The popular memes celebrate St. Nick punching Arius in the face, but the historical facts don't appear to support the story.
Most modern-day depictions of St. Nicholas paint him as a jolly old man, loving and kind, with a soft spot for children.
However, in some medieval churches, as well as in Byzantine iconography, you will find an image of St. Nicholas slapping Arius at the Council of Nicea.
Many Christians revel with delight at this scene and each year share countless memes that highlight St. Nick’s boxing ability.
Where did this tradition come from?
First of all, here is a basic retelling of the story from the 19th-century book, The Reliquary & Illustrated Archaeologist.
Although the most kindly and charitable of men, St. Nicholas had a temper and once gave very conclusive proof of the fact in the presence of three hundred bishops. It was at the great Nicean Council which was summoned for the purpose of putting Arius the Heretic to shame. This Arius in the course of his defence spoke of sacred personages with such scant reverence, that the Saint lost all patience and springing to his feet boxed his ears soundly.
The medieval legends primarily report it as a “slap,” instead of the usual “punch” that is often reported on social media.
Historians have tried to trace the origins of this story and end-up only finding mention of it starting in the 14th century, nearly 1,000 years after the Council of Nicea.
Was St. Nicholas at the Council of Nicaea?
St. Nicholas died on December 6, 345, making it possible that as a bishop, he was present at the Council of Nicea in 325.
However, his name was never on the roster of bishops who were present.
The Catholic Encyclopedia states this plainly, “There is reason to doubt his presence at Nicaea, since his name is not mentioned in any of the old lists of bishops that attended this council.“
A biographer in the early 20th century also affirms this finding in the book, Life of St. Nicholas.
Tradition says not only that he was present in his old age at the Council of Nicea AD 325, but pictures him as the foremost figure of all ,the outstanding opponent of Arius … His name, however, is not on the list of those attending this Council and he is not mentioned in this connection by a single ancient historian.
While it may be humorous to continue the legend of St. Nick socking Arius in the jaw, the story should be classified as a legend, and not a factual incident that demonstrates St. Nicholas’ holiness.