By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
"Santa's real. . . . It's the stories that are fake."
—Uncle Bill, grandma's house, Christmas 1957
* * *
Ric Erwin, "Singin' Santa," the most vibrant performing professional Santa Claus I've ever met, is also the first Santa I've ever actually . . . in person . . . seen fly. Under his own power.
I first met Santa Ric (and, yes, all performing Santas should be called by that honorific) at the April meeting of the Santas of the OC™—"The ORIGINAL Chapter of FORBS™"—at Sarducci's Depot Restaurant in San Juan Capistrano. He's vice president of the group, part of a regional association serving California, Arizona and Nevada known as Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (FORBS). My wife and I had dinner with a roomful of Santas, including Santa Ric, a burly, buoyant gent with an equally gregarious wife, Victoria (a.k.a. "Diva Claus"). The two—"Southern California's First Couple of Live Entertainment"—own Ric~N~Vic Productions, an A/V and special-events production company in Mission Viejo. As we sat at the dinner table, he treated us to his self-proclaimed "interactive event Santa" talents by singing a rapid-fire recitation of ALL the names of EVERY country in the world that Santa visits.
"[FORBS] was born in Orange County, California," explained Santa Ric. "Not that we first conceived the practice of using men with natural beards to portray Santa Claus, of course—but without a doubt, we originated the concept of the Santa fraternity."
There is no Santa Claus Vatican, no Pope Santa. Hundreds of Santa Claus organizations exist worldwide. Santa Ric, always seeing the big picture, founded his own International Order of Santas (IOS) in February 2008. Their mission: "Uniting the World's Holiday Professionals."
In September, Santa Ric and Diva Claus invited me to their Mission Viejo home to attend the FORBS Annual SoCal BBQ & Pool Party. Santas look a lot alike, but Santa doesn't clone. With all those beaming, rotund, middle-aged men sporting long white hair and whiskers, Ric and Diva's pool party resembled a scene from The Hobbit movie in which Gandalf and the dwarf clan invade Bilbo's Bag End bungalow. Throw in the uncle and the dad from Duck Dynasty, too. Also, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Merlin and Moses (Michelangelo, not Heston).
In any case, this is no country for old men who buy and wear the pricey yak-fur "designer" beards so popular with follicularly challenged and seasonal-only professional Santas. Real bearders commit to playing Santa year-round, so FORBS only accepts real beards. I stood near the backyard pool in a cluster of Santas clad in red-and-green-accented swim trunks and leisurewear exposing expansive amounts of white flesh. I had found a few black Santas on the East Coast online, but not much else. I did find some racist posts about these beloved black Santas from a site I won't name, but I will say the editor calls himself TatooedRed (a.k.a. The TattedRat).
Wearing flip-flops, shorts and a red T-shirt, Santa Ric grilled hot dogs and hamburgers while I chatted with him and some of the other Santas, including Santa Earl, a barber from Santa Ana, and Santa Greg, a school-bus driver from Fullerton. Santa Greg shared his genesis story with me: One day while transporting his charges to school, he had to hit the bus brakes harder than expected, which bounced one of the kids out of his seat (what's with no seat belts on school buses, anyway?). Later, the youngster's irate mom called the school to complain about the incident. When asked which driver was responsible, the woman replied, "That Santa Claus-looking motherfucker."
Then, I saw it: Santa Ric actually flying. I watched as Ric, his eyes watering from all the grill smoke, suddenly pulled off his red T-shirt and sprinted toward the pool, nimbly launching his ample 250-pound mass into the water. Barely making a splash, he then contentedly floated on his back in apparent peaceful contemplation of who knows what. Later, as I left the party, I could hear Santa Ric strumming his guitar and singing a sweet ballad.
So, what could cause this jovial, cherubic big guy to war with fellow Santas? Santa Ric would later lament to me how others "organized the illegal coup with which they hijacked—and ultimately murdered—our noble fraternity."
The hot Cold War of the Real Bearded Santas erupted six years ago, and the "Santa-mosity" still lingers. Santas fighting Santas is so compelling that Paramount Pictures has had a "Santa Wars" project in development with Mike White since 2009, and a documentary film is due to hit festivals in 2014.
