Santa Claus, Confessor

St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra back in the 4th century.  He has become one of the most popular saints among Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, the patron saint of sailors, children, prisoners, pawnbrokers, to name just a few.  He also mutated into the emblem of Christmas, Santa Claus.  (Say “Saint Nicholas” real fast.)

But what is the connection between the bishop of Myra and Christmas?  Stories about the saint supplying poor women’s dowries by putting money in stockings drying by the fire give us an explanation of the custom of hanging stockings for Santa to fill, but they don’t have a connection to Christmas, as such.

I think the connection is that the bishop was reportedly a member of the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., which affirmed the deity of Jesus Christ and authored the Nicene Creed.  A number of years ago, I wrote a piece for World Magazine about the role that St. Nicholas reportedly played at the Council of Nicaea, including slapping the heretic Arius who insisted that Jesus Christ was merely human and not divine.

The St. Nicholas Center has posted that column on its website, along with other supporting material and everything else you might like to know about St. Nicholas, including a forensic reconstruction of what he looked like. I also need to report that the St. Nicholas center has also posted the song parodies written by you Cranach commenters when we discussed my World column here.  Those songs, playing on the image of Santa Claus slapping heretics, were quite creative and funny.

After the jump is a fuller account of St. Nicholas at Nicaea, which I will then discuss in terms of our need to recast Santa Claus as a Confessor of the church. [Read more…]

Jolly old St. Nicholas

The real Santa Claus, thought to have been a participant at the Council of Nicaea and to have slugged Arius for his heretical Christology:

HT:  Mary Moerbe



Santa accused of promoting obesity

Santa is a bad role model for children and needs to lose weight, according to a wide-spread sentiment that has even reached the professional Santa community. A sample:

As the obesity epidemic has swollen, some public health experts have cast an increasingly critical eye on Santa's sprawl. Two years ago, acting Surgeon General Steven K. Galson said Santa's corpulence was setting a bad example. His remarks prompted howls of protest, with more than a few people accusing Galson of being politically correct in trying to make Santa physiologically correct.

An opposing expert opinion comes from Andrea Vazzana, a psychologist who specializes in weight management at New York University's Child Study Center. She says a svelte Santa "would be great for Santa, but I don't think children would benefit. The children who are believers in Santa, in that age range, they don't have a whole lot of say in what they eat."

Eating cookies that a billion or so children left for him would indeed put a strain on the waistline. Especially since he eats them all in one night.

UPDATE: In answer to Dan Kempin, a forensic reconstruction of the physically fit, non-smoking, fur-free Santa:

Jack LaLanne

What St. Nicholas (a.k.a. “Santa Claus”) actually looked like

Forensic experts have done their number on the skull of St. Nicholas of Myra and have reconstructed what this notable 4th century Christian–who slapped Arius at the Council of Nicea and was famous for his generosity to poor children– must have actually looked like:

St. Nicholas reconstruction

The thing is, he looks pretty much the way our cultural imagination thought he would look! I mean, dress him in a red suit and put a pointy cap on his head, and you’ve got our notion of Santa Claus!

OK, he lacks the ruddy complexion, but Myra is in present-day Turkey and St. Nicholas was a Middle Easterner. As for the white beard, this is an element in ancient iconography of St. Nicholas, so it is not unlikely that he had one. He also has a broken nose. Maybe Arius hit him back!

Click the link for details about how this research was conducted. Though some of the relics held by Catholic churches are spurious, some, such as the bones of specific saints, are well-attested. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing. Seeing what these folks looked like reminds us of the historicity of the Christian faith through the ages and that the great figures of church history were human beings who were not that much different from us.

HT: Paul McCain