There are a lot of Santa Claus stories floating around this time of year. Almost all of them are completely based in fantasy. Flying reindeer; a sleigh full of gifts; precarious chimney climbing; a fluffy red suit — all of that is total fiction.
But when my kids used to ask me, “Dad, is Santa Claus real?” I didn’t always say “No.” At least not right away.
(Pause for dramatic effect.)
Like any good student of church history, I explained that the real “Santa Claus” was actually a fourth-century pastor named Nicholas of Myra who was later considered a saint by the medieval Roman Catholic Church. He was a favorite of Dutch sailors who called him, “Sinter Klaas” (or “Saint Nicholas”) which then came into English as “Santa Claus.”
Of course, I was careful to point out that the modern American version of Saint Nicholas bears absolutely no resemblance to the fourth-century pastor from Asia Minor. The real Nicholas did not live in the North Pole. He was not Scandinavian. He did not drive a team of magical caribou. He did not work with elves. Nor did he travel the world every Christmas Eve exchanging presents for milk and cookies. No, he was a pastor. He worshipped the Lord Jesus Christ. And he would have been appalled at the way his legacy has been used to obscure the true meaning of Christmas.
But I digress…
There are several historically-based legends about Nicholas — stories about his incredible generosity to the poor (which is where the connection between Santa Claus and gift-giving originates); and stories about how he secured the release of three innocent prisoners who had been condemned to death.
But my favorite legend of them all involves the Council of Nicaea in the year AD 325. That council, of course, centered on one primary doctrinal issue: the deity of Jesus Christ. A heretic named Arius, not unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses today, adamantly denied that the Son of God possessed full ontological equality with God the Father. So the Council of Nicaea convened to discuss the controversy, ultimately concluding that Arius was wrong and that his teachings should be condemned.
It is in that context that we pick up this fascinating story about Santa Claus. Author William J. Bennett explains the story well:
Tradition says that Nicholas was one of the bishops attending the great council [of Nicaea]. As he sat listening to Arius proclaim views that seemed to him blasphemous, his anger mounted. He must have asked himself: Did I suffer through all those years in prison to listen to this man betray our beliefs?
His anger got the best of him. He left his seat, walked up to Arius, faced him squarely, and slapped his face. The bishops were stunned.
Arius appealed to the emperor himself. “Should anyone who has the temerity to strike me in your presence go unpunished?” he demanded. . . .
[Consequently,] Nicholas found himself under lock and key in another wing of the palace.
But in the end, the bishop of Myra got the result he wanted. When the arguments were done, the council rebuked Arius for his beliefs. The bishops drew up a statement that came to be known as the Nicene Creed, which affirms faith in the Holy Trinity and declares that Jesus is “of one substance with the Father.”
Perhaps Constantine secretly enjoyed watching someone put Arius in his place. Perhaps some of the bishops admired Nicholas for standing up forcefully, if overzealously, for his beliefs. Nicholas must have had friends and supporters in high places, because when the Council of Nicaea concluded, he was set free and his clerical robes were restored.
(William J. Bennet, The True Saint Nicholas [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009], 38-40.)
So there you have it: the man our society has dubbed “jolly old Saint Nick,” upon hearing Arius openly deny the deity of Christ, became so incensed by Arius’s blasphemy that he stood up, traversed the room, and slapped the heretic in the face — in the midst of an imperial council for all to see.
That is pretty dramatic!
It’s possible, of course, that this account is only legendary.
But even if it is, it is by far my favorite Santa Claus story. It reminds me of the fact that the real “Saint Nicholas” worshipped the Lord Jesus Christ. He was zealous for Christ’s honor and unwavering in his doctrinal convictions. He was even willing to confront error and heresy head on if necessary. (And not merely by putting coal in Arius’s stocking.)
In the midst of a holiday season in which our culture tries to obscure the real meaning of Christmas by pointing to Santa Claus, I like to remind people that — if the real Santa Claus were still alive — he would be pointing people to Christ.