This last week marked the celebration of the Saint’s Day of Nicholas of Myra, a man better known to most of us as Father Christmas or Santa. The fourth century bishop is arguably the most famous saint in the world. Whether Christian or not, his mythic persona preoccupies the kindergarten crowd (and their parents) this time of year, provides part time employment at malls, and made reindeers a thing. But who is the man behind the myth? And did he—as Christian lore suggests, assault a heretic at the Council of Nicaea?
The “real” Saint Nick (if we can even consider them to be the same person) was Nicholas of Myra a fourth century Christian minister born in the port town of Patara on the south coast of modern-day Turkey. He grew up wealthy, which gave him a lot of local visibility and so, as a young man of means, he left to tour the Holy Land and spread his wings in anonymity. Life in the big city suited him and so he elected to relocate from his hometown to the larger city of Myra, where a series of miraculous events led to his installation—at a prodigiously young age—as the bishop.
The strangest or at least the most aggressive tradition associated with St. Nicholas has to do with his presence at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Nicaea is one of the most important Church Councils in Christian history. It was here that the Nicene Creed, the statement of faith spoken or sung on Sundays in Western Christian traditions, was adopted. A somewhat updated version is accepted by most denominations of Christianity as the only authoritative non-biblical doctrinal statement. In other words, it was a big deal.
The impetus for the Council was a doctrinal dispute known as the Arian controversy. Arius was an Egyptian priest based in Alexandria who had gotten into a theological spat with his bishop about the relationship between God the Father (the Creator God) and God the Son (Jesus Christ) and whether there was a time before Christ was created. Was Christ of one essence with the Father or a very similar essence to the Father? The disagreement quickly went viral and the emperor Constantine, who, like other Roman emperors was striving for unity and uniformity across his empire, assembled the empire’s bishops to settle the matter once and for all.
Arius lost this battle and the original Nicene Creed ended with a series of anathemas that were clearly directed at him and his followers. During the Council, however, it was not at all clear how things would unfold. The stakes were high, and tempers ran hot. Enter Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. At this juncture in his life, Nicholas had seen a lot. He was now in his mid-50s, well-seasoned, and did not tolerate heresy.
Roughly three hundred bishops and their retinue attended the council and some of them were confessors who had kept the faith during the Great Persecution of Diocletian some twenty years over. Most of these, like Nicholas, had been imprisoned in harsh conditions and many bore the physical scars from torture and forced labor. Some had lost eyes or limbs. The confessors felt that they were in a privileged position as church leaders: their faith had been tested. They were the closest thing to a martyr you could be without, you know, actually dying.
Though not a bishop, Arius was there too and at one juncture Bishop Eusebius (an Arian himself) asked the Emperor for permission to invite the priest to offer a defense of his position. Arius entered and began to read. At first the group listened in silence, but the crowd of attendees soon grew restless, uncomfortable, and even angry. Nicholas took things further. He stood up, walked to where Arius was speaking, and punched him. As a result, he was stripped of his position as Bishop and imprisoned again.
Or at least this is what the legend, medieval iconography, and the dozens of memes circulating the internet this week would have you believe.
But is it true? Well, partly.
As a bishop, Nicholas was invited to attend and participate in the Council of Nicaea. But you won’t find a reference to his right hook in any of contemporaneous literature of official church records. On his blog, Roger Pearse has used the work of Gustav Anrich to track down the evidence for the story. The earliest snippet he could find was a brief story attributed to a man named Petrus de Natalibus, a late fourteenth century bishop of Equilio (near Venice). According to Petrus: “It happened that saint Nicholas, now an old man, was present at the Council of Nicaea, and out of jealousy of faith struck a certain Arian in the jaw, on account of which it is recorded that he was deprived of his mitre and pallium; on account of which he is often depicted without a mitre” (Translation from Pearse).
What you’ll notice immediately is that in the earliest version we have, Nicholas isn’t said to have slapped Arius himself but rather “an Arian.” Pearse traces the next stage of the argument to a sixteenth century legend compiled by Damascenos the Monk. This appears to be the first version in which Nicholas squared off against the arch-heretic himself.
All of this suggests that it’s highly unlikely that Santa punched Arius if, in fact, he punched anyone at all. The legend first emerges a millennium after the Council of Nicaea and doesn’t, in its original telling, involve Arius. This is just one of the many strange stories that emerged in order to portray Arius negatively.
Though it would be unspeakably cool if the jolly man in the red suit was more a Die Hard Christmas hero than a Disney movie Santa, the events seem to be largely mythical. This doesn’t mean that you have to give up your memes, though. After all, this is hardly the biggest lie that people tell about Santa.