I am taking a break from our regular Wednesday structured professional development discussion to talk about a seasonal matter, namely the jolly fat man who really enjoys his cookies on Christmas Eve. No, I am not talking about myself, but rather Santa Claus. I have had several traumas in my life regarding Santa over the years, several when I was young and several as an adult. One of my recent intellectual jolts was the discovery that Santa’s now familiar red outfit was the invention of the Coca Cola company. (Wikipedia disputes this, noting that White Rock Beverages was first to do so, small comfort to me.) But I was really floored the other day when an old friend of mine from the minor seminary—who has become a dedicated Catholic deacon and missionary in Central America—posted on his Facebook site that Santa threw a punch at a heretic at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.
Let me sort this out. I suspect that most of you know the true origin of Santa Claus. He is the fourth century Bishop of the Greek city of Myra, St. Nicholas. Every 73 minutes my cable music provider plays the old tune “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” so that settles that. The name Santa Claus traces back to “Saint Klaus” or holy (Ni)colas. This bishop Nicholas is one of Christianity’s true “characters.” Sorting out the fact from the esteemed myth is hard to do, and I made a good effort, but in the end I just went with the best stories that have survived the rigors of time.
Nicholas was probably a much loved churchman by his flock. He led a tax revolt, arguing with the Emperor that taxes were bankrupting Myra. The tradition of Santa leaving gifts goes back to a situation where three young women in Myra could not marry because their father was too poor to provide dowries. Nicholas reportedly left three bags of gold on their window sill in the stealth of night so that the girls could be married to reputable husbands. What Sister Mary of the Pure Heart did not tell you in school was that Nicholas actually rescued the women from a life of prostitution. (Those Roman taxes were indeed quite excessive!)
Our future Santa Claus was, of course, a bishop and naturally invited to the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. This council, invoked by the Emperor Constantine, addressed itself to a Trinitarian controversy that was dividing the Church and the Empire, a belief held by many that Jesus was inferior to the Father. This belief is known as Arianism, embodied in the preaching of a priest from Egypt named Arius. At the Council of Nicaea Arius was permitted to explain his position in great deal. He seemed to have received appropriate attention from the bishops, but Nicholas, a staunch defender in the equality of Jesus with the Father (consubstantial, as we say in the Nicene Creed now) was building an enormous rage toward Arius. Finally, Nicholas rose from his seat, approached Arius where he was speaking, and he decked him!
The bishops, aghast at this unsporting display, ripped off his bishop robes, put him in chains, and took him to the Empire Constantine, the object of Nicholas’s tax protests some years earlier. (The bishop of Rome did not attend the Council, in an apparent prerogative dispute with the emperor.) Constantine ruled that since Nicholas had disrupted the bishops’ meeting, the bishops should determine his punishment. Nicholas was chained in a dungeon, but during the night legend has it that he was visited by Jesus and Mary, who broke his chains, restored his vestments of office, and urged him to keep up the fight, metaphorically speaking, of course. Nicholas reportedly repented of his violent act and seems to have been restored to his office. The Council did vote to condemn Arius, his second blow from the assembly.
Wikipedia’s discussion of Santa Claus linked above is quite good, and the development of the Santa persona underwent both theological and culturally diverse strands of development. During the American Civil War, Santa was portrayed in a Union general’s outfit.
There is at least one pastor in this world who is no longer a pastor because of a pastoral pronouncement about Santa. As I was told, the cited pastor was preaching during a Catholic school Mass and he asked the million-dollar question, “Who is coming on Christmas?” Dozens of little first and second grade students in their starched uniforms squealed with delight, “Santa Claus!” That apparently set the pastor in a rage and he informed the entire student body that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. Hell hath no fury, etc., and from what I understand it took the bishop himself to settle things. (I hope that years from now those kids get to see the Marx Brothers movie where Chico famously declares, “there’s no such thing as a sanity clause.”)
As a pastor I felt that Santa Claus/St. Nick embodied the best Christian sentiments of the season, and let’s face it, with the majority of families going to Mass on Christmas Eve, the little ones have so much excitement on their minds. So I purchased a parish Santa Claus suit and the jolly man (certainly jollier than his namesake) would make a visit to the Christmas Eve congregations about 20 minutes before Mass, make a few jokes with the pastor, and then tell the children to listen to the Christmas story at Mass and say their prayers every night. In fifteen years I never got a single complaint from the congregation or from the chancery. But, those were kinder, gentler times in the Church.
One of my youthful traumas occurred just at that time when I was starting to do the math and—God forbid—question the thesis of one man delivering presents to millions of kids. (This was long before Amazon Prime, of course.) On Christmas eve my cousins, aunts and uncles, would gather at my grandparents’ house for a Christmas Eve party. Being old school German Catholics, you could never have fun without pain, so we were forced at the onset to say the rosary on our knees. Only then could we have cookies and share a gift. The party would break up around 9 PM so the grown-ups could get home and take care of Christmas morning preparations.
I was in a snit; I didn’t want to go home, and the “get to sleep before Santa comes” routine was wearing thin. It was a four block drive back home, and we passed three saloons on the way, vintage Buffalo. Grumbling in the back seat, I looked out of the car at the largest of the drinking establishments, and out walked Santa Claus! He reached under his beard, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and lit up while leaning on the front window. Ignoring the obvious question of why Santa was throwing them back in a tavern on his busy night, I semi-panicked and figured that even allowing for smokes and boiler makers, he would be at my house soon.
Ah, for the days of simple faith and wondrous hopes. Shades of Advent.
P.S. If you have a few minutes, I did find that clip from the Marx Brothers, for your holiday enjoyment.