[Lego Hagiography] Nicholas of Myra
Lifetime: 270 to 343
Region: Myra, Asia Minor (modern Demre, Turkey)
Patronages: Coopers; repentant thieves and prostitutes; children; brewers
Iconograpy: Red robes; Sack of coins; Children in pickle barrel
Feast Day: December 6
Rather than focus on the entire life of Saint Nicholas, today I'm going to talk about my favorite story about the proto-Santa: the time he brought some pickled children back from the dead.
There was a terrible famine in the Roman empire, and people everywhere were going hungry. When crops aren't growing, there is especially little meat to enjoy. Well one enterprising (and not very nice) butcher had an idea befitting Sweeney Todd: he'd just butcher a few people instead, and sell the meat as pork! Nobody would know the difference and he'd make a whole bunch of money.
The wicked butcher got extra lucky, because soon three hungry boys with no parents came to his house, begging for some food to bring back to their sick grandma. They had come a long way trying to find someone who could spare anything so they also asked if they could stay the night.
The butcher put on a big smile and pretended to be nice. He welcomed the boys into his house and gave them a little food. After their long, hungry journey, the boys fell asleep very quickly. That's when the bad butcher struck. Before any of them could wake up, he cut off their heads with an axe. He hung them by their feet to drain their blood and once they were ready he put their bodies into a big, wooden pickle barrels. He only had to wait for them to cure a few days before he could cut them up and sell them to his customers as nice Christmas hams.
But while the butcher was up to his terrible deeds, Bishop Nicholas was having a really bad dream. He dreamt that some kids were getting killed and eaten! When he woke up, he realized that this wasn't a normal dream. This dream was sent by God and those kids needed Nicholas' help!
Nicholas rushed to the place in the woods where his dream occurred. He recognized the big, dark trees and mossy rocks perfectly from the nightmare. And before long, there it was! The exact same house where he saw the boys get killed.
He dashed in, demanding to know where the boys were. At first, the butcher pretended not to know what he meant, but Nicholas' insistence made him nervous. The kind, old man who had come into his house knew things he shouldn't have. The butcher didn't want to get caught and put in jail, and he was terrified that the bishop would figure out what happened. His guilt weighed on him, and he kept nervously looking at the barrel, hoping Nicholas wouldn't ask about it.
But Nicholas saw him looking at the big wooden cask, and ran over to it. The butcher's heart was pounding, but there was nothing he could do without making it worse. The butcher started to make excuses, but once Nicholas began to pry the top off the barrel, the butcher ran off into the woods to hide.
When Nicholas got the lid off, his heart sank. There in the salty water, he saw the bodies of three children. There were no air bubbles. Their skin was greyish and wrinkly. Nicholas started to cry. He was too late!
He dropped to his knees, and put his hand on the barrel. He started to pray. He thanked God for giving him the vision that brought him here, so he could at least give the kids the mercy of a proper burial. He apologized for taking too long to believe the dream and get to the butcher's house. He prayed that the boys who had died would go to heaven and that their family would be comforted.
But then, he felt the power of the Holy Spirit entering him. At this point, Nicholas was old and had performed many miracles, so he knew exactly what this meant. He stuck his hands into the salty water, touching each of the dead boys' faces. It was odd, to feel how cold and clammy their skin was. But he overcame his discomfort and prayed louder. He sang songs to God, and soon, he could feel the Holy Spirit flowing through his hands and into the boys.
Finally, all three boys jumped up out of the tub. They were coughing out salty water and taking big, deep breaths. Their necks were healed and their blood came back into their veins. They shivered, and Bishop Nicholas took off his cape and wrapped them in it. They tried to thank him, but He told them it was the power of God who saved them. They wanted to learn more about God, so Nicholas spent the whole day telling them all the story of Jesus.
Apologies for the creative liberties, but a little elaboration makes for a better story - especially when it's 1600 years old and has been told so many different ways anyway. Plus, it's a long tradition of hagiography to embellish a little here and there!
This story has become more obscure in recent years as we've moved away from grittier tales, especially around yuletide icons, but it was so popular in the middle ages that several of his patronages are based on misunderstandings of depictions of this story in his iconography. During the middle ages, Saint Nicholas was often portrayed with a wooden barrel and a few children as an allusion to this miracle. Eventually, people ignorant of the narrative made assumptions about the imagery. If there's a barrel, he must be the saint of brewers! If there's kids in his picture, he must be the patron saint of children!
So that's how the miracle of the Pickled People Resuscitation led to Santa Claus' affiliation with kids.
Also, I highly recommend this Ask a Mortician video about this story: