Saint Nicholas took on the arch-heretic Arius and Christmas won.
That’s the backstory of an odd college custom I will observe tomorrow. Many colleges have strange customs. Time passes, as it is want to do, and what was normal in one age, becomes eccentric in another. Donors can demand odd customs as can founders. The College at The Saint Constantine School has one such odd custom that goes back to the first year of existence: the destruction of a donkey piñata at Christmas time.
There are several explanations for why this happened, but one (and I wish to believe it) is that some Dad humor found the name Arius to sound a bit like ass. Blessed Nicholas, in a legend more than a bit apocryphal, is said to have punched pompous Arius: Santa defending Christmas. Saint Nicholas was defending real Christmas: God becoming man. Arius was positing Jesus being a good bit like God, a very near thing. Nicholas had the argument, the text, and holy tradition. but Arius often had political pull and personal charisma.
Nicholas was a good bishop and pastor to the people of his region. Most of the legends that circled his memory are of kindnesses done and charity to the poor. If the residue of your life is such that the multiple stories of kindness, you have lived a good life.
In any case, the piñata is a decent image of the good work done by Saint Nicholas and that image is (in all probability) how the custom actually came to be. When we cease to think well, horde up and hide the good, sweet gifts of God, then we do indeed become foolish. We cover up or hide the truth from the folks around us and until that false image is broken, the feast cannot begin! Even if our paper mache coverings are very beautiful, the good things are kept out of reach of the people who need them. When the idol is smashed, then the sweet treasures flow out and everyone rejoices.
A Moment about Truth
Truth is not the property of one human to be stashed away. Truth does not come to one guru and allow him to market that truth for worldly power, his own fleshly glorification, or for diabolical schemes.
Truth is not merely propositional, though it sometimes comes in propositions. Living in reality, living the truth, can be seen in Jesus and so we can imitate Him. As we reflect on Him and his Word, we sometimes badly, sometimes wonderfully, make an icon of that life in propositions. This is a reasonable service!
When Pilate asked, “What is truth?”perhaps one reason Jesus Christ did not answer was that the question was, in the context of the scene, ill formed. Jesus, the incarnate Truth of God, was there. “Who is truth?” That was the proper question!
Nicholas knew the proper questions and lived out some very good answers. He did justice and practiced charity with those who needed help. He was a firm foe of those who would confuse the faithful through tricksy words and deceit.
This old custom, Nicholas breaking up the error of Arius, is pretty great. Thank God for all customs and our ability to participate until the New Custom comes, the Feast without end.