On this day in 1768, the first edition of the “Encyclopedia Britannica” was published, in Scotland, after requests from university students for something to sell over the summer holidays.
Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (270 – 343) is one of the most beloved of all saints, and also one of the most misunderstood, in large part due to confusion with Santa Claus, who lives tens of thousands of miles away from Myra, and never once decked a heresiarch. But we may be getting ahead of ourselves.
Born to Christian parents in Patara, Nicholas was a very devout child — some say that as an infant he refused to nurse on Wednesdays and Fridays, which sounds awfully hard on mom. Now there’s a saint. As soon as he could read, Nicholas devoured the Scriptures, and before you know it (if you read a short hagiography), he was made reader, priest, and bishop. When his parents died, he used his not-inconsiderable (note proper use of double negative) inheritance to help his people.
Nicholas was one of the many bishops called to the First Ecumenical Council, at which the heresiarch (look it up) Arius argued that Jesus was a created being and not God (also look up “homoousion”). Nicholas took this hard, and told Arius so. Hard. With his fist. He was relieved of his tokens of office (Gospel book, omophorion, key to the little bishop’s room), and shown the door. Of a jail cell.
That night several bishops all had the same dream: our Lord and our Lady appeared in Nicholas’ suite. “What are you doing here, Nicholas?” Christ asked. “I am here out of love for you, Lord,” Nicholas replied. “Oh well then, have this.” Our Lord handed him his Gospel book, and our Lady his omophorion (which is kind of like a stole only wider and bishoppier). “I think we goofed,” the bishops said to one another after dream debriefing the next morning. They restored Nicholas to the council, booted Arius (figuratively), wrote the Creed, and went home. Nicholas served his flock faithfully, and if he ever punched anybody else’s lampadas out, we are not told. He died and was buried, and his wonderworking relics now reside in Beri and Venice, Italy.
The most famous Nicholas story, the one that gave rise somehow (we will not speculate on imagination-enhancing substances) to the fat guy from Arctica filling stockings with Tamagotchis and iPhones, goes like this. There was once (in Nicholas’ lifetime, obviously) a formerly-rich man who had three daughters, Regan, Goneril, and — sorry, wrong daughters. They needed dowries to get married, for reasons I’m not going to explain. Nicholas heard about their unfortunate misfortune, and, creeping to their house one night, tossed a bag of gold through the window. It landed in a stocking hanging by the fire, and before you knew it, daughter #1 was married. The same thing happened again, and daughter #2 got married. The man determined to find out who their benefactor was, so he waited up one night with a plate of milk and cookies (I don’t like to argue with sources but I’m crying foul on that one). What to his wondering eyes should appear but his bishop, carrying a third bag of gold. “Shh,” said Nicholas. “Don’t tell anyone.” The man thanked him profusely and (as you can tell) told someone.
Nicholas was returning to Myra from another story when he learned the governor had (knowingly) (he was bribed) (tsk) condemned three innocent men to death. Nicholas hurried back to town, arriving just as the executioner’s sword was starting its down-stroke. He wrested the sword from the executioner’s hand, and although he didn’t punch the governor, he let him know of his displeasure.
Time is too short to tell about the sailors that he saved, the children he brought back to life after they were chopped up and thrown into a pickle vat, or the shipful of famine-relieving wheat he bought from Italy by giving its faraway owner coins in a dream. Nor will I list all his patronages, except pawnbrokers. Their symbol, three gold balls, derives from the three bags of gold Nicholas enfenestrated.
Copyright © 2013 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.
This Day in History for 6th December
Saint Nicholas (Wikipedia)
The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints, Vol. 4: December (book on paper)
St Nicholas the Wonderworker and Archbishop of Myra in Lycia (OCA)
On the St. Nick Punch (Patheos)
Three Impoverished Maidens (St. Nicholas Center)
A Saint Who Stopped an Execution (St. Nicholas Center)
Ceramic icon (detail), Byzantine, 10 th century, from the Walters Art Museum (public domain)
Brass icon (detail) from the author’s wife’s collection (thanks sweetie!)
Nicholas Stops an Execution icon (detail) from St. Nicholas Center (Public domain according to this rule).
Pawnbroker symbol (detail) by Wikimedia contributor Kim Traynor used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license . Use does not imply approval of image owner of this page or this use.