There’s a lot that’s wonderful about The Miracle of Saint Nicholas.
The story is set in the small Russian village of Zeema sometime after the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s Christmas eve. The village church, the Church of St. Nicholas, has been closed for 60 years. A child named Alexi is talking with his grandmother about what Christmas was like when she was young, before the soldiers came.
In those days, the village church was the heart of Christmas celebrations. But then soldiers came, and closed the church, threatening arrest and exile and worse for anyone who dared enter it. And ever since, the church has been silent and empty. Only dust and mice and nesting birds make their way into it.
But the soldiers are gone now. Alexi wants to know why they can’t celebrate Christmas at church.
His grandmother explains that they would need many things to have a Christmas service: bread and wine, candles, a cross, an icon of St. Nicholas. And most of all, a priest. To gather these things would take a miracle.
The Miracle of Saint Nicholas
So Alexi begins preparing for a miracle. When he goes to the church, he finds that the church door is unlocked. He frightens the mice from the church, sweeps away dust, clears out cobwebs and bird nests. He brings in pine branches from outdoors and lays them around the altar.
The people of the village see what he is doing. They watch him, and think of secret things, and leave.
On Christmas morning, while the full moon is still low in the sky, Alexi gets up and goes to the church. He finds the farmer’s family there already. They have brought candles and the candlesticks that the farmer’s family had hidden when the church closed. They have begun setting up the church for the Christmas service.
Another family brings the altar cloth, and another brings the cross. The storekeeper and his wife bring wine and holy Christmas bread for the service. When his own family arrives, his grandmother has the icon of St. Nicholas. And then the village shoemaker arrives, vested in white and gold and carrying the Gospel. The village shoemaker, before the soldiers came, had been the village priest.
And so Christmas is celebrated in village of Zeema, in the church of St. Nicholas, just as it had been when Alexi’s grandmother was a child.
The Miracle of Saint Nicholas is a wonderful story, so well told that children are entranced and grownups cry. And the illustrations, which Judith Brown created using egg tempera, are soft and lovely, with just a hint of Russian iconography about them.
The author, Gloria Whelan, does a masterful job of weaving the village’s history into the story. There’s just enough, but not too much. In particular, the scary part – the soldiers coming to the village, closing the church, threatening arrest and exile and worse – is serious enough for older children without being too frightening for their younger siblings.I was reminded of the way Jeanette Winter handled a similar historical situation in Nasreen’s Secret School. Between that and the grandmother’s role in the story, the parallels between the two books are strong enough to make me think Winter must have read and been influenced by The Miracle of Saint Nicholas.
I love the way Alexi decides not to simply wait and hope for a miracle, but to do what he can to prepare for it. That’s beautiful and powerful.
A Rare Gift
And for Orthodox Christian children, The Miracle of Saint Nicholas offers the rare gift of a story that shows their faith. It shows Orthodox people celebrating a Great Feast in church on Christmas morning, with candles and icons and a priest. When it seems that every other Christmas book is about the parts of Christmas that are tangential for your family, and the heart is missing, having a book that lets a child see others celebrating as they do is a very, very good thing.
All of that goodness can’t be denied. In fact, in a way, the goodness makes the flaws in The Miracle of Saint Nicholas more problematic than they would have been in a lesser book. And the book is seriously flawed.
If you’re not Orthodox, you might not even notice what’s wrong. But Whelan simply didn’t know enough about Orthodox liturgical practice when she wrote her book. And she didn’t make the effort to get it right.
She has Alexi go through the doors of the iconostasis and spread pine branches around the altar. If you’re not Orthodox, that’s no big deal. But Orthodox Christians don’t go through the doors of the iconostasis except as it’s necessary for the services of the church. It’s a sacred place, a holy place.
Of course, Alexi has never been in the church. He’s never seen a service. So that can be excused as Alexi’s ignorance. But the schoolteacher, who brings the altar cloth and spreads it over the altar, would not have been ignorant. And she would not have taken the altar cloth through the iconostasis herself. She would have given it to a man, probably one who had been a reader or a deacon before the church was closed.
Christmas Bread and Missing Altarware
And then there’s the holy Christmas bread.
There’s no such thing.
We have holy bread at every Divine Liturgy, and someone in the parish bakes it and brings it. That much is right. But it’s not Christmas bread. It’s Communion bread. If a litya had been served the night before, perhaps a bit of artistic license would have allowed calling the litya bread “holy Christmas bread.” But not the bread for the Eucharist.
And some children might notice what’s missing. The villagers bring no chalice, no paten, no chalice covers, no aer, and no antiminsion. These aren’t small things. They are essential for celebrating the Divine Liturgy. You could celebrate without candlesticks and without an altar cloth. But you have to have a chalice and paten. And the priest can’t celebrate without the antiminsion.
You can explain these things away to a child who asks, by saying that there were many villagers in the church, and so some of the things that they brought simply weren’t mentioned.
But there’s no way to explain the holy Christmas bread. It’s just too weird. As soon as a child notices that, the Christmas magic, the gift of a story about other Orthodox Christians celebrating Christmas at church, becomes a little less magical.
That’s a real shame.
In spite of the flaws, I do think The Miracle of Saint Nicholas is a wonderful story, and I wouldn’t advise against getting it for a child. Just know that it’s not everything you hope for, and be prepared to explain that authors sometimes make mistakes. Especially when they’re writing about a faith or a culture that isn’t their own.
Some of my favorite Christmas picture books: There are so many wonderful picture books about St. Nicholas and the Nativity. These are a few of my favorites.
17 essential picture books for Orthodox Christian kids: These delightful books all have engaging stories and Orthodox Christian people as main characters.
Stories from the Life of St. Nicholas: Learn how the stories we have about St. Nicholas developed over the centuries as they were told and retold by people who loved the saint, and follow links to my telling of these stories.