The Dream of St. Nicholas

by Charles A. Brady

Council of Nicaea
Artist: Vincenzo Catalano, #60/99

The great council was over. The bishop was weary.
Two months — and a week to travel — had left him homesick
For Myra, his see, and his own trundle bed.
Eight full weeks of wrangling about words!
Words he did not fully understand
Any more than most of the three hundred odd bishops
Who sat in mute conclave under Constantine,
Leaving the arguing to Alexander,
Spyridion of Cyprus, from Cordova Ossius.
And, most of all, Archdeacon Athanasius
Whose words winged upward as no one else’s did.

One Word he did understand: the Word made flesh,
The Word the Father spoke when time was not:
And so he mastered the Greek formulas
Marking the hub of the mighty wheel that moved
this new thing under the sun, the Christian church’s
First universal council in history.
Homooousios, which meant consubstanial,
Of the same essence with the Father, that is.
Homoiousios; of like substance —
One iota separated those words,
And, oh, what a difference that one iota made!
Like a jewelled dagger, envenomed, it struck home
And wounded the Incarnation mortally!
It robbed the Babe of his godhead with that I.
No longer would Omnipotence go swaddled.

Anger rose in Nicholas’s breast as he remembered
That presbyter from Alexandria,
Arius, tall, dark, supercilious,
A popinjay of logic, skilled in reason
To fell the ivory tower of Mary’s Child
With the battering ram of his accursed iota.
Particles were important, Matthew had said,
Defending jots and tittles in the Law.
Well, this yod was evil. It would destroy
The Nativity’s great Feast of Little Things,

And Mary’s Babe, the littlest thing of all,
Little Lord of the Birthing Feast that was so great.
Remember what the name, Nicaea, meant:
Victorious City; and his name, Nicholas:
Conquering Army, the Bishop of Myra rose
And smot the herisiarch on his learned nose.
Bright red it gushed before the labarum’s gold Chi-Rho.
Constantine had a herald read aloud:
Ye servants of God, put away all cause of strife,
Unknot all discord in the Father’s peace.

So the council ended in tumult, half-glad, half-sad
Nicholas tossed and turned in the bed he would leave next morning,
Too tired to sleep, and too humiliated.
In July, the Emporer month, Nicaea was torrid.
No wind. The whining of mosquitoes only,
And the iron clank of camel gear outside.
His mind turned to his rustic see of Myra.
To the dowries he gave so that the maidens there
Might pay their lawful dues to a Christian eros.
To the children he served, his chosen apostolate.
He thought also of his single servant, Thorkel.
The man was a Northman, one of the northern soldiers
One came across here and there in the ranks of Caesar’s legions.
A Christian now, he told amusing stories,
That Nicholas prized, about the old northern gods.

How hard it is not to sleep! A dream would be better.
Nicholas spoke aloud, from the Book of Job,
Words he loved in the Mass’s Ordinary:
Your old men shall dream dreams,
        your young men shall
See visions.
Well, he was old enough for dreams,
Wasn’t he? Mirabile dictu! It worked!

As in all dreams, he woke. He woke in a sleigh
Cunningly carved into whorls and grinning faces.
He was a passenger. The charioteer
A brawny giant with a wild red beard
Who brandished an ancient hammer, and every time
Thunder roared all about. He was consubstantial —
The council’s word still rang in Nicholas’ head —
With the wildness of the night. The songs he sang,
In his barbaric northern tongue, were wilder yet.
The team he drove were goats, no horses at all.
It came into Nicholas’s mind: here was Thorkel’s god,
Thor of the Red Beard, wild hammer of heaven.

Artist: Cyrus Leroy Baldridge, from Santa Claus Comes to America, 1942

Somehow he wasn’t afraid. Then that charioteer
Bowed with wild courtesy and handed him
The reins. Red beard streaming in the wind,
He was gone. And what a wind! The sleigh rode
on the wings of the wind. Like Isaiah’s seraphim
That wind had six wings, white pinions of air,
Each one driving the sledge on, on, on.
And up! Up! The bishop was air-borne now,
High above the world below where other
Seraphim of snow, not air, robed trees
In glistening white surplices for
The Feast of the Baby God of Bethlehem.
Strangely enough — and yet it didn’t seem strange!
Thor’s goats were gone and, in their place, horned deer,
Their horns like candelabra to hold stars.
Thorkel had told him once these came from Lapland
Where the Sami pastured them on the Hyperborean
Marches of Norway. How they raced through the skies!
His sled — yes it was his sled now —
Had a curious cargo Myra’s children would love:
Dolls, sweetmeats from Persia, toy helmets, horns.
Joy filled the heart of Nicholas at the sight,
Life and love and a giant’s energy.
Faster and faster fell the natal snow,
Softer than baby cheeks or a kitten’s fur.

The reindeer coursed through the night like the steeds of the gods.
A northern incense of firs fumed white on the air.

Nicholas woke in the dawnlight ruefully.
Sunt geminae Somni portae, as Vergil wrote,
Constantine’s favorite poet. Sleep has two gates.
He knew what Constantine would ask.
        “Your dream,
Was it out of the Gate of Horn? Or of ivory?”
In a word, was it true or false? Nicholas sighed.
He couldn’t ask Constantine. He was out of favor.
Besides, as a Celt, Vergil knew. Romans didn’t.
He sighed once more. All he knew was this:
        he’d like
To have that dream again. Once every year.
Another sigh. He supposed he was getting old.

If Nicholas could have known, he really grew
        young that night.
As all the world grows young at Christmastide.
He didn’t know then. We know, to our fortune,
        however,
All honor to St. Nicholas forever!
As it says in Paul’s Epistle for his Mass:
He was a prelate, the end of whose teaching was
Jesus Christ yesterday, today, and the same forever.
He was not led away with any strange
        doctrine.
So Christmas is and stays our world’s
        great dream.

And Nicholas’ part therein? What shall one say?
Not alta fantasia, no, Ah no,
No matter how high that gift-sleigh’s altitude.
A homlier fantasy, and most endearing,
The only tale of faery that’s true.


From America, December 1993. Permission pending.

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