For our last look at Christmas, I want to focus on the person who has become the center of the American Christmas tradition: St. Nicholas, or as he is more commonly known, Santa Claus.
We all know the bearded, jolly old man dressed in red and fur, who spends Christmas Eve delivering gifts to children all over the world, with the aid of his elves and flying reindeer. Santa as we know him evolved as an amalgam of several different figures, and really took off in popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through the work of various poets and writers and storytellers.
The British legend Father Christmas, as seen in A Christmas Carol as the “Ghost of Christmas Present”, was one of the chief influences of our modern Santa. The Dutch figure Sinterklaas, whose name is a poor transliteration of “Saint Nicholas” is another. But most commonly, we associate Santa with the historical figure of St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas was a Greek bishop, in the city of Myra, now in modern day Turkey. Born into great wealth, his parents died while he was young and he inherited their fortune. The attribution of gift giving, especially to children, arose from Nicholas’ giving away his entire fortune through anonymous giving to those in need. St. Nicholas is also reported to have freed slaves, rescued girls from brothels, and saved sailors from vicious storms. He is the patron saint of (appropriately) sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, and pawnbrokers.
But the best story about St. Nicholas arises from his attendance at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. This council is the one that gave us the Nicene Creed, and was called by the Emperor Constantine after this proclamation of Christianity as the empire’s religion to help streamline an imperial theology.
The main point of conflict arose over what is now known as the Arian Heresy. Arius, another church father, asserted that the nature of the relation of Christ to God was an unequal one; God was of a greater or more holy substance than Jesus, and thus Jesus was reckoned just below God in the holy hierarchy. The opposing argument, of which St. Nicholas ascribed to, was that God and Jesus were of the same substance, and thus co-equal. This difference consumed the council, and drug the meeting out for a month. It was during one particularly vicious verbal scrum that St. Nicholas distinguished himself by approaching Arius and punching him in the face. According to rumor, St. Nicholas was paid back by having a supporter of Arius, Eusebius, urinate on his cloak.
And you thought these old councils were boring and stuffy.
So, as we go about our Christmas traditions this year, and spread stories of Santa Claus and his mystical gift giving, I think it’s important to keep this picture in mind:
Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays everybody. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series, and learned something new and interesting.