Sun 19 Dec 2010
Suddenly, all over the internet, I’m reading that St. Nicholas, the person from whom Santa Claus got his name, was at the Council of Nicea and that he was so fed up with the obstinance of the heretic Arius that he marched across the room and slapped him in the face.
Of course, this rings true because it is in line with what we know about Santa Claus. Remember him bopping that psychiatrist with his cane in Miracle on 34th Street? And he gave a movie director a black eye in that greatest of Christmas movies, Ernest Saves Christmas.
Despite this powerful endorsement, however, the St. Nicholas story is, sadly, not true.
Who Knows What Happened at Nicea?
The story caught me by surprise because I’d never heard it, and I’m writing a book on the Council of Nicea. I’ve read all the writings from people who were there. I’ve read the 5th century histories that describe the council. I’ve read the canons they produced.
None of them even mention not-so-jolly St. Nick.
Fortunately, there are professional historians with more time than me that can go hunt down the sources of myths like this. In this case, good ol’ Christianity Today, which used to publish Christian History magazine, has an article on the St. Nicholas story.
I’m afraid, though, that the story of Nicholas slapping Arius wasn’t made up until about 5 centuries after Nicea.
By the way, the rest of the story is that the bishops were appalled at St. Nick’s lack of decorum, so they removed him from being bishop of Myra. But then Joseph and Mary appeared next to him, and they realized they couldn’t do that.
What a great Christmas story!
But, unfortunately, just an old bishop’s tale.
I have a page on Nicea myths at Christian History for Everyman.
That page will link you to the Council of Nicea section, too, which I personally believe is the best combination of readability and indepth accuracy you’ll find about that first ecumenical council on the internet.
I’m a chapter away from having a first version of my book on the Council of Nicea, too, though it still has that horrible editing process that it takes to make a book feel professional.
You also missed the short overview of the Council of Nicea and its events if you’re not signed up for the Early Church History Newsletter.