Slip some food into someone’s shoe tonight

by Kevin Birnbaum

Fra_Angelico_The_Story_of_St_NicholasThe Story of St. Nicholas by Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

Tonight, before they go to bed, children around the world will carefully lay out their shoes, eagerly expecting to find them tomorrow morning filled with gifts and goodies. Because tonight is the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas, the great gift-giver.

The fact that almost nothing is known about St. Nicholas hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the most popular and beloved men in the history of the world. Here’s a list of things we know about the historical St. Nicholas:

1. He was the bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century.
2. ???

Some say St. Nicholas was at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and punched the heretic Arius in the nose, but he’s not even mentioned in the lists of bishops who attended the council. In any case, that detail probably had little to do with his becoming an international archetype of generosity.

But there are many stories of St. Nicholas’ great deeds, both miraculous and merely wonderful, like this one:

Perhaps the best-known story about Nicholas concerns his charity toward a poor man who was unable to provide dowries for his three daughters of marriageable age. Rather than see them forced into prostitution, Nicholas secretly tossed a bag of gold through the poor man’s window on three separate occasions, thus enabling the daughters to be married. Over the centuries, this particular legend evolved into the custom of gift-giving on the saint’s feast. In the English-speaking countries, St. Nicholas became, by a twist of the tongue, Santa Claus—further expanding the example of generosity portrayed by this holy bishop.

In any case, whether he was a rough-and-tumble heretic-smiter or an extravagant gold-slinger—or both!—St. Nicholas seems like someone I’d like to have a beer with. Which would be perfect, since he’s the patron saint of brewers.

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