We all know Santa Claus as the chubby old guy in a red velvet suit who gives us present if we’re good boys and girls and sometimes gives us coal (or worse, switches) if we’ve been bad. We generally consider him a nice guy, even though he stalks us throughout the year and then passes judgement on us without even hearing our side of the story. I guess the presents make up for that. Plus nobody can stay mad at a sweet old man, even if he is a little creepy.
But Santa is a little more rough around the edges than you think. According to legend he spent time in jail, solved murders and punched a renown cleric in the face. Today on Beyond Bones we’re going to investigate the story of the real St. Nicholas and the totally bizarre way he became the father of Christmas (yes, he’s the father, but only because Jesus can’t be because he’s still a baby). So sit back, relax and make sure the kids aren’t in the room while we give you the scoop on St. Nick.
Nobody knows for sure if St. Nicholas was a real person, however stories of him go back centuries and he has been venerated as a saint for more than a thousand years. Tradition holds he was the Bishop of Myra (a town in present day Turkey) during the 4th century AD. During this time he supposedly endured imprisonment and torture during the last Roman persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian.
But it’s after the death of Diocletian and the ascension of Constantine I to the throne that we come to the story of Santa punching a renowned cleric in the face. Under Constantine Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately at that time there was a lot of conflict between different christian factions about who exactly Jesus was. Some believed Jesus was God, others believed he was more like a prophet. This difference of interpretation led to bitter conflicts within the church. To solve this issue, Constantine called together various church leaders to settle matter once and for all. The event was called the Council of Nicaea and St. Nichols supposedly attended it.
Also attending the Council was a renowned cleric named Arius of Alexandria. Arius didn’t think Jesus was God and St. Nicholas didn’t like that. Santa supposedly became so enraged by the Egyptian’s heresy he punched Arius in the face. Let that be a lesson, kids. Don’t mess with Santa.
Of course it wasn’t physical assault that made Santa the official Christmas mascot, it was actually a series of events that were much more violent and disturbing. The first story centers around three poor maidens. Because their impoverished father can’t afford to pay their dowry, their prospect of finding good husbands isn’t very good. And if they can’t find husbands, they may have to inter into a life of servitude, or possibly even become prostitutes to avoid starving. Luckily old St. Nick hears about their trouble, goes to their house and tosses three bags of gold through their window. This is the story of how St. Nicholas became the patron saint of both children and prostitutes.
Another story tells of three young boys on their way to Athens to study theology. They stop to rest at a Tavern, and during the night the owner of the tavern murders them, chops up their bodies and hides them in a pickling tub. The next day St. Nicholas stops by. He’s a seasoned traveler, by the way. In fact he became the patron saint of Sailors on a previous trip to the Holy Land. This time he’s Athens bound. He stops to rest for the night in the same Tavern the boys did. During the night he has a vision about the murder that occurred the previous night. He wakes up, finds the bodies and, by praying feverishly to God, restores life to the boys.
So there you have it. Santa is a little rougher around the edges than you thought, but in a totally awesome sort of way. Personally, after researching the true story of St. Nick I have a little more respect for the jolly old guy. I’m also a little more likely to keep my bedroom door lock on Christmas eve…
If you manage to not get beat up Christmas eve and you have a few days of vacation you’re not sure how to kill, why not check out the Houston Museum of Natural Science? We have holiday-themed special events that are sure to spread Christmas cheer to even the Scroog-iest member of your family and our permanent exhibit halls are never our of season!