This 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 (or plan to help) us bring a small ray of light into the darkness of solitary confinement by supporting our Lifelines to Solitary project. –Jean and Jim

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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 nearly one in every 100 American adults 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.

  • Mark A. Strepka

    Who dares to express their intellectual theories on this topic? For one’s theory is another man’s demise. So with that in present mind, at least try to theorize and start an express intent to actually care about those incarcerated in todays prisons. In fact and reality this nation, but more specifically, in Colorado alone, incarcerates per capita the most of all, this fact is the highest world wide. Now if any Person cares about the financial deficits that are being inflicted upon all of the tax payers in the State of Colorado…then do something constructive for once in your lives and participate in the arguments against “Mass Incarceration!” This type of “Freedom” theft just might be one of you in the very near future like a dear Friend of mine that now sits behind those steel bars of overcrowding in Arapahoe County, Colorado to which the tune is quite a bit of freedom theft by the Judicial Branch of Government, although, I would surmise that she truly wishes that she would have listened to me, others, and more importantly herself. You cannot take back what is done, you can only accept and move forward, unfortunately…
    It is akin to the ones that attempt to redeem themselves at Christmas time only for the rest of the year by giving only one day out of 364 others…and they, for the most part, feel good about themselves…how pathetic!!!