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Opinion: Columnists

The real Santa Claus was bigger than the silly debate over his complexion

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Opinion,David Freddoso,Columnists,Analysis,Race and Diversity,Holidays

The circumstances are rather unfortunate, but everyone is talking about St. Nicholas this Christmas season. A great number of writers, bloggers, and tweeters – as well as two cable news networks – have become obsessed with a silly debate over Santa Claus's race.

I'm not going to write about that controversy. Those put off by a black Santa Claus are every bit as ridiculous as those who think Santa should be replaced by a magic penguin. But as long as everyone is talking about Saint Nicholas, he was a real person - not a penguin.

As a Greek inhabitant of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in the third and fourth centuries, he was probably European, but not the snow-white Santa we usually see. When forensic scientists attempted to reconstruct the saint's face from his preserved relics, they assumed that he was a dark-complexioned fellow, like most Mediterranean types (this writer included).

We have no detailed contemporary accounts of Nicholas' life, but we have some great stories, some of which might even be true (or partly true). His biographers record that he was born into a wealthy and pious Christian family in the late third century. He experienced a sudden career change as a young man when the bishops of Lycia met to choose a replacement for a deceased colleague. One of the bishops supposedly had a vision in which he was told to choose the next guy who walked in the church door – who happened to be Nicholas.

The most famous story about Nicholas – and the one from which our modern Santa traditions derive – is about an act of charity he performed for a ruined noble family. The father had three daughters, but having lost everything, he could not afford a dowry for any of them. Since they could not therefore marry, he was on the point of sending them to work in a brothel.

Nicholas, learning of this problem, anonymously threw a bag full of gold into the man's house for each of the three daughters, at different times, so that each could be married off in turn. The third time, the father ran outside and caught the “Secret Santa” in the act.

Another story is that of Nicholas' participation as a bishop in the Council of Nicaea. The theologian Arius held forth at that council his belief that Jesus Christ, the Son, was not coequal with God the Father. Nicholas, who disagreed and was apparently fed up with Arius, walked over and slapped him in the face, to the horror of the assembled bishops. Nicholas was imprisoned for the remainder of the council (during which he supposedly had a vision), and he was deeply embarrassed by what he had done. The Council ultimately agreed with Nicholas' position — if not his behavior — formally establishing the doctrine of the Trinity.

Nicholas' humiliation at Nicaea offers a great lesson in civility – that even when you're right in an argument, it's no excuse to put aside good manners and respect. His unorthodox accession to the office of bishop must have provided a constant reminder of his own unworthiness, and the need to use positions of leadership to serve others rather than aggrandize himself. His private and anonymous act of charity provides a sharp contrast to those who run to the nearest camera to claim credit for everything.

Perhaps America's politicians and pundits could use a little more Saint Nicholas - and a little less stupid bickering about his skin color.

DAVID FREDDOSO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is the former Editorial Page Editor for the Examiner and the New York Times-bestselling author of "Spin Masters: How the Media Ignored the Real News and Helped Re-elect Barack Obama." He has also written two other books, "The Case Against Barack Obama" (2008) and "Gangster Government" (2011).
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