St. Nicholas – His Legend and His Role in the Christmas Celebration and Other Popular Customs (By George H. McKnight, 1917) – Chapter 10


Throughout the present discussion of St. Nicholas the fact has been kept constantly prominent that St. Nicholas is more famed for deeds than for doctrine. His rôle was not in general that of the apostle extending the boundaries of Christendom nor that of the expounder of creed. His fame rests on his kindly acts. But it was inevitable that the authority of so beloved and so influential a personage should be invoked in support of orthodoxy. In the Golden Legend mere mention is made of the presence of St. Nicholas at that meeting of critical importance, the Council of Nice. But in the Roman Breviary it is recorded that just before his death he was present at the Council of Nice and there, “with those three hundred and eighteen church fathers, condemned the Arian heresy.”

Controversy, particularly religious controversy, has its pitfalls even for those of most gentle nature, and connected with this momentous occasion and the part in it played by St. Nicholas, there is a legendary story which exhibits a side to his character, if less saintly, at least, more human. The story goes that St. Nicholas at Nice struck an Arian bishop who spoke against the faith and that, for this too violent zeal, he was deprived of the right of wearing bishop’s robes. But, the story adds, in celebrating the mass, he saw angels bearing him the miter and the pallium as a sign that Heaven had not blamed his wrath.

The orthodoxy of St. Nicholas is thus put beyond question. If he was a foe to heresy, he was still more a foe to paganism. In the story from the Golden Legend already quoted is recorded his activity in uprooting the worship of Diana in Lycia and the particular hatred of the goddess, or devil as she was conceived of, that he incurred thereby. Concerning his zeal in this work, Wace has the following additional details to offer. “Before the time of St. Nicholas,” he tells us, “devils had power. People worshiped gods and goddesses: Phœbus, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Diana, Juno, Venus, Minerva. They had painted images with names written on the foreheads. Diana in particular was a she-devil. St. Nicholas broke her image and delivered the people from idolatry.”

St. Nicholas Represented (Byzantine style) in the Mosaics of St. Mark’s in Venice.

But it is particularly in the conflict between Christianity and Mohammedanism that St. Nicholas is prominent as defender of the faith. The time when St. Nicholas worship was introduced in the West was a time when this conflict was at its height, the time of the Crusades. It will be remembered how Jean Bodel in his play, written about the year 1200, made new use of the story of the image of St. Nicholas set as the guardian of treasure. It will be remembered that the setting for the story provided by Bodel was in the wars of Christian against Saracen, and that the central feature of the story in the play is the way in which the Christian image of St. Nicholas proved his power to be greater than that of the Mohammedan idol of Tervagant, and thus led the Mohammedan king with his seneschal and all his emirs to adopt the Christian faith.

In Eastern countries the conflict between Christianity and Mohammedanism, so much alive in Western Europe in the time of the Crusades, continues in active form in our own time. It must be remembered, too, that in Eastern countries St. Nicholas occupies a place even higher than that occupied by him in the West in our time. It is not unnatural, then, that there he should be looked to as the defender of the Christian faith. How well he is thought to be able to represent the Christian cause is well brought out in a naïvely humorous Albanian folk-tale. The story goes as follows: Mohammed was the guest of St. Nicholas. When the time to eat came around, Mohammed asked where were the servants. St. Nicholas replied that no servants were needed, that at a word from his mouth or a stroke on the table, the edibles would be ready. He then proceeded to demonstrate that what he said was entirely true, causing to appear on the table everything that one could desire to eat and drink.

Mohammed, not to be outdone, on his return home caused his servant to construct a table which would turn and could thus be closed into the wall leaving no visible sign. He commanded his servant to make ready food of every kind, and when he heard a rap, to push the laden table through the wall. He then invited St. Nicholas to his house, intending to exhibit powers as great as those shown by St. Nicholas.

But St. Nicholas made all his plans go awry. He made the servant deaf, so that there was no response to the rap of Mohammed, and St. Nicholas himself had to get up and bring in through the wall the table laden with food, naturally to the discomfiture of his host.

The next day Mohammed invited St. Nicholas again, promising to work a miracle before him. He caused a great number of jugs and cans and dishes of various kinds to be taken to the top of a hill. At a sign from Mohammed, these were to be rolled down the hill and a cannon fired. When St. Nicholas arrived, he bade Mohammed work his miracle. Mohammed raised his hand, and the expected noise followed. St. Nicholas, however, gave no sign of fear. Mohammed then bade him work a miracle. St. Nicholas clapped his hands, and immediately the thunder rolled and the lightning flashed, overwhelming Mohammed with terror.

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