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.From St. Nicholas Center ::: Bishop Nicholas Loses His Cool:
In AD 325 Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, the very first ecumenical council. More than 300 bishops came from all over the Christian world to debate the nature of the Holy Trinity. It was one of the early church’s most intense theological questions. Arius, from Egypt, was teaching that Jesus the Son was not equal to God the Father. Arius forcefully argued his position at length. The bishops listened respectfully.
As Arius vigorously continued, Nicholas became more and more agitated. Finally, he could no longer bear what he believed was essential being attacked. The outraged Nicholas got up, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face! The bishops were shocked. It was unbelievable that a bishop would lose control and be so hotheaded in such a solemn assembly. They brought Nicholas to Constantine. Constantine said even though it was illegal for anyone to strike another in his presence, in this case, the bishops themselves must determine the punishment.
The bishops stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s garments, chained him, and threw him into jail. That would keep Nicholas away from the meeting. When the Council ended a final decision would be made about his future.
Nicholas was ashamed and prayed for forgiveness, though he did not waver in his belief. During the night, Jesus and Mary his Mother, appeared,* asking, “Why are you in jail?” “Because of my love for you,” Nicholas replied. Jesus then gave the Book of the Gospels to Nicholas. Mary gave him an omophorion, so Nicholas would again be dressed as a bishop. Now at peace, Nicholas studied the Scriptures for the rest of the night.When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and Nicholas dressed in bishop’s robes, quietly reading the Scriptures. When Constantine was told of this, the emperor asked that Nicholas be freed. Nicholas was then fully reinstated as the Bishop of Myra.
The Council of Nicaea agreed with Nicholas’ views, deciding the question against Arius. The work of the Council produced the Nicene Creed which to this day many Christians repeat weekly when they stand to say what they believe.
Is there anything to this? This is a “legend,” a word that originally referred to narratives about the saints. Saints’ legends might be completely realistic and historically accurate; they might be completely fanciful; and they might be some combination of the two. Typically, a legend has at least a kernel of truth.
Was St. Nicholas at Nicaea? We actually have a number of copies of lists of the participants. Nicholas of Myra is included in some of them, though others do not. The earliest Greek manuscript does include him, as do five others. The discrepancy might be accounted for by the legend, which says that he was at first a participant but then removed for assaulting Arius. Some will accept the story that Jesus and Mary appeared to him, while others will dismiss it as a legendary accretion. But the meaning of such an apparition is expressed in Nicholas’s response to the question from Jesus, why are you in jail? “Because of my love for you.”
Whether all of this happened or not, Nicholas of Myra must have had a strong and obvious love of Jesus. Whether or not he struck Arius at the Council and was imprisoned for it, he must have been known for strongly opposing the view that Jesus was just a man. That he was actually one of the participants at Nicaea is pretty well attested, so we can consider St. Nicholas, a.k.a., Santa Claus, to be a Confessor, an authors of one of the most important confessions of faith in the Christian church.
His confession of Jesus Christ is the true meaning of Christmas:
I believe in. . .one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.