Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus; although the Santa Claus of the popular imagination could be accused of identity theft:
|Artist: Lukasz Ciaciuch/Luki.igrek.net |
David Warren wrote this account of Nicholas on his Essays in Idleness blog:
The original Saint (Bishop of Myra, within modern Turkey; born about 270 AD, died on the 6th of December, 343) was an exponent of tough love. His vermillion complexion came from beatings in the Roman prisons, under Diocletian’s persecution. His title, “Confessor,” means he kept the faith. He was among the surviving Christians, suddenly sprung under Constantine.
Nicholas was an orphan, but of wealthy parents carried off in a plague. Throughout his life he distributed his inheritance, discreetly, to persons in need. Most famously he learned of a single father, with three daughters and no money for their dowries, thus no prospect of respectable marriages, so that from sheer penury they were in danger of becoming prostitutes. Like a thief in the night, he came to the man’s window, and tossed in a bag of gold coins. (By another account, he dropped the bag down the man’s chimney.)
He gave presents to poor children. He would sneak his coins into the shoes of paupers while they were at prayer. He was very widely revered and adored.
Saint Nicholas (who “evolved” into “Santa Claus,” via his elided Dutch name, “Sinterklaas”) was present at the Council of Nicaea (325), where the Church disowned the Arian heresy. Arius himself was present to defend his rather complex, “simplifying” theological ideas. He was a rationalizer, heir to Gnostic thinkers who acknowledged Christ not as Very God, but as a kind of super-prophet, and who therefore declared the Trinity all bunk. (This would reprise as Islam, three centuries later.)
The doctrine of Arius was more subtle than that. He was trying to square the circle, or cube it, by making Christ the creator of the universe, but God the creator of Christ, thus “God the Father” the only full immortal, from the beginning. The Logos was not a person, Arius insisted, but instead the spirit of reason from this God, by which men could figure out everything for themselves. (This would reprise in the Enlightenment.)
Plus much more intellectual ducking and weaving, unsuitable to an Idlepost. In the Nicene Creed, we recite the formula by which Holy Church disowned not only Arianism, but all versions of Trinity denial, in a way that has now held solid through seventeen centuries.
But at the Council itself, back in the IVth century, a lot was on the line. While Arius was weaving his verbal and speculative tapestry, Saint Nicholas lost his temper. He went over to Arius in person, and decked him.
Mr. Warren continues:
This was considered behaviour unbecoming in a bishop, and Nicholas found himself back in the slammer. He’d been stripped on the spot of his gospel book, and of his pallium (liturgical vestment), the two marks of his office.
We consult the Byzantine iconography to learn what came next. Notice behind Saint Nicholas the small figures of Christ, carrying the book, and of Mary, carrying the pallium. In the miracle, of which the Emperor Constantine must have been convinced at the time, Christ had come to Saint Nicholas in his cell, to ask him directly why he had behaved in such a violent way.
To which Nicholas had replied: “Because I love you so much.”
At which Our Lord and Our Lady restored to Saint Nicholas the marks of his office.