This is one of the first posts we ever published on Solitary Watch, twelve years ago, and we now share it with our readers every year. Once a year, we also ask you to consider supporting the work we do: shining light into the darkest corners of our punishment system, and bringing a glimmer of hope and humanity to the people who reside there.
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It’s Christmastime once again in Incarceration Nation. Amid the celebrations, fears, and hopes the season brings this year, it is worth stopping for a moment to remember certain things about the two figures who dominate this holiday.
As the year ends with a barbaric series of federal executions and some 2,500 Americans sit on death row awaiting their fates, Christians 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 incarcerated, like more than 2.2 million people in the United States 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). In his early years 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 up until the Council of Nicaea, in 325 C.E. 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.”
According to the account, Nicholas spent the night praying for guidance, and Jesus and the Virgin Mary both appeared to him. “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 C.E. 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. We hope some will heed their teachings, and pause to give a thought and a prayer to their compatriots who are spending this Christmas behind bars.