Slap-Happy Saint Nick? Separating History and Legend
December 14, 2022
by Dr. Paul Hartog
When our contemporary culture thinks of “Saint Nick,” they imagine a jolly fellow robed in red velvet who drives a flying sleigh and devours milk and cookies—lots of them! The roots of this holiday mythical figure can be traced back to “St.” Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century ecclesiastical leader in Asia Minor. The historical Nicholas allegedly delivered three young women from being forced into prostitution by dropping sacks of gold through their window. He also reportedly rescued three innocent soldiers from wrongful execution. Whether or not these specific episodes really happened, Nicholas’ reputation developed and flourished in later tradition. Over the centuries, his compassion for others, especially children, morphed into the gift-bearing icon that is now ubiquitous in the holiday season.
According to early tradition, the historical Nicholas of Myra was imprisoned during the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian (AD 303-313). Early tradition also asserts that Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. This gathering of church leaders addressed the heresy of Arius, who taught that Jesus Christ was a created being and thus denied His eternality and deity. In response, the council declared its belief in the Lord Jesus Christ, “God from God … begotten not made, of the same essence with the Father.” But we do not actually know what direct role, if any, Nicholas played in the deliberations at Nicaea. According to Medieval legends, he slapped Arius in the face, hoping by this reprimand to bring the heretic to his senses. Although lacking historical foundation, the image of Nicholas smacking the arch-heretic has become a popular internet meme.
Even if Nicholas of Myra never really struck Arius, the Council of Nicaea robustly defended the deity of Christ and His incarnation. In fact, I suspect that Nicholas himself would frown upon the expansion of his reputation in a manner that distracts from the only Son of God. The Nicene declaration of faith affirmed that God the Son“was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became human.” And it emphasized that this all happened “for our sake” and “for our salvation.” Jesus could only conquer death for us by becoming one of us, living a sinless life, and dying in our place. As the Gospel of John proclaims, “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son,” and thus “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14; 3:16, NKJV).
While the jovial Saint Nick who dispenses gifts to children is a figment of the modern imagination, and the legendary image of Nicholas of Myra slapping back heresy only surfaced in the Middle Ages, the incarnation of Jesus Christ remains the foundational reality of God’s entrance into human history. “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5, NKJV). We can, and should, thank God for His indescribable gift (2 Cor. 9:15; Rom. 8:32). And praise be to God, that instead of consulting a “naughty or nice” list, He bestowed His unmerited mercy upon us as unworthy sinners (Rom. 5:6-8). The Son of God took the plunge into humanity, and the ripples of that historic event continue till today, as rising tides of grace wash over individual lives.