Bad(ass) Santa: Bizarre Legends From the Life of St. Nicholas

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 (Amazon/Epic Greeting Cards)

He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, and he's the only home invader to be regularly greeted by cookies and a beverage. No wonder. According to many legends, the life of St. Nicholas was awash with heroic acts, miraculous saves and the kind of fiery temper we're accustomed to admiring in our action heroes. Here are five legends that'll make you see Santa in a whole new light.

He Saved Three Sisters From Slavery

A Victorian depiction of Santa in a biplane, throwing gifts towards children standing at an open window.
Santa hurling gifts at kids from his festive... biplane?

Picture it: Turkey, 280 A.D. You're a beautiful young Roman-Greek girl, the eldest of three sisters, and you wanna get hitched. But there's a problem: your dad is poor as hell and your boyfriend's family won't agree to a marriage unless you have a dowry. In fact, no families in the region will let their sons marry unless the bride shows up with a big ol' bag of cash. Even worse than that, poor, unmarried women usually get forced into a life of (probably sexual) slavery.

Naturally, the prospect of this is so devastating that all you and your sisters and dad do all day is lie around and cry about it. Then one night, a bag of gold gets pitched through your window and magically lands in a stocking that's been hung to dry over the fireplace. You're saved! You can marry your beau! Then, on two subsequent nights, more bags of gold arrive for your sisters. They're saved too! Then your dad figures out where the gold came from—the new bishop in town. Turns out the holy man inherited great wealth in his teens, after his parents died of the plague. When your dad tries to tell him thanks, the humble bishop replies, "You must thank God alone for providing these gifts in answer to your prayers for deliverance."

That bishop was a young St. Nicholas, and is the reason Santa's now expected to fill every stocking on Earth each Dec. 25.

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He Saved Three Boys From Being Eaten

Four classic depictions of St. Nicholas saving three boys from being pickled in a barrel.
Four classic depictions of St. Nicholas saving three boys from being pickled in a barrel.

Since the ninth century, numerous sources and paintings have suggested that St. Nick resurrected three murdered boys whose flesh was to be sold as meat. (I know, I know—there was a famine or something.) The children were apparently tricked by an evil innkeeper, and chopped up and pickled in a barrel. When the innkeeper tried to pass off the meat as ham in order to sell it, St. Nicholas realized evil was afoot, cried out to God, and raised the children from the dead.

In 1948, Benjamin Britten and Eric Crozier immortalized the gory incident in their cantata Saint Nicholas. The seventh movement sees the parents of the murdered boys sitting down and getting ready to unwittingly eat their own offspring, when Nicholas intervenes. After instructing them, "O do not taste, O do not feed on sin," St. Nick revives the boys with the following words: "Timothy, Mark and John / Put your fleshly garments on!" (Catchy!) The boys arrive just moments later, holding hands and singing, "Alleluia to their King!"

No word on what happened to that damn cannibal innkeeper, though.

He Was an Exorcist

Two depictions of Saint Nicholas working alongside Krampus in chains.
Two depictions of Saint Nicholas working alongside Krampus in chains.

St. Nicholas was said to be masterful at both demon taming and expulsion. Blessing the possessed, book of gospels in hand, was all in a day's work for Nick. He was so good, he's even said to have expelled demons from a Cypress tree in the village of Plakoma. (All he had to do was swing an axe and off they went.) Which is why, for centuries, Santa has been depicted in some parts of the world (particularly Slovakia, Austria, the Czech Republic and Bavaria) alongside a chained Krampus. Sure, Santa keeps the bad guy on hand to deal with naughty children, but he keeps that demon-goat restrained so as not to harm the good ones. Totally reasonable.

He Saved His People From Famine Using Only Psychic Powers

A Victorian Christmas card depicts Santa with large, mesmerizing eyes and fluffy white beard.
"Look into my eyes... You are feeling very, very sleepy..."

When famine was raging in ancient Lycia (the region of southwest Turkey where he lived), St. Nick was determined to save his people from starvation. One night, he psychically located a merchant in Italy (don't ask questions) who was about to set sail for Egypt with a ship full of grain. Nicholas appeared to the merchant in a dream and bribed him with three gold coins, magically transferring them into the merchant's hand while he was sleeping three countries away. (Again, don't ask questions.) Nicholas told the merchant to bring the grain to Turkey, and sell it there instead. Scared and surprised, the man did as he was told, saved the Lycians, and told all who would listen the magical reason for his unexpected journey.

He Slapped a Priest For Jesus

St. Nick slapping down the priest Arius for talking smack about Jesus, in art by Alexander Boguslawski.
St. Nick slapping down the priest Arius for talking smack about Jesus, in art by Alexander Boguslawski. (StNicholasCenter.org)

The most controversial moment in St. Nick's backstory occurred when he was naughty in Nicea. Three hundred bishops and 1,700 other holy men had met in the Greek city to discuss the scriptures. When a priest named Arius was given the floor, much of the crowd was angered by his assertion that Jesus Christ was not equal to God the Father. Nicholas was apparently the most enraged of all, because he promptly approached Arius and slapped him across the face. Embarrassed by the outburst, the other bishops threw Nick in a dungeon. He didn't stay in there for long. After a number of the holy men dreamed of Nick in his jail cell that night, accompanied by both Jesus and Mary, they decided to free him.

God bless us, everyone! (Except for child picklers, obviously...)