I hail from the great state of South Carolina, where a lieutenant governor once solved a dispute with the editor of the daily newspaper by shooting him on Main Street. Palmetto State history books also fondly recall the late congressman who once caned an adversary on the floor of the Senate so badly that the fellow–a Yankee, of course–couldn’t return to work for three years.
As we say in the south, sometimes you gotta get their attention.
So it was with great pride and affection that I learned recently that St. Nicholas, the real man behind the pot-bellied old elf, threw a punch at a heretic at the Council of Nicaea back in the fourth century.
History, it turns out, feminized old St. Nicholas, made him a softy. Today, he’s a sweet-faced, out-of-shape pushover who drinks milk, wears fur, and never tells kids “no” at the mall, regardless of how bad they have been. But the real Nicholas, who was born in A.D. 280 and ascended to the North Pole around 352, was a tough-guy defender of the faith, the so-called “Boy Bishop” who, allegedly, resurrected the dead, calmed a storm, and probably would have wheeled around and pulled his bodyguard from a fray if the occasion ever arose.
You know what I mean. Santa is a Red Stater. Look closely, and you’ll see the gun rack on the back of that sleigh.
Over the years, the nice-guy image of St. Nicholas has served us–and the estate of C. Clement Moore–quite well. Santa sells a lot of Cokes, for one thing, and is, significantly, the only obese pitchman Madison Avenue will allow without the promise of an “after” picture.
Until now, we’ve never needed Santa Claus (the name came from the Dutch, Sinterklass) to do much more than dole out gifts and consume a sizeable chunk of Aunt Thelma’s fruitcake in the dark hours before Christmas dawns. But now we find ourselves approaching Dec. 25, 2004, with the average Episcopalian afraid to say “Merry Christmas!” to the cashier for fear he’ll be sued for causing great emotional stress to a random Sikh on aisle 3. The number of people ready to be offended by a Christian’s robust wish of good cheer is presumably so great now that a Seattle high school canceled a performance of A Christmas Carol because it’s too “religious.” (Of course! I’d forgotten! The Ghost of Christmas Past, first introduced in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2866.)
Stew over such foolishness if you will, but it’s just as silly for Christians to yammer that we have to put Christ “back” in Christmas. In truth, the early Church pretty much stole the winter-solstice celebration from the pagans, so we’ve not a lot of room to talk. Plus, it only takes a casual encounter with a history of England–or, for that matter, even her wayward colonies–to know that the insufferably pious (think Cromwell) hated Christmas long before “bah humbug” became part of the vernacular.
Still, Christmas needs a defender these days, and we can all agree Mark Geragos is not the man for the job. What we need is to chunk out the rosy-cheeked, jelly-bellied Santa given us by Moore and Thomas Nast and bring back the real St. Nicholas, the Brawling Bishop of Myra. (Oh, no! Rocky VI alert!)
Usually, when Catholic and Orthodox families tell their children about Nicholas, they give the whitewashed version. The stories are so sweet: Nicholas was born wealthy, but rejected the life of ease. We got our tradition of hanging stockings by a fireplace because he flung bags of gold down a chimney to provide dowries for three destitute girls and the money landed in socks hanging fireside to dry. This, presumably, explains the selfless gift-giving that St. Nicholas represents today, and why we spend so much time in late December trying to pry gold foil off sticky chocolate coins.
But, it’s kind of like telling your kids about your college days: The good stuff gets left out. Nicholas, historians say, was actually an ex-con. We don’t know the particulars, but he was one of scores of early Christians imprisoned before Constantine took over and let all the good guys out. Like everyone who spends time in the big house, Nicholas probably emerged from prison a bit cross. And he took his newfound fightin’ spirit with him when he, as bishop of Myra, showed up for the first massive Christian convocation, the Council of Nicaea. (You know, of course, the Nicene Creed that emerged from this gathering: We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, creator of the Ghost of Christmas Past.)
Also at the council was a heretic by the name of Arius–a forerunner of American liberals–who taught that Jesus Christ was a really special person, but not exactly God. This didn’t go over too well with most of the participants, so there were arguments, and they weren’t particularly decisive until…Nicholas smote Arius. Clocked him. Decked him. Well, so they say. Like all great CBS stories, there’s no actual documentation, but it’s a great story and ought to be true, so there.
The CBS motto–Fake, but Accurate!–is, when you think about it, a pretty good way to describe this Santa business altogether. I have four children, and the eldest is 11, well past the age that most children abandon belief in any Santa Claus not portrayed by Tim Allen. But he still believes, or professes to, because he’s seen the contents of my wallet. “Mencken,” I tell him every year when there’s a faint murmur of doubt, “there better be a Santa, or else your Christmas-morning loot will consist of $12 worth of trinkets purchased at Dollar General.” He believes. He has to.
Then again, he was born in South Carolina and lives in Virginia and, like St. Nicholas, is Red State through and through. A Catholic, he fervently believes in Christmas–both the reverent celebration of Christ’s Mass and the godless “winter party” at his school. I, sullenly, had to fork over $5 for the winter party last week, diminishing even further the bounty to be had from Dollar General, which will ultimately bolster continued belief in St. Nick.
My son is a joyful child and will never be like that spoilsport Martin Luther who hated the concept of St. Nicholas and argued that the Christ Child should bring gifts. (Personally, if I’m going to perpetuate a fake-but-accurate myth of gift-giving, I don’t think I want to involve Almighty God in the deception. But that’s just me.)
Neither will Mencken be like the dour Quakers of the 19th century, who refused to celebrate Christmas at all and were indignant at the concept of St. Nick. (Quakers, of course, are raging pacifists and are largely as Blue State as they come. Draw your own conclusion.) In the 1820s, Quakers in Pennsylvania yowled that the legislature took a break at Christmastime “to celebrate Christ by drinking, cursing, swearing and fighting.” St. Nicholas would have fit right in.
–Jennifer Graham is a writer and editor in Falls Church, Va. Her website is Jennifergraham.com.