Santa Was in Prison and Jesus Got the Death Penalty

by | December 23, 2013

star-of-bethlehem1[1]_jpg2This post has become a Christmas tradition at Solitary Watch. To all our readers, warm wishes for the holidays. Special thanks to those who have helped us bring a small ray of light into the darkness of solitary confinement by supporting our Lifelines to Solitary project.

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As Christmas is celebrated in Incarceration Nation, it’s worth remembering certain things about the two figures who dominate this holiday.

As more than 3,000 Americans sit on death row, we revere the birth of a man who was arrested, “tried,” sentenced, and put to death by the state. The Passion is the story of an execution, and the Stations of the Cross trace the path of a Dead Man Walking.

Less well known is the fact that Saint Nicholas, the early Christian saint who inspired Santa Claus, was once a prisoner, like one in every 100 Americans today. Though he was beloved for his kindness and generosity, Nicholas acquired sainthood not only by giving alms, but by performing a miracle that more or less amounted to a prison break.

Nicholas was the 4th-century Greek Bishop of Myra (in present-day Turkey). Under the Roman emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians, Nicholas spent some five years in prison–and according to some accounts, in solitary confinement.

Under Constantine, the first Christian emperor, Nicholas fared better until the Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D. There, after having a serious theological argument with another powerful bishop, Nicholas became so enraged that he walked across the room and slapped the man.

It was illegal for one bishop to strike another. According to an account provided by the St. Nicholas Center: “The bishops stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s garments, chained him, and threw him into jail. That would keep Nicholas away from the meeting. When the Council ended a final decision would be made about his future.”

Nicholas spent the night praying for guidance, and was visited by Jesus and Mary. “When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and Nicholas dressed in bishop’s robes, quietly reading the Scriptures.” It was determined that no one could have visited or helped him during the night. Constantine ordered Nicholas freed and reinstated as the Bishop of Myra, and his feat would later be declared one of many miracles performed by the saint.

Saint Nicholas lived on to serve the poor during the devastating famine that hit his part of Turkey in 342 AD. He is reported to have anonymously visited starving families at night and distributed gold coins to help them buy scarce food.

Here in the United States nearly two thousand years later, Christians go to church to worship an executed savior and shop to commemorate an incarcerated saint. And most Americans give little thought to their 2 million countrymen who are spending this Christmas behind bars.

Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

James Ridgeway (1936-2021) was the founder and co-director of Solitary Watch. An investigative journalist for over 60 years, he served as Washington Correspondent for the Village Voice and Mother Jones, reporting domestically on subjects ranging from electoral politics to corporate malfeasance to the rise of the racist far-right, and abroad from Central America, Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia. Earlier, he wrote for The New Republic and Ramparts, and his work appeared in dozens of other publications. He was the co-director of two films and author of 20 books, including a forthcoming posthumous edition of his groundbreaking 1991 work on the far right, Blood in the Face. Jean Casella is the director of Solitary Watch. She has also published work in The Guardian, The Nation, and Mother Jones, and is co-editor of the book Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. She has received a Soros Justice Media Fellowship and an Alicia Patterson Fellowship. She tweets @solitarywatch.

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  • Elise Hietikko

    As a Christian it is very challenging for me that My Savior was imprisoned, tortured and executed. And even before that he taught us to “visit those in prison.” In those times those truly guilty of the suffering and impoverishment of the Jewish people never saw a jail cell, same as our times. Jesus was unspeakably brave 2,000 years ago, and with His Spirit today, hopefully we can truly be His followers.

  • Mark, Dudley, and Kevin, almost half of people in prison had no victims, 47% in 2011 were incarcerated on non-violent drug offenses. [1] Sentencing for the death penalty is highly arbitrary [2], and, provided you value human life, a non-trivial number of people sentenced to death have been released due to wrongful conviction.[3]

    As for survivors of crime, what does our current punitive justice system offer them? Very little. A form of state mediated vengeance, without hope of mercy, reconciliation nor redemption.

    I pray that you are trolls, or I pray for your souls.

    1. “Nearly half (47%) of people incarcerated in state prisons in 2011 were convicted of non-violent drug, property, or public order crimes.”



  • kevin nash

    I feel NO pity for any savage….i mean inmate. They are animals that are locked up like an animal for a reason, and its not for being a persecuted christian from over a thousand years ago, and jesus was killed for blaspheming against god, and by claiming he was the messiah and the son of goda. If i was incharge, i would gather up all the inmates, and put them into a special room, and drop some Zyklon B in there. On the bright side they would never have to worry about solitary ever again. I dont understand why some people want better treatment for these savages.

  • I think you’re missing the point, or at least the point I read into the story. Jesus and Saint Nicholas were imprisoned because of their resistance to Empire’s practices, which is true of many of today’s American prisoners. And any of us could be next, for speaking our consciences.

  • James and Jean:

    You missed a huge part of your own story.

    The Passion of Christ was based on the Perfect Innocent, the Lamb of God, being the Perfect sacrifice for the sins of man.

    If was God’s plan.

    On the other hand, Saint Nicholas was guilty, but God chose eternal law over man’s law, based upon the story (which may have no historical support).

    The nearly 2 million in prison today, are, overwhemingly, guilty criminals, who had innocent victims, that you didn’t even mention, a contemptuous oversight on your part.

    I can assure you that those vicitm’s, both death and alive, are very much aware of those criminals that harmed them.

  • Laura Markle Downton

    A profound reflection. Thank you, Solitary Watch.

  • Mark Langley

    First place the Incarcerated men you speak of on Death row have MURDERED another human being. THey are exactly where they belong and they are getting what they deserve. To be in isolation means they are dangerous Violent criminals.

  • Thank you for the timely message.

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