The bare facts: the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas (AORBS), founded in Southern California in 1995, was taken over in 2007 by Santa Nicholas Trolli of Pennsylvania, following the resignation of AORBS President Santa Tim Connaghan, of Riverside, amidst accusations by Trolli against Connaghan involving conflicts of interest. Trolli himself soon faced withering criticism from group members over his own performance. A mass exodus from AORBS ensued. Santa Ric, president of the AORBS Inland Empire Chapter, was one of those critics; he resigned in 2007. Former AORBS members then formed FORBS, a California-based 501(c)7 "mutual-benefit association" registered in Orange County. FORBS later had its own internal Santa vs. Santa problems. Santa Claus endures but keeps changing his mind.
Can't you just see Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller—or Jack Black and John Goodman—starring in this mess?
* * *
The OC Santa Wars began with a friendly TV commercial.
In 1994, the world's largest mail-order company—Otto Versand (now the Otto Group)—was planning its winter sales campaign and went looking for real-bearded Santas. Ten professional real-bearded Santa actors, including Tom Hartsfield, made the shoot at Universal Studios.
The original 10 Santas bonded in friendship and planned a reunion. They wanted a name, and a precedent existed. The world's first Santa Claus group—the Benevolent Order of Santa Claus—was founded in New York on Dec. 18, 1937, to promote Santa's image throughout U.S. department stores. But the new Santas wanted to keep "real beard" in the group's title, so Hartsfield proposed "Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas."
By 2003, the AORBS had 100 members . . . all with background checks. Hartsfield was looking for help, which he found in Santa Tim Connaghan—"Saint Timothy" to Ric Erwin—a man without peer in the Santa business. Of the thousands of professional Santas working today in the U.S., two stand out as super-celebs: Santa Claus Hall of Fame inductees Brady White, a.k.a. "Santa to the Stars©" (who counts Neiman Marcus and Cartier as clients and has appeared in numerous films, television commercials and ads), and Tim "Santa Hollywood" Connaghan. While White is a one-man phenom, Connaghan is a networked mega "Santa-preneur" with a chimney-deep resume. He is known as "Santa Hollywood" primarily for his role as Official Santa for the Hollywood Christmas Parade, but he also does film and TV work. He's an entertainer and event celebrity, recognizable by his distinctive chiseled hairline, curled handlebar moustache, rimless spectacles, ubiquitous red "civilian" outfits, and a mellifluous speaking voice that comes from his years as a broadcast journalist.
A 24/7/365 bicoastal (New York and SoCal) Santa, Connaghan is president of the Kringle Group LLC. He runs one of America's largest and busiest real-bearded Santa booking agencies (2,300 names in his database) for up to 4,000 events each year. The Kringle Group operates the largest professional Santa school: International University of Santa Claus (IUSC), which is built around Connaghan's own curriculum and textbook, Behind the Red Suit. In addition to annually training between 200 and 300 Santas and Mrs. Clauses, the company runs a mail-order wardrobe catalog, offering boots, coats, buckles and yak-fur designer beards.
"I make a nice living," Santa Tim told me during a recent phone conversation. "I was able to pay off my daughter's college loans. Now, I'm retired and not looking for income. I just look to cover my expenses when I travel and enjoy life."
In the fall of 2003, Hartsfield asked Connaghan, then 54, to take over as AORBS coordinator. Santa Tim made the group dues-paying to fund a bigger, more informative website, newsletters and a chat group for members. The association grew from about 200 to almost 1,300 names on the meeting list. Connaghan also put together the first Santa convention—the Discover Santa Convention, held in July 2006, in Branson, Missouri. Three hundred Santas attended. By 2007, paid membership reached approximately 700 Santas, at $20 per member annually.
In January 2007, Connaghan turned AORBS into an official nonprofit, assembling an interim board and drafting bylaws. AORBS also announced its intentions to host the 2008 Discover Santa gathering, with 800 Santas in Overland Park, Kansas. And meanwhile, all the media attention was attracting new members.
One of these men was Nick Trolli.
* * *
A part-time Santa from Pennsylvania, Nicholas "Nick" Trolli, then 47, discovered AORBS while doing a Google search. Intrigued by the idea of a Santa group, he quickly joined.
In the spring of 2007, Trolli attended an AORBS meeting in New Jersey and immediately volunteered to get involved. An opening in the board of directors occurred when board member Santa Joe Moore resigned. The empty seat went to Santa Nick, who volunteered to help plan the 2008 AORBS Discover Santa Convention. He was subsequently put in charge of planning the Kansas City get-together.
