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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.” ]

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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.