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Icon of St. Nicholas in the 13th century

In church this past Sunday, as he does each year, our rector handed out a card with an icon of St. Nicholas, similar to the one to the left.

On the back of the card we read the following:

Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in Asia Minor. He used his entire inheritance to help the poor, sick, and children in need. He gave in secret, expecting nothing in return. He attended the Council of Nicea in AD 325. Greatly loved for his faith, compassion, and care, he is venerated in both East and West.

O.K. That’s pretty cool. You have my attention.

He used his entire inheritance for those in need.

I never knew that. I thought he had elves doing that for him, but it seems I was mistaken.

The rest of the card really hit me and made me feel stupid and cheated for never having been told any of this as a child—even sprinkling it in between Rudolph and Frosty now and then.

Nicholas saved young women from slavery, protected sailors, spared innocents from execution, provided grain in a famine, and rescued a kidnapped boy.

Nicholas was a beast. Mother Teresa, Oskar Schindler, and Samuel L. Jackson all rolled into one. What an absolute crushing beast.

I like the icon—his eyes. He is looking off to the side, like he’s annoyed about having to sit there for a stupid portrait because he’s got better things to do.

Can you imagine how he would react to what has become of him over the centuries?

[Say in Samuel L. Jackson voice, preferably the diner scene from Pulp Fiction] “Let me get this straight. You want me to gain 150lbs, wear a red suit and mittens, fly through the air, slide down your chimney and give you stuff? How about I kick down your door and take all your money and give it people who need it?”

So, to review:

  • Santa Claus – Not real. An icon of greed and the reason for Xmas sales in October and Black Friday.
  • St. Nicholas – Real Person. Worth telling your kids about.
  • Samuel L. Jackson – No-nonsense tough guy. Like St. Nicholas (sans cursing and handgun)

OK, I’m exaggerating and “totally misunderstanding Samuel L. Jackson” (to anticipate some humorless comments). But still.

For “Jolly Old St. Nick” to have pulled off things like standing between a slave owner and his property, or an executioner and his victim, or go about unkidnapping a boy,

he was probably a very brave man indeed with better things on his mind than making sure suburban kids get everything they want so they can have a “magical Christmas.”

Yes, I know, St. Nick also beat up people he had theological disagreements with, which makes him a bit too much like Samuel L. Jackson—and perhaps the first neo-Calvinist—but I’m willing to roll with that for the time being, seeing that it’s Christmas and all.

I feel better now. Thanks for listening.

[This post first appeared in 2012. I understand some of the stories about St. Nick might be of questionable historical value, but I don’t really care. Besides, they’re still a lot closer to reality than, say, “He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special.” ]

[Please be patient as your comment is in moderation. Comments are normally posted within 6 hours but may take as long as 24—longer if you’re annoying.]

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • Kevin Thomas says:

    And don’t forget Liam Neeson. He’s basically Liam Neeson.

  • Kevin Thomas says:

    And don’t forget Liam Neeson. He’s basically Liam Neeson.

  • Beau Quilter says:

    Every year you leave out the most wonderful and exciting facts about Saint Nicholas, garnered from the very same sources! So here again:

    As a boy, he performed his first miracle by completely healing the withered hand of a woman he met on the road.

    A mother attended Nicholas’ consecration as a Bishop, completely forgetting that she had left her infant in a warm tub set over a fire. Running back to the house, she was overjoyed to find the baby still happy and alive, sitting in a boiling tub of water surrounded by flames and smoke. Saint Nicholas preserved him!

    Once, when an evil innkeeper beheaded three children and pickled them in a barrel of brine, Nicholas performed a miracle of resurrection and the children stepped right out of the pickling barrel.

    Once, Nicholas persuaded a group of sailors to offload a two-year supply of wheat from their ship for the starving poor of the town. When the sailors arrived at their final destination, they found that Nicholas had miraculously replaced all the donated wheat in the hold of the ship.

    Another group of sailors once found their ship dangerously grounded in shallows during a storm. After they called out to the Bishop Nicholas (already famously a friend to sailors), Nicholas miraculously appeared on the ship out of thin air. He helped the sailors maneuver the ship into deeper waters, then vanished into thin air, just as he had appeared.

    And these are only a few of the amazing tales about Nicholas during his lifetime. After he died, far more miracles were performed by him over the centuries through prayers to his relics. Sometimes his ghost would appear to lend a helping hand.

    Why, the same histories that provide the facts you cited also tell the fabulous tales I’ve recounted here.

    • charlesburchfield says:

      And your point is!?
      `€=-)

      • Beau Quilter says:

        My point? Why, that Saint Nicholas isn’t simply a “beast”, he’s a “fantastic beast”!