Within months, AORBS disintegrated.
Trolli began accusing Connaghan of ethical lapses for conducting business with member Santas, including acting as a booking agent for 200 of them for Christmas events. Trolli also accused Connaghan of using AORBS to benefit his own Kringle Group businesses. Connaghan said he kept his personal business and role as the group's director separate, but Trolli then started what came to be called a "whispering campaign" against Connaghan among the other Santas.
Matters came to a head in August 2007 when Connaghan disclosed he had signed a contract with Nash Entertainment, a Hollywood production company, for a possible movie about the 2006 Discover Santa Convention in Branson. In addition to the convention, Nash also wanted the rights to—since it would be part of the movie—Connaghan's life story, nearly 40 years spent as a Santa.
"My company produced, insured and underwrote the 2006 convention as the legal body because there was no legal AORBS corporation at that time," Santa Tim told me. "So, after I was approached about the movie deal, I also did the negotiations personally, with my company as the legal entity, because, again, at the time, there was still no board of directors or legal AORBS Santa corporation."
After AORBS was incorporated, Connaghan asked Nash to create two separate contracts, one for him personally and one for the association. Should the movie ever get made, Connaghan would also be a paid consultant working with the writers in the development and during production, advising on the events as they'd be re-created.
"I wouldn't have received any residuals or profits from the movie, television or merchandise," said Connaghan, who confirmed he did receive an "industry standard," non-refundable $1,500 "starter option" retainer fee—the only money he received from the proposed movie deal.
"People need to remember that the story was about a Santa convention I personally produced and about my personal life," Santa Tim emphasized. He said that the newly incorporated association would have received an estimated $100,000, plus residuals from ticket sales and television broadcasts, percentages of the sales of any merchandise, and more.
But it was not to be. Arguments about Connaghan's movie deal roiled AORBS board meetings. Tom Hartsfield and Connaghan agreed that one way to reduce the turmoil was to have Santa Tim step down. "So I decided to resign in the hopes that with the conflicts removed, the focus could get back to supporting the Santa community," he said.
Despite a vote of confidence from the AORBS board, Connaghan resigned his position as AORBS president, saying it was because of the infighting and not because he thought he had done anything wrong. Three of the six members of the board at the time also resigned.
This sudden power vacuum left Santa Nick Trolli as the official president of AORBS. Along with him came an NFL lineman-sized ally: Santa Jeff Germann of Springfield, Missouri, 6 feet, 4 inches and 300 pounds of sometimes-not-so-jolly intimidation.
Trolli and Germann almost immediately began "ruling with an iron fist in a white glove," critics alleged. After failed attempts to force Trolli to resign, other AORBS members simply left, demanding national elections. Trolli outflanked the old guard, dissolving the AORBS charter in Minnesota and registering the group as AORBS Inc. in Kentucky, with only himself and Santus Gigantus Germann—now a group vice president—as company officers.
AORBS was dead. Long live AORBS Inc.
Santa Ric said he was among the first of the AORBS members to "sound the alarm" for fellow Santas about what Trolli and Germann were doing. And playing Santa had once been about the fun.
In 2002, Ric's wife, Victoria, was helping to arrange holiday food baskets for needy families when someone suggested having Santa deliver them to the families with kids. Someone else recalled having an old Santa suit in his attic.
"My fate was sealed when my wife added, 'Well, I know where there's a fat guy with nothing better to do on Saturday.'" Oh, ho, ho, no.
Erwin was gifted that thin, pajama-style suit. "But it wasn't until 2011 that I finally bellied up to the bar and ordered a Santa suit from Adele's of Hollywood—for around $1,000," he said. "I now have three Santa suits—not including the original pajama suit."
Santas Trolli and Germann showed Santa Ric a thing or two about believing in Santa Claus.
"Trolli and Germann trumped any possibility of legal action when they surreptitiously canceled AORBS' nonprofit charter in Minnesota and used our name and logo to register a for-profit corporation in Kentucky," Erwin said. "Having pulled off that slick trick, neither Minnesota nor Kentucky could touch them . . . although both attorneys general looked into it in response to a flood of complaints from members."
