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Remythologizing St. Nick: The search for the historical Santa
December 08, 2003
By James Parker, Professor of Christian Philosophy, Southern Seminary
In reflecting on this season of the year, I have often wondered how a Martian reporter would do a story on Christmas in the USA. If one only had the dominant cultural icons of TV, movies, news media and retail stores, my guess is that the Martian viewing audience wouldn’t have a clue as to what Christmas was about.
They might think it had something to do with snowmen or reindeer or retail store sales. And if any particular person rose to the top in the public’s conscious awareness, it would be a jolly secular guy at risk for stroke or cardiac arrest who liked to dress in red and let his beard grow.
Rather than just bemoan this fact, I assert that we need to remythologize Santa Claus.
Most people simply do not realize the rich ancient heritage behind the Santa Claus story. The secularized and sanitized contemporary version pales in comparison with the deeply Christian permeated ethos and content of the original.
The origin of the St. Nicholas tradition goes back to Bishop Nicholas of Myra in Lycia (Turkey). Little solid historical information is known about Nicholas except that he was Bishop of Myra and died around A.D. 350.
Much exaggerated legendary material is connected with his life and ministry, but if nothing else the legends tell us what values and beliefs the church held as important as they were projected onto Nicholas. To the bare minimum of facts, legend has supplied intriguing details through such writers as St. Methodius (patriarch of Constan-tinople c. 850s) and the Greek writer Metaphrastes in the 10th century.
The story goes that Nicholas was born (A.D. 280) of pious and wealthy parents who raised him in the fear and admonition of the Lord and taught him “sacred books” from the age of five. He was forced to grow up quickly upon the sudden death of his parents.
Inheriting his family’s wealth he was left rich and lonely, but had the desire to use his wealth for the good. The first opportunity to do this happened when he heard about a father who through an unfortunate turn of fortune, was left destitute with three daughters. Without marriage dowry money, the daughters were condemned to a life of singleness and prostitution, so Nicholas threw some small bags of gold coins into the window of the home (some traditions say down the chimney), thereby saving the children from a life of misery.
Later as a teenager Nicholas made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine. Upon returning home he felt called to ministry and was subsequently ordained.
He spent time at the Monastery of Holy Zion near Myra until an old priest had a vision that he was to be the new bishop. The congregation overwhelmingly elected him bishop, and he became known for his holiness, passion for the Gospel and zeal. He challenged the old gods and paganism at the principal temple in his district (to the god Artemis), and it was said that the evil spirits “fled howling before him.”
But the old deities did not go easily. In A.D. 303 Emperor Diocletian directed the persecution of Christians, and “as he (Nicholas) was the chief priest of the Christians of this town and preached the truths of faith with a holy liberty, Nicholas was seized by the magistrates, tortured, then chained and thrown into prison with many other Christians.”
With the Edict of Milan, Emperor Constantine ordered the cessation of all persecution of the church, and the Christians were released from prisons. Those who survived Diocletian’s purges were called “confessors” because they wouldn’t renege on their confession of Jesus as Lord.
When Bishop Nicholas walked out of the prison the crowds called to him: “Nicholas! Confessor!” He had been repeatedly beaten until he was raw and his body was the color of vermilion.
Bishop Nicholas was also said to have intervened on behalf of unjustly charged prisoners (the governor took a bribe) and actively sought to help his people survive when they had experienced two successive bad harvests.
One of the most interesting stories connected with him was his role during the Arian controversy. St. Methodius asserted that “thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as death-dealing poison.”
Another weak tradition has him actually attending the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. The story goes that he got into a heated debate with Arius himself about whether there was a time when the Word (second person of the Godhead) did not exist.
Arius, of course, asserted, contra John 1:1, that the Word was a created being and had not existed from all eternity. Nicholas strongly disagreed.
The debate ended suddenly when Nicholas punched out Arius then and there on the floor of the council! This gives new meaning to the ditty: “he’s making a list and checking it twice, he’s going to find out who’s naughty or nice!”
The mental image of Santa Claus punching out Arius on the floor of the Council of Nicea with Emperor Constantine looking on fundamentally changes the way one would ever see Santa Claus again. While I might not agree with his methods, I certainly admire his passion for Christological orthodoxy and doctrinal purity.
So, when you think of Santa Claus, here’s something to think about. Think of a godly Christian bishop who was persecuted and imprisoned for faithfully proclaiming the faith under the most dangerous of circumstances. Think of someone who had a sensitive caring pastoral heart and took care of the flock of which God had made him shepherd.
Think of someone who provided support and defense for children, the weak and poor, the helpless and victims of injustice. Think of someone with an unparalleled passion for doctrinal purity. And to top it off, think of someone whose whole life was to point people to Jesus.
Now that’s my kind of Santa Claus!