        • Pete E. says:

          So are you.

        • charlesburchfield says:

          Be honest though! don’t you mean unbelievable? Keep On Keepin on, keep on grindin!
          `€=-)

          • Beau Quilter says:

            I only think it’s useful to point out (for example), that the rescue of the kidnapped boy Pete mentions, was a miracle story found in a 1275 compilation of the Lives of the Saints. The boy was magically (miraculously?) whisked away from his tormentors by a strong wind that carried him back overseas to his father’s home. Prayers to a long-dead St. Nicholas were credited for the miracle, not a brave rescue enacted by a living St. Nicholas.

            Believable? Well, about as believable as a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.

  • Beau Quilter says:

    Every year you leave out the most wonderful and exciting facts about Saint Nicholas, garnered from the very same sources! So here again:

    As a boy, he performed his first miracle by completely healing the withered hand of a woman he met on the road.

    A mother attended Nicholas’ consecration as a Bishop, completely forgetting that she had left her infant in a warm tub set over a fire. Running back to the house, she was overjoyed to find the baby still happy and alive, sitting in a boiling tub of water surrounded by flames and smoke. Saint Nicholas preserved him!

    Once, when an evil innkeeper beheaded three children and pickled them in a barrel of brine, Nicholas performed a miracle of resurrection and the children stepped right out of the pickling barrel.

    Once, Nicholas persuaded a group of sailors to offload a two-year supply of wheat from their ship for the starving poor of the town. When the sailors arrived at their final destination, they found that Nicholas had miraculously replaced all the donated wheat in the hold of the ship.

    Another group of sailors once found their ship dangerously grounded in shallows during a storm. After they called out to the Bishop Nicholas (already famously a friend to sailors), Nicholas miraculously appeared on the ship out of thin air. He helped the sailors maneuver the ship into deeper waters, then vanished into thin air, just as he had appeared.

    And these are only a few of the amazing tales about Nicholas during his lifetime. After he died, far more miracles were performed by him over the centuries through prayers to his relics. Sometimes his ghost would appear to lend a helping hand.

    Why, the same histories that provide the facts you cited also tell the fabulous tales I’ve recounted here.

  • Kevin Mo-Wong says:

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3210a21954f4cfa1935be44aad5c192a20be00974094928dbe9d5e1a9115b693.jpg

    St. Nick sure looks a lot like Davos from Game of Thrones…who also happens to be a beast.

  • Kevin Mo-Wong says:

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3210a21954f4cfa1935be44aad5c192a20be00974094928dbe9d5e1a9115b693.jpg

    St. Nick sure looks a lot like Davos from Game of Thrones…who also happens to be a beast.

  • Bex says:

    I kinda felt bad about hiding a cutesy picture posted on Facebook of Santa Claus praying at the manger (hat off of course), but then I thought well, the character is based on St. Nicholas. Thanks for the whole story, Pete. If I see the picture again, I may have to unfriend someone.

  • Bex says:

    I kinda felt bad about hiding a cutesy picture posted on Facebook of Santa Claus praying at the manger (hat off of course), but then I thought well, the character is based on St. Nicholas. Thanks for the whole story, Pete. If I see the picture again, I may have to unfriend someone.

  • charlesburchfield says:

    I get it! St. Nicholas is different than Jolly Old Santa Claus. Santa Claus is for the Magical people with their magical thinking. The magic is bound to wear off in January When the credit card debt is due!

  • I get it! St. Nicholas is different than Jolly Old Santa Claus. Santa Claus is for the Magical people with their magical thinking. The magic is bound to wear off in January When the credit card debt is due!

  • Dennis Rice says:

    Reminds me when I hear “let’s buy that family a Christmas, without us they won’t have one.” Loved the article.

  • Dennis Rice says:

    Reminds me when I hear “let’s buy that family a Christmas, without us they won’t have one.” Loved the article.

  • Marcus Johnson says:

    Cars looked both ways before crossing the street, to look out for St. Nick.

    St. Nick walked into a bar. The bar said, “ouch.”

    St. Nick made fire by rubbing two ice cubes together.

    St. Nick once killed two stones with one bird.

  • Marcus Johnson says:

    Cars looked both ways before crossing the street, to look out for St. Nick.

    St. Nick walked into a bar. The bar said, “ouch.”

    St. Nick made fire by rubbing two ice cubes together.

    St. Nick once killed two stones with one bird.

  • Dean Hawkins says:

    “…and perhaps the first neo-Calvinist…”

    This line deserves an applause.

  • Dean Hawkins says:

    “…and perhaps the first neo-Calvinist…”

    This line deserves an applause.

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