Some readers may remember the kid-friendly version of the Santa Claus story I published on Yahoo, where the original "Saint" Nikolaus had been given the three big balls of gold to put on the ends of the cross in front of his church, but felt sorry for the three poor children when he saw a slave dealer talking to their father, and dropped the gold down their chimney. Or threw it in through the open window--we don't know what sort of house it was.
"So Nikolaus was like Robin Hood?" a reader asked. Not exactly. He was the bishop. Although the people who gave him the gold expected to see it used to decorate the church, the bishop had the right to decide how the church should use the gold.
There are different versions of this story, including a really wild one where the children had been cut up and packed in brine for sale as salt pork, but Nikolaos miraculously restored them to life. There is some disagreement about whether the children were boys, girls, or some of each. Needless to say, there is no historical proof that these stories are true.
However, Chris Field has dug up a serious historical study of the original Bishop Nikolaos. If not a miracle worker, he was an active and generous member of his community:
Whether in amusing, fairy-tale-like ways or not, he really did use church money to help poor families.