Today is Saint Nicholas Day!
While it is widely known that the Santa Claus of Christmas is derived from St. Nicholas, few know much about the original Saint Nick beyond the fact that he did not live at the North Pole, own flying reindeer, or employ a workshop full of elves.
Nicholas of Myra was a political ally of Athanasius of Alexandria during the Church intrigues of the 4th Century and, like Athanasius, he is rumored to have come into power at an absurdly young age through dubious means.
Fast Track to Bishop
The legend begins with Nicholas as a young man on his way back home to Asia Minor (what we now call Turkey) either from studying in Egypt at Alexandria or from visiting Jerusalem. While still at sea, as the tale goes, he rescued an overboard sailor. Or, perhaps he calmed a sea storm with his prayers. To put it mildly, the stories differ. His ship then made port in the city of Myra.
Just before Nicholas arrived, the bishop of Myra had died and one of the city’s church leaders was instructed in a dream to choose a “conqueror” as the next bishop. You or I might be suspicious of such an instruction, not necessarily assuming its Divine origin even if we did accept it as a message from a supernatural source. But, the church leaders of Myra were not so cynical.
The root of the Greek name Nicholas (Νικόλαος) is nike, meaning “conquest” or “victory,” so when sailors astounded at the exploits of this youth spread the name Nicholas around Myra, the leaders of the church felt they had no choice but to elect the young Nicholas as bishop.
Saint to Santa
Long after his death, Saint Nicholas became the Dutch gift-giver Sinterklaas, who was brought to New Amsterdam (the modern New York City) and was later transformed into the famous Santa Claus after the American Revolution by civic-minded folk like Washington Irving.
The Christmastide gift-giving traditions ascribed to Old St. Nick may be through association with the Three Magi, or absorbed from the cult of St. Basil, a renowned gift-giver whose feast day is on the 1st or 2nd of January. Like the circumstances surrounding his rise to power, the generosity of Nicholas is a matter of dispute and legend.
The Darker Side
What is not legend, however, is the fact of Bishop Nicholas’s alliance with the disruptive conflationist party led by Athanasius of Alexandria, a network of corrupt and violent bishops described as an “ecclesiastical mafia” by scholar of the early church Timothy Barnes.
While Nicholas was not involved in the embezzlement, cronyism, fraud, slander, and murder committed by the Alexandrians themselves, he was certainly a key player in the courting of Imperial power and usurpation of Christian theology achieved by these Alexandrian conflationists through violence and intimidation.
By one account of the Council of Nicaea — convened by the still-pagan Emperor Constantine at the urging of a fringe conflationist bishop named Hosius — Nicholas became so frustrated by the testimony of Bishop Arius that he punched the old man in the face in front of the entire Council.
This emblematic act of violence typified the authoritarian conflationist movement, from Nicaea through their complete seizure of Imperial power under Emperor Theodosius, who issued an edict at Thessalonica making deviation from conflationist orthodoxy punishable by death, a sentence that survived for centuries as a tradition among Trinitarians.
Unable to succeed through reason and truth, they resorted to brute force.
Redemption of the Conqueror
Ironically, many Trinitarians today condemn the modern manifestation of Saint Nick — having accreted pagan imagery and reduced to a gift-giving legend — as a syncretic and commercialized corruption of the Christian message, ignorant of the violent and oppressive role Nicholas of Myra played in the worst corruption of the Christian message in its history.
From a Reform Unitarian perspective, by adapting imagery from European cultures to Christian purpose, the gift-giving Santa Claus tradition actually redeems the sectarian Nicholas in the very model of the Three Wise Men who were themselves, as Magi, gift-giving representatives of an outside religion and culture.
The “Jolly Old Elf” has also performed a useful, morally instructive function in Christian culture, giving children a simple model of moral behavior they can understand at their immature stage of intellectual development. Slapping down the sophisticated and painful realities of a full-blown Christian morality — based on facing the harsh reality of our condition as mortal creatures — would be traumatically inappropriate for children.
Of course, many who outgrow Santa Claus never outgrow the juvenile reward-and-punishment morality that the Man in Red represents, unable to mature past Christmastime religion to the bitter lesson of Gethsemane.
But over the centuries the role of Saint Nick in Christian culture and religion has matured from a pugnacious thug in the conflationist Nicene mob — eager to punish with violence anyone who resists — to an exemplar of ecumenical and educational virtue, from an emblem of brutality and suppression to a symbol of joy, kindness, and generosity.
Although the consequences of that sucker punch at Nicaea still echo today … we forgive you, Nicholas.
Wear well the red robe, and Merry Christmas!
[This entry was originally posted in 2008]