When Santa punched a heretic: Who was Saint Nicholas?

A Russian icon depicting Saint Nicholas.Wikimedia Commons

He's an ancient saint who this week has inspired a show of unity between historically divided churches. He's the inspiration for the legend of Father Christmas. It's said that he worked great wonders in his lifetime. Who was Saint Nicholas?

Nicholas was born in AD 270 in the city of Patara, Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). Raised with wealthy Greek Christian parents, it's said that he was deeply religious from a young age. He would eventually be ordained as a priest, and later consecrated as a bishop in Myra in 317.

Some remember him by the title Nikolaos the Wonderworker: Nicholas has a legacy of performing many miracles in his time. One story tells of him bringing three dead men back to life.

He calmed a storm and resurrected a dead sailor as sea when he travelled to the Holy Land, following the footsteps of Christ.

His most iconic story sees Nicholas as the secret benefactor of a poor man who could not provide for his daughters. He secretly visited their home at night to give purses of gold coins. It's the legacy of secret gift giving that inspired the legend of Sinterklaas, who became Santa Claus, the generous gift giver now known to many as Father Christmas.

Another famous story tells of a feisty interaction between Nicholas and the heretic Arius at the historic Council of Nicea in AD 325 – the very first ecumenical council. In this decisive council, Arius taught that Jesus was not co-equal to God the Father, but was created by him. Unable to restrain his dispute with Arius, Nicholas approached Arius and slapped – or punched – him in the face. The bishop's loss of cool shocked his contemporaries, though today many relish the fact that Santa Claus himself (in a sense) was a staunch defender of Christian orthodoxy.

Today, Nicholas has inspired a momentous show of church unity, as the Orthodox and Roman Catholic denominations last year agreed to share the relics of the great saint. His remains have resided in Bari, Itlay, for 930 years, but made their way to Moscow, Russia this weekend.

The meeting of Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was the first meeting of the denominations' leaders since the Great Schism of 1054 – when the Eastern and Western churches underwent a decisive split.

A quote attributed to the 4th century icon captures his enduring legacy: 'The giver of every good and perfect gift has called upon us to mimic His giving, by grace, through faith, and this is not of ourselves.'