REVIEW: Hanukkah, St. Nicholas books for the holidays

Dec. 05, 2012 @ 03:00 PM

About this time each holiday season, new books come out about Christmas and, less frequently, Hanukkah. There are two new books out, one from a local publisher, that are worth reading – one for fun, the other for history – but both offer insight into our December holiday customs.
First up is “How To Spell Chanukah…And Other Holiday Dilemmas: Eighteen Writers Celebrate Eight Nights of Lights,” edited by Emily Franklin and published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. ($13.95, paperback).
Franklin gathers a great group of writers who offer their own humorous, poignant and personal reflections on the holiday spelled as ‘Hanukkah’ for this review, which is the style adopted by this newspaper. Some of the essays take on what it’s like to be Jewish in a season of Santa Claus and Christmas trees and baby Jesus. One writer decides to go to church with Christian friends on Christmas Eve out West only to hear an anti-Semitic joke by clergy. Another writer talks about the more secular parent who wants Christmas stuff alongside Hanukkah stuff. Some essays are quick and laugh-out-loud, while others are serious. It’s a good read that runs the gamut of emotions. “How To Spell Chanukah” is worth giving on one of those eight nights, or for keeping yourself and thinking of your own Hanukkah memories. Hanukkah starts Saturday at sundown.
The second book is about the origin of Santa Claus – the actual person who lived nearly 700 years ago in present-day Turkey. “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus” is written by Adam C. English and published by Baylor University Press ($24.95, hardcover). English lives in Lillington and is an associate professor of theology and philosophy at Campbell University. His Santa book is about “The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra.”
How and what Nicholas was known for has changed, English writes, and now “the best known anecdote from the life of St. Nicholas is undoubtedly the story of the three poor daughters to whom Nicholas anonymously delivered bags of gold.”
That provides the link to the tradition of gift-giving and is more agreeable to  modern sensibilities than other stories of the saint’s life, English writes. The priest who died around 335 was known for quite a few other things, too. His feast day is today, Dec. 6. The professor brings readers a much more in-depth, nuanced look at the inspiration for today’s commercial man in the red suit.