About a month ago my oldest son, now almost eight, asked me a question I had been dreading since he was very small. “Mom,” he said. “How does Santa get all those presents to everyone in the entire world in a single night?” Then before I could answer, he gave me a sly look and added, “Unless…but no…do you stuff the stockings on Christmas Eve?” Okay, it wasn’t really a question. It was a statement of disbelief; but I went through the motions anyway, just as he had.
“Do you want me to answer that question honestly?” I asked. E nodded, his eyes big, and maybe a little sad. In truth, I was somewhat relieved. Though my husband and I both grew up with strong Santa Claus traditions, I have never been especially comfortable with the whole magic sleigh, flying reindeer, and toy-making elves thing. I want my children to be able to trust that I tell them the truth and I admit that I was concerned that Santa Claus would one day be seen by them as a betrayal of that trust.
So I took a deep breath and launched into the story of St. Nicholas, a 4th Century Bishop known for his quiet generosity and secretive gift-giving. I explained that it is from this story that the legendary figure of Santa Claus evolved and that though not literally true, the tale is true enough in spirit and is a celebration of generosity and love that echoes the Divine gift of Jesus, which we celebrate at Christmas.
That’s the story I told him because, until very recently, that was the extent of what I knew about the historical St. Nicholas. And then my brother-in-law (coincidentally E’s godfather—where was he when we had this tricky conversation?) brought to my attention some new and wonderful information about this celebrated saint.
Born in the late part of the third century in the city of Myra in Lycia (today Demre, Turkey), young Nicholas grew up to become Greek Bishop of Myra. It was in this capacity that he attended the First Council of Nicaea in the year 325. Called by Roman Emperor Constantine, the Council of Nicaea was the first ecumenical gathering of the Christian Church, designed to hammer out a consensus of belief.
At issue, in particular, was the divinity of Christ and his relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit, on which the teaching of the Church varied widely. At one end of the debate was Egyptian theologian Arius who insisted that Jesus the Son was not equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit. St. Nicholas did not agree.
As Arius stated his case, Jolly Old Nicholas listened, doing his best to be polite. But, as it does for most of us listening to arguments we don’t find credible, his patience wore thin. While Arius continued to drone on, St. Nicholas jumped to his feet and shook his fist (causing his enormous belly to shake like a bowl full of jelly, I imagine). Bellowing a decisive Ho Ho Ho, the bishop (his cheeks rosy with anger) crossed the floor and slapped Arius across the face.
Under the authority of Constantine, the other bishops stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s robes and threw him, bound in chains, in jail. No longer a part of the council discussions, Nicholas busied himself with prayer and the formation of a naughty list of all the bishops who had turned their backs on his mature and well-formulated argument against Arius’s speech. Sometime during the long night, Jesus and his mother Mary appeared to the incarcerated former bishop, released him from his chains, and presented him with fresh robes.
When Constantine heard about the miracle, he released Nicholas from jail, reinstated him as Bishop, and informed the rest of the council that they were free to slap Arius as much as they liked. The concept of the Trinity became a cornerstone of Christian theology and Arius received only a lump of coal for Christmas that year, which taught him a valuable lesson: Do not cross Santa Claus because he will slap you silly!
Despite my concerns, my son took the explanation of Santa Claus pretty well (even without the inclusion of the Jolly Old Elf’s violent tendencies). Familiar as E is with the Star Wars Galaxy, he recognizes that “from a certain point of view,” is sometimes the closest thing we get to truth. Someday I may share with him this other chapter in St. Nicholas’s story, though, too, because I also want him to know that there is a Truth worth standing up for, even to the point of a well-timed slap in the face.