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  • Zoe Franznick

Christmas Episode: The Life of Saint Nick

Happy holidays, all! To celebrate the season, we’re covering the life and times of Saint Nicholas - the patron saint of sex workers and criminals! Oh, and he’s also known for being Santa Claus. While you might think this Christmas figure is all jolly and kind, Saint Nick actually has more of a brawling streak than you’d think.

Saint Nicholas’s life is recorded in the 13th century text, the Golden Legend, a collection of saints lives by Jacobus de Voragine.


Nicholas was born in Patras to a rich noble family. As an infant, he immediately stood up in his first bath and would only breastfeed on Wednesdays and Fridays. He also refused to play with other children. Instead, he hung out around the church.

When he was fully grown and wondering what to do with his inheritance, he heard that his neighbor was going to sell his three daughters into prostitution in order to make ends meet. Nicholas was horrified at the prospect of this idea, so he throws a mass of gold wrapped in cloth into his neighbor’s home. The neighbor then uses this as his fist daughter’s dowry. Nicholas does this a second time, and the neighbor then decides to wait up at night to see who is delivering these gifts. Nicholas does this a third time, but the neighbor failed to stay awake and the sound of the gold landing on the floor woke him. The neighbor chases Nicholas down and thanks him. Nicholas begs him to keep this event a secret (which fails, since we’re here talking about it.


Some time later, the bishop of Myra died, and there was great hubbub about who to choose as the next one. A neighboring bishop who had come to Myra to help settle the dispute heard a voice that night, telling him that he should go to the church of Myra at matins, and the first person named Nicholas who comes to the church should be named bishop. Other versions say that the first person who shows up at the church at matins should be made church - this is Nicholas either way. Nicholas protests, but the consulting bishops insist, and he is made bishop.


Nicholas then goes to the Council of Nicaea, and some versions of the tale report that he punched another member of the council. However, the Golden Legend does not record this.


Now, while he was at the council, a ship foundered at sea, and the sailors aboard prayed to Nicholas for aid. At that moment, Nicholas appeared to them and saved them from drowning.


Another report of Nicholas states that when Myra was in a famine, many ships laden with grain stopped in the harbor. Nicholas begged the sailors to share their grain, but they refused, saying that the grain was for the emperor in Alexandria, and they could not arrive with missing shipments for fear of harsh punishment. Nicholas tells them not to worry, so they hand over enough grain to supply Myra for two years. When the ships arrive in Alexandria, the grain is weighed and nothing is found missing.


The Golden Legend reports that at this time, the folk of Myra worshipped Diana and had a sacred tree there. However, Nicholas commanded they stop worshipping and cut down the sacred tree. This event, of course, angers the devil, who disguises himself as a nun and finds several pilgrims traveling to Myra. The devil then offers several jars of Greek Fire to these pilgrims and begs them to take this “holy oil” and anoint the church of Myra with it, since “she” (the nun) cannot go there herself.


The pilgrims take the oil and then go aboard another ship, with a passenger who looks exactly like Bishop Nicholas. He asks them about the oil, and declares that this oil is a scheme from the devil. They hurl the oil overboard, upon which it immediately burns.


Later, a rebellion against the emperor breaks out, and three Roman princes, Netetion, Ursyn, and Apollyn, dock in Myra for a time. Nicholas invites them to dine with him. During dinner Nicolas learns that the local consul has ordered three innocent knights to be beheaded. Enraged by this, Nicholas asks the princes to follow him — they go to the execution, where Nicholas fights the executioner, throws aside the executioner’s blade, unties the knights, and kicks down the consul’s gates. Nicholas chews the consul out and the princes then have to talk him down and receive his penance.


The three princes put down the rebellion, but due to palace intrigue and jealousy over their prominence, they are falsely accused and sentenced to death. That night, they pray to Nicholas, who appears and learns of these events. Nicholas then appears to the Emperor Constantine in dreams, and declares that he must absolve the three princes. Constantine wonders who dares say these things to him, and Nicholas has no issue introducing himself. He also appears to the local provost of the jail and threatens him as well. Constantine and the provost free the princes and ask them to go to Nicholas to deliver gifts and beg him not to threaten them again.

These are all the miracles that Nicholas did while alive.


Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!


Searching for our sources? Read the Life of Saint Nicholas here and check out our Library for more! More references for interested scholars:

  • Witze, Alexandra. "Rare Mineral is the Key to Long-Lasting Concrete." Nature, 2017. Link.

We do our best to accurately research, source, and cite the works we use, and make them available to you, too! Each episode has a corresponding blog post which includes further breakdowns of the big ideas in each text as well as cites our sources and references. We also have the Maniculum Library, which actively collects resources and recommendations for writers, scholars, and geeks alike! We update our collection of Master Lists after each new episode, so be sure subscribe and stay updated!


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