Trolli's board stripped Santas of their membership for offenses such as "maligning" fellow Santas on Elf Net, an AORBS chat room. In November 2007, Trolli got the remaining board to approve confidentiality agreements concerning board discussions. Hartsfield, who didn't agree with the new rules, complained on Elf Net. As the message board's administrator, Germann said Hartsfield "broke the rules" and temporarily banned him. In January 2008, the AORBS board removed Hartsfield as a director. And it stripped Connaghan of his group membership for "dissemination of half-truths and disinformation" against AORBS on rival message-board sites, according to an email sent to Hartsfield by Germann.
Things got physical that month when Santa Ric tried to crash an AORBS board meeting at Knott's Berry Farm Resort Hotel in Buena Park. Erwin says he planned to videotape the private meeting for Santas who couldn't attend. He pushed past Trolli and ended up face-to-beard with Germann near the Santa-filled meeting room. Erwin says Germann "used his elbow to bounce me off the wall." Germann denied touching Erwin. Trolli claimed Erwin "headed into [Germann] like a linebacker." Erwin was escorted out of the building by security guards.
Santa Ric felt betrayed. An AORBS lodge director and loyalist, he'd served as the group's PR coordinator, media liaison, official videographer and archivist. "Ric~N~Vic Productions had donated thousands of dollars' worth of free services each year to AORBS and its members," he asserted.
So, Erwin helped set up SantaTalk on Yahoo.com—an online "refugee camp" for the hundreds of fellow diaspora AORBS Santas who were quitting or being "kicked out."
"I advocated against continued attempts to wrest back control of AORBS due mainly to the overwhelming civil—and possibly criminal—liabilities they were accumulating in its name," he said.
Also fed up, Hartsfield took back the group's AORBS URL, which he had registered years earlier in his name. The action shut down AORBS' web activity. Hartsfield claimed this provoked threats from Trolli, who denied the charge. On Feb. 7, 2008, Trolli registered the AORBSinc.com domain and was back in business (for a while, anyway. . . . The last entry on the website is a 2008 post). Just a few days earlier, Trolli had created SantaCheck.com, asking site visitors, "Is your child safe on that lap?"
It continues, "SantaCheck tries to check the Santa you are thinking about taking your kids to. There are some who put on a red suit and think that is all it takes to earn the right to be with your child. . . . Some of these 'santas' do have a foul mouth."
Trolli and Germann were locked and loaded to go after their Santa adversaries.
* * *
Some Santas complained to the Kentucky attorney general's office about AORBS Inc., particularly the alleged failure of the board to provide an accurate accounting of the group's finances, which come chiefly from $20 annual member dues. In April 2008, the Kentucky state attorney general's office forwarded its file to the Charitable Organizations Bureau in Pennsylvania, where Trolli lived and where AORBS Inc. was then based. Also in April 2008, amidst all the turmoil, Santa Ric became a founding charter member of FORBS, the newly formed AORBS successor. Started as a national organization, it later became a regional group.
On June 10, 2008, Santa Ric posted on Yahoo! Group SantaTalk a piece titled "God Damn Your Eternal Soul Nick Trolli." Santa Ric . . . a Santa curse?
"Notice that I did NOT address him as 'Santa,'" Ric explained about his cyber-outburst. "I was under stress at the time. Santa Milt Cottrell of Omaha—one of my best friends—had died suddenly, and Nick Trolli had the gall to put up an anti-Milt post."
On July 7, 2008, Pennsylvania's Secretary of the Commonwealth issued a cease-and-desist order to AORBS Inc., charging them with, among other things, unlawfully soliciting charitable contributions without registering with the state. Germann responded that the group's books were "aboveboard," while Trolli said the group was "cooperating" with the state agency.
By July 2008, AORBS Inc. membership had fallen to a few dozen Santas, according to Erwin, mostly new members who were reportedly being told by Trolli that he, as their group's leader, was under attack by a group of disgruntled ex-members. On July 29, 2008, Santa Ric led individual Santas and groups previously associated with AORBS in issuing a "Declaration of Santa Unity" against AORBS Inc. On the AORBSInc.com website, Trolli wrote, "The make-up of the organization has gone through some dark times. . . . Some members did not want to belong to a group that was not owned by Tim Connaghan. Others remained steadfastly committed to their Brothers in Red of AORBS. AORBS is growing again, and the members are determined to live up to our title . . . under the leadership of Nicholas Trolli—'The Nation's Premier Fraternity of A-List Santas.'"
