deadly serious mission he comes to accomplish, but of course the same could be said of the adorable Baby whose birth he so conspicuously assists us in celebrating.

Contact: Rev. Nicholas Ayo, C.S.C., at 574-631-7443 or or Jim Langford at 574-229-1107 or

Originally published by Michael O. Garvey at on December 01, 2006.