The Christmas season, especially this year, can feel somewhat disenchanted and commercial. The Netflix original movie “Klaus” (2019) is an emblematic offender. It reimagines the origins of Christmas completely divorced from religion, Christian and pagan alike, and instead in the context of the post office. It isn’t irredeemable and has a certain family-fun appeal, but at its core it’s about a commercialized season bent on gifts. After all, it’s a Netflix original.
But “Klaus” and many movies in the holiday canon reconstruct loose legends of a Catholic saint, Nicholas of Myra, Turkey, in a manner unconcerned with religious symbolism. This leaves us with a disenchanted Christmas story.
The real man behind many of the legends of the Santa Claus myth, St. Nicholas, gives shape to the Christmas spirit lost in the disenchanting versions of the holiday. And as many Christians and non-Christians around the globe come to terms with one of the most difficult holiday seasons of their lifetimes, revisiting the life of this particular saint from what is now modern Turkey may help re-enchant our disenchanted year.
The most famous story of Nicholas, found in Michael the Archimandrite’s hagiography Life of Saint Nicholas, provides the earliest trace of the Santa myth. Born to a wealthy family and having received a great inheritance, Nicholas took notice of a poor father in a nearby town who was contemplating selling his daughters into prostitution because he couldn’t afford their dowries. Without a dowry, marriage wasn’t a possibility.
According to legend, hidden by the dark of night, Nicholas threw a sack of gold coins into their window. In some icons, the coins land in drying socks. The father, apparently, used the money for one of his daughter’s dowries, which pleased Nicholas, and he threw two more purses of coins for the two remaining daughters. In a season in which so many receive more gifts than we give, especially this year, Nicholas of Myra’s testimony urges giving in the stead of receiving.
This hints at the character of St. Nicholas. According to the documentary “Saint Nicholas: The Real Story,” as a third-century Christian who wasn’t a theologian or martyr, it’s remarkable that he gathered a cult following of sorts after his death. He’s remembered for his life in a time in which most saints were remembered for their death. The bishop must have lived a truly remarkable life.
And while aspects of the dowry story are beyond the reach of historiographic tools, another incident testifying to his character is corroborated by contemporaneous non-Christian sources, so we can be rather certain of at least the spirit of the story in which Nicholas, as bishop of Myra, interferes with Roman officials and prevents the execution of an innocent man whose execution the governor had accepted bribes to authorize. With Christianity recently finding greater approval in the empire under Constantine, Nicholas, according to the stories, threatens to report the governor’s actions to the emperor. According to Orthodox lay theologian Jim Forest, “Nicholas absolved him, but only after the ruler had undergone a period of repentance.”
This historical event in the saint’s life is the chief reason why he is the patron saint of the innocent and those on death row. His intercession would be welcome right now, as the United States recently revived the federal death penalty. President Donald Trump, in the final days of his presidency, seems to have prioritized killing inmates, earning him the accolade of being the first president in history to have executed more citizens in a single year than all 50 state governments combined. Some of those executed, new evidence shows, could have been innocent.
St. Nicholas demands an alternative. In the words of Forest, Nicholas is “a saint who stopped an execution.” To imitate St. Nicholas—and to bring life instead of death to the holiday season—the Christian should advocate and pray for the abolition of the death penalty.
Finally, and perhaps not unrelated to the two prior incidents, the historical evidence suggests (but is not conclusive) that he was present at the Council of Nicea (and an advocate for orthodoxy). The debate at Nicea was over the divinity of the Son: was he of the same substance as the Father (as the council decided) or not of the same substance but something less, as Arius and his followers proposed?
In some surely fictional retellings of Nicea, Nicholas slapped Arius, the prime christological offender, across the face. Speaking strictly from plausibility, it’s interesting that facial archaeologists were able to reconstruct Nicholas’s face through his relics and they concluded that he had a broken nose. Perhaps there was some sort of physical brawl between the two?
Either way, Nicholas’s presence at Nicea is a reminder that Christmas and the story of the man who would morph into Santa Claus in due time are intimately connected to Christian orthodoxy. This is all too easy to neglect with the commercialization of the holiday season, especially as we turn to the movies that make up the “Christmas classics.”
In these three incidents, some historical and some less so (but nonetheless remembered, preserved, and revered in the Christian tradition), Nicholas of Myra’s life is worth contemplation and imitation. Doing so may be the right antidote to the American disenchanted Hallmark holiday: a reenchanted Christmas, consistent with a mythos surrounding a third-century bishop, is selfless, life-giving rather than life-taking, and an inheritance of Nicene Christianity.