The mainstream media picked up the tale. In 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported on the Santa "Civil War," and NPR's This American Life dug into the story. The Kansas convention of Discover Santa 2008 sponsored by AORBS Inc. never happened. Trolli blamed former AORBS members for its demise, allegedly brought on by a campaign to dissuade vendors and fellow Santas from attending. That fall, Trolli and Germann went on the offensive, using their SantaCheck.com to punish enemies real and imagined.
On Sept. 29, 2008, they wrote about "a 'Santa' who is sexually attracted to overweight older men." The report said a Florida Santa—"a member of the International Order of Santas"—"has removed his shocking, disgusting links to adult sites that feature him in the nude." Apparently, according to SantaCheck.com, this Santa "got our website SantaCheck.com turned off" because he "was upset that we exposed his gay lifestyle. Specifically, a lifestyle wherein he sexually pursued FAT OLDER MEN."
SantaCheck.com also targeted Santa Ric in numerous posts. On Oct. 16, 2008, Trolli and Germann published "Santa's Girthday Party?"
"Just in case you all forgot about the most foul 'santa' page we have found, do NOT forget about Ric Erwin, the LA Fair 'santa claus' from Laguna Niguel," someone wrote. "We previously reported that Ric Erwin . . . posted on his ricnvic.com video site a video of his Birthday Party. Oh, wait, it wasn't his Birthday Party, he . . . called it 'Santa's Girthday Party.'"
The online video referenced in their post was Erwin's and titled "How Santa Got His Yule Log Back," showing Santa Ric watching a belly dancer.
By 2010, things had cooled down at SantaCheck.com. The last post went up on April 14, 2010, targeting yet another Trolli critic. In a June 25, 2009, post titled "Naughty Traveling Claus Clan Shames the Name of Santa," Defendingsanta.com spanked a Connaghan Santa summer cruise for allowing Santas in full garb to get their pics taken at a well-known Alaskan touristy "brothel museum." Then the site "editor" completely harshed the Santa mellow with lines, unsupported by citation of sources, such as "Over the past several years, the industry of professional Santa Claus services has been rocked by scandals ranging from infighting and greed within professional Santa organizations to ongoing issues with Santas accused (and in some cases convicted) of predatory crimes against children."
How do you come back from that?
* * *
On Dec. 29, 2010, Trolli appeared on FOX Business Channel, stating during the interview his belief that only Santas with real beards are "authentic" portrayers of Santa Claus. Seemingly professional and personable, he also said that a good Santa could earn between $10,000 to $25,000 per Christmastime.
The Weekly tried contacting Trolli and Germann for comment for this story. Germann's website, Jeffgermann.com, is down.
"Jeff Germann seems to have disappeared," Santa Ric told me. "Anyway, he's been formally excommunicated from the Santa community."
I emailed Santa Nick at AORBSinc.com and called the number listed there, but I couldn't get any response from Trolli, who now lives in Florida. I contacted some Santas mentioned on AORBSInc.com and got the name of Tommy Avallone, who's producing a movie featuring Trolli called I Am Santa Claus with wrestling great Mick Foley. The movie, funded by a Kickstarter campaign, has been in production since 2011, and will be submitted to film festivals in 2014. The Kickstarter copy reads, "I Am Santa Claus is a documentary that poses a question about a ubiquitous holiday figure that few parents ever ask themselves—'Whose lap is my child sitting on?'
"Santa Nicholas is the president of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas. He is one of the most unliked Santas in the Christmas community, having a very public feud with Santa Tim Connaghan, a.k.a. 'Santa Hollywood.'"
"I don't think [Trolli will] answer," Avallone said, responding on Santa Nick's behalf. "He doesn't really talk to people about the war too much. . . . A lot of reporters get the story wrong. Nick does talk about the war in our film, though."
Erwin worked with Avallone on the film project in its early days. "They interviewed me twice, and I provided all the archival footage they needed," said Santa Ric. "But I have no editorial control. He's changed directions in the film, and I think it might be turning into something of a hatchet job. I'd like to see some of the rushes and see if there's any reason to withdraw."
