Book review: Mischief and Mercy: Tales of the Saints by Jean McClung. Tricycle Press. Berkeley, CA 1993

As the Winter Solstice approaches and we are inundated with images of Santa and Christmas, what a joy to discover Jean McClung’s often-hilarious, sometimes-macabre, adventurous, illuminating tales. The author, now known as Jean Goodwin, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas wrote this book over the course of thirteen years as gifts to her children.

No cream-puff bed-time fare. The author warns, “These stories have about as much violence as old-fashioned Brothers Grimm-type fairy tales, which means there is some chopping up, and about as much sex as the average Greek tragedy. Children should use judgment when reading these stories to grown-up!”

Humor abounds in tales of Mary Magdalene (unlike anything in the Bible!), Joan of Arc (a true horror story), Valentine, Judas, Saint Francis and eight more. Enough to read aloud each day for all the twelve long nights of Christmas.

Choosing one to share with you is easy this time of year.  The year is 300 A.D. The boy who would become Saint Nicholas had a traumatic childhood of loss and abuse. As an orphaned but somehow wealthy teenager he was drafted into a position as bishop of the town, a job more worldly-wise folk avoided like the plague.  Sure enough, Nicholas became the scapegoat for the powerful elites, hauled away to the salt mines, then to prison and torture. On rare occasions he was let out and allowed to do some good.

The most famous story involves a penniless father who was about to sell his three daughters into prostitution. This man was apparently so proud, he was willing to sell his children, rather than ask for help.  Our author writes, “Nicholas’s solution was breathtaking. He dropped three golden balls down their chimney, one for each daughter to use as dowry. As it happened, the sisters had just done their wash that night (well brought-up girls to the bitter end!) and had hung their stockings out to dry near the fire. The part that was magic was the way each gold ball, after Nicholas dropped it, bounced slowly from the grate then spun off in just the right direction to land in the stocking of the appropriate sister. That’s why we all to this day hang our stockings by the fire on Christmas Eve.”

Next we find Nicholas appointed by Emperor Constantine as a delegate to the Council of Nicea in Turkey. Those who follow religious history know that this is where the church fathers chose what to include and what to exclude from the Bible. (Omitting, among other things, writings on Sophia, the Feminine Divine; The Book of Mary Magdalene and other Gnostic Gospels.)

Nicholas came to Nicea with his old friend from the salt mines, Big Peter, a gigantic Ethiopian who was sent to the salt mines for piracy, and often carried the frail Nicholas in his arms as they escaped harm’s way.  While in Nicea, Nicholas punches an arrogant bureaucrat who insults him. By the time the physicians and centurions reach the scene, Nicholas is “not there.” He is in Big Peter’s arms, yet Peter feels a certain lightness familiar to him when Nicholas experiences trauma, ie, Nicholas goes to a place he discovered in childhood when he was burning with rage and injustice . Our author writes, “He found himself riding through the snow on the back of a gigantic deer with tall antlers. For many years Nicholas thought is was a daydream, but once he was a grownup and a bishop, other people…started telling him about dreams where they had seen him, Bishop Nicholas…riding in the snow country on a reindeer.”  Add to this Nicholas’s red bishop’s robes, and we have the origin of Santa Claus in a red suit, with his mighty reindeer dropping those golden balls (oranges) down the chimney.

I commend the entirety of this story, and all the others in Jean McClung’s wonderful book, as we celebrate the holidays – Hanukkah, Christmas, Solstice, and all the rest. Beyond the frenzy of gift-buying and parties, it behooves us to give – of our time and money, surely, to those who are in need, but also, to touch that sacred place in our hearts that longs for the constancy of love, and peace for all humankind. Without it, we are all consigned to a snowy wonderland.

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