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Title: St. Nicholas - His Legend and His Rôle in the Christmas Celebration and - Other Popular Customs
Author: McKnight, George H.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "St. Nicholas - His Legend and His Rôle in the Christmas Celebration and - Other Popular Customs" ***

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    Transcriber's Note:

    Every effort has been made to replicate this text as faithfully as
    possible. The Council of Nicaea is referred to as the Council of
    Nice: this has been left unchanged. Some changes have been made.
    They are listed at the end of the text. Illustrations have been

    Italic text has been marked with _underscores_.

[Illustration: G. da Fabriano. St. Nicholas with Conventional Emblems
along with Mary Magdalene, St. John, and St. George.


                              St. Nicholas

                His Legend and His Rôle in the Christmas
                     Celebration and Other Popular

                           George H. McKnight


                          G. P. Putnam’s Sons
                          New York and London
                        The Knickerbocker Press

                            COPYRIGHT, 1917
                           GEORGE H. MCKNIGHT

                   The Knickerbocker Press, New York


A few years ago, while trying to trace the history of certain Christmas
customs, I was unavoidably brought into contact with St. Nicholas. A
closer acquaintance with that amiable personality was the result, and
acquaintance gradually deepened into veneration and affection. In the
same year in which began my closer acquaintance with St. Nicholas,
I was so fortunate as to be brought face to face with some of the
quaint pictures in which Italian painters, with so much charm, have
represented the various episodes in the life of the saint. I was led to
believe that others would enjoy the pictures, not all of them readily
accessible, and that a wider knowledge of St. Nicholas would greatly
enlarge the circle of his friends. The present book was the result.

My aim has been, not to offer an exhaustive study of all the difficult
questions that are connected with the name of St. Nicholas, but to
bring together, from somewhat scattered sources, the elements in his
life story. The kindly acts recorded of him have lived in popular
memory and have flowered into some of the most generally cherished of
popular customs. In St. Nicholas the reader will come in contact with a
personality of unique amiability, whose influence has permeated popular
customs for many centuries and has contributed much of sweetness to
human life.

My original contribution to the subject has been slight. In the notes I
have attempted to indicate my indebtedness to other writers, although
the amount of this debt I have not been able adequately to show. To the
artists who have represented with feeling and with charm the scenes in
the life of St. Nicholas, this book is most indebted, and for them I
wish to bespeak a major part of the reader’s attention.

                                                              G. H. McK.

 _July 16, 1917_.



        PREFACE                                                  iii



   II.--BIOGRAPHY AND LEGEND                                      28

          PATRON SAINT OF SCHOOLBOYS                              37

   IV.--ST. NICHOLAS AND THE DOWERLESS MAIDENS                    53

    V.--THE BOY BISHOP, OR NICHOLAS BISHOP                        66

   VI.--VARIED BENEFICENT ACTIVITY                                79

  VII.--ST. NICHOLAS PLAYS                                        89

 VIII.--ST. NICHOLAS AS PATRON SAINT                             112

   IX.--PAGAN HERITAGE OF ST. NICHOLAS                           125

    X.--ST. NICHOLAS, DEFENDER OF THE FAITH                      141

   XI.--CONCLUSION                                               146

        NOTES                                                    149


 ST. NICHOLAS AND OTHER SAINTS                            _Frontispiece_
   Gentile da Fabriano. (Florence.)

                                                             FACING PAGE
 ST. NICHOLAS IN EAST FRISIA                                          12
   Reproduced from Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, _Das festliche Jahr_.

   Reproduced from Reinsberg-Düringsfeld.

   From P. Lacroix, _Science and Art in the Middle Ages_.

   Beato Angelico. (Rome.)

 THE YOUNG CLERK STRANGLED BY THE DEVIL                               42
   A. Lorenzetti. (Florence.)

 ST. NICHOLAS RESTORING A BOY TO HIS FATHER                           46
   Fresco at S. Croce, Florence.

 ST. NICHOLAS AND THE MURDERED SCHOOLBOYS                             48
   L. di Bicci. (Metropolitan Museum, New York.)

 ANOTHER PICTURE OF THE SAME SCENE                                    50
   F. Pesellino. (Florence.)

 ST. NICHOLAS AND THE THREE MAIDENS                                   52
   A. Lorenzetti. (Florence.)

 ANOTHER PICTURE OF THE SAME SCENE                                    54
   Florentine School. (Louvre, Paris.)

 ANOTHER PICTURE OF THE SAME SCENE                                    56
   L. di Bicci (?). (Metropolitan Museum, New York.)

 MADONNA AND CHILD AND VARIOUS SAINTS                                 60
   L. di Bicci. (Florence.)

 ST. NICHOLAS AND THE MONEY LENDER                                    64
   Fresco at S. Croce, Florence.

 THE BOY NICHOLAS ELECTED BISHOP                                      68
   A. Lorenzetti. (Florence.)

   A. Lorenzetti. (Florence.)

 NORMAN BAPTISMAL FONT AT WINCHESTER                                  84

   F. Pesellino. (Florence.)


 IMAGES OF BRETON SAINTS                                             116

 ST. NICHOLAS SAVES THE CITY FROM FAMINE                             118
   Beato Angelico. (Rome.)

 ST. NICHOLAS RESCUES SEAMEN                                         122
   L. Monaco. (Florence.)





The good St. Nicholas, the bishop-saint, is strangely little known
in America. He has lent his name to a church here and there and to a
popular magazine for children, his protégés. But how many people are
familiar with the story of his life? How many even know the date of his
own special festival? There are countries in which his memory is not
thus neglected, in which the festival of St. Nicholas is one of the
important events of the year. An English newspaper of the first year of
the war has this to report concerning the Belgian custom:

    The feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th, was celebrated at the
    Belgian refugee camp at Earle’s Court, England, with presents for
    the children, stockings hung up, a Christmas tree, and all the rest
    of the children’s festivities which we associate with Christmas
    eve and Christmas morning. This was not a mere anticipation of
    Christmas. St. Nicholas’