I called Connaghan, and we talked about the upcoming Christmas season and his lineup of gigs. I asked what he thought of Trolli and the Santa Wars half-a-decade on. "This is not what it's all about," he said. "We could have tried to take him to court. . . . But argument is not what we're about. Our job is bringing joy to the children; that's what we're about."
His thought reminds me of a line from the Santa Claus Oath: "I realize that I belong to a brotherhood and will be supportive, honest and show fellowship to my peers."
Now I know Santa Claus is real, but what did Uncle Bill mean about all the fake stories?
Did he mean that The Night Before Christmas was actually written by Major Henry Livingston Jr., an amateur New York poet with Dutch roots, and not by Clement Clarke Moore?
Did he mean that the village of Nazareth didn't exist until the 3rd century A.D.?
Did he mean that Yeshu'a the Messiah (a.k.a. Jesus the Christ) shared the Dec. 25 birth date with Roman gods Sol Invictus and Persian import Mithras?
Did he mean that Santa Claus, who originated as a mythical androgynous solar deity (circles the world in a day, etc.) is now an androgynous socio-capitalist icon who represents a balance between markets and people?
Or did he mean that really, really deep, dark secret about Nicholas and the Nicholaitans?
The name Nicholas (or Nicolas) means "one who conquers the people." A man named Nicholas first appears in the Bible in the Acts of the Apostles as one of the deacons of the early church. This Nicholas was a proselyte—a convert from polytheism to Judaism to Christianity.
Several early church fathers stated that the deacon Nicholas began the Nicholaitanism movement twice referred to in the Book of Revelation. In Revelation 2:6, Jesus tells the church of Ephesus how impressed he is that "thou hatest the deeds of the Nicholaitans, which I also hate."
Nicholaitan is the symbolic name of a party that represented the hierarchy of a misogynistic, anti-Semitic ruling leadership class. In her book Nicholaitan: Power and Control in Christianity, author Paula Fether says the consensus among historians about the Nicholaitans is of a group or movement defined by its desire to control and exert power and authority over people.
Jesus rejected priests and loathed the lust for religious power over others. Nonetheless, the clerical system at the heart of the doctrine of the Nicholaitans later developed into the papal hierarchy of the Roman church with its celibate (unmarried but not sexually abstinent), male clergy dominating a "flock" of human sheep laity. Belief mandatory under pain of hellfire. So constituted, they ran Western Europe for 1,000 years until the Protestants came along, rejecting the priests and the mass but amping up the misogyny and misanthropy. Nicholaitans were also said to observe the Roman solar-mass to Apollyon ("Destroyer") on Dec. 25 and engage in pederasty and pedophilia, which has carried on in the church's priesthood to this day.
Acts makes a deacon named Nicholas into a saint, and Revelation condemns a group—the Nicholaitans—that Nicholas supposedly founded. St. Nicholas vs. the Book of Revelation—both canonized. Couldn't have Jesus hating the priests of the Roman church, so . . . rebranding time.
In the 8th century, they invented a hagiography about a fictional, gift-bearing 4th-century Bishop of Myra (a town a few miles down the coast from the Nicholaitan hotbed Ephesus) named "Nicholas," and they had him do many good things . . . as well as some bad. To lose the Nicholaitan baggage, they dropped this Bishop St. Nick into the First Council of Nicaea convened in 325 A.D. by the Roman Emperor Constantine I, who was putting the finishing touches on his Roman church. His Nicholaitan priesthood securely in place, he now needed his God.
The hagiographers have Nicholas becoming best buds with the emperor, and then assaulting Arius, the North African bishop who almost singlehandedly derailed Constantine's plans for his church by arguing that Jesus could not possibly be God the Father's co-equal because Jesus had been born and thus exists in time and so is not eternal (like You-Know-Who). For this, Arius got his bitch-slapping from Nicholas. The bishops took a vote and elected Jesus, born on Dec. 25, to a seat in heaven, with Constantine's new Roman church at his side. Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the Roman empire's official state religion, and just a year before the emperor's death, Western Christians celebrated the first Christmas on Dec. 25, 336 A.D.
Result: Roman church open for business. Nicholas, safely de-Nicholaitanized, plays with children as Santa Claus. Priest and pitchman glare at each other across the divide. . . . It's old, this Christmas War story.