St. Nicholas the Wonderworker—bringing presents, punching heretics

Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas, and it seems appropriate to resurrect a great piece we ran about the saint last year, “You Better Watch Out—Saint Nicholas is Coming to Town,” by Christopher B. Warner. In addition to retelling some of the better-known stories of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker—how the bishop of Myra surreptitiously dropped money into the home of a poor man to keep his daughters from being sold into slavery, for example—Warner’s piece also includes several lesser-known (in the US, at least) legends about this saint whose ancient cult has spread to nearly every corner of the Christian world in some form or another. Two favorites:

Archbishop Nicholas attended the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (325), where he allegedly assailed the heretic Arius. In the middle of his hearing, Arius stood up on his seat in order to be better heard. Enraged by Arius’ denial that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, Archbishop Nicholas strode quickly over to Arius, pulled him down by his beard, and punched him in the face. The scandalized council fathers sprang upon Nicholas, stripped him of his pallium, and threw him in prison for his brutish behavior. That night Nicholas was visited by the Holy Family who loosed his bonds and vested him again in his apostolic garb. The bishops were astonished by this miracle and realized that Nicholas’ anger was righteous. He was honorably restored to his chair—where the aged prelate slept through much of the remaining proceedings.

During one of these naps, the holy confessor of orthodoxy bi-located again, this time to save more sailors at sea. When he awoke in Nicaea he was resentfully charged with sleeping through the entire council, whereupon the venerable Nicholas is said to have answered, “While you were talking, I was busy rescuing a disaster-driven ship at sea.” Some of the pious brethren took the ship to be an analogy of the Church. Others dismissed his words as the babblings of an old man. But not long after the council, the rescued sailors returned safe home and, traveling through Myra, recognized Nicholas as their deliverer. Not surprisingly, every Greek and Slavic Christian sailor for the past millennium and a half has sailed under the protection of St. Nicholas. 

Today, on the great saint’s feast day, you’ll definitely want to read the whole thing.


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About Catherine Harmon 572 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.