Deeply disturbed by much of the mythology that has grown up around the Santa tradition in recent years, I have sought to get back to the original sources in order to understand the man in his historical context. It is my thesis that the historical Santa is in fact not primarily to be understood as an itinerant bringer of joy, nor friend of children, but unshakeable defender of orthodoxy in the order of Phineas.
St Nicholas was Bishop of Myra, Lycia from around AD 280-350. Most of what we know about him comes from 10th century writers like St Methodius or Metaphrastes who document his pious upbringing, his teenage pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine and his enduring torture and imprisonment under Emperor Diocletian. His practice of giving gifts to the young, poor and needy became well known, and it was this generosity that formed the basis for the Father Christmas legend with which we are so familiar today. Less known however is his commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy, and the severe lengths to which he was prepared to go in order to protect biblical truth.
St Methodius writes, “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.” But teaching was only one aspect of his ministry. We all know that actions speak louder than words, and tradition has it that at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in AD 325 Nicholas, outraged at the false teaching on the Godhead, strode to the centre of the council and punched the heretic Arius in the face.
And thus was Arius put firmly and squarely on the naughty list.
How is it that such a staunch defender of truth has been sanitised, dressed in red, plumped up and resigned to a seasonal batch of Coca Cola cans? Why is his noble, if a little heavy handed, contribution to theology not more widely celebrated?
In The Third Quest for the Historical Santa, I explore these deep questions, and with the help of whatyouthinkmatters’ resident expert Church Historian Andy Johnston, I dig up some glistening gems hitherto buried in the tedious depths of history. For example, did you know that some sources claim that upon punching the heretic, St Nicholas uttered the catchphrase, now made famous by that festive classic Home Alone 2: “Merry Christmas, you filthy animal!” (An attractive if somewhat fanciful suggestion. That was Johnston’s primary contribution to the show, though I must stress, the manuscript evidence is not strongly in his favour.)
So, my beloved readers, get out the Radio Times, set up the HD-Recorder, cancel all other plans and prepare to see Santa like you’ve never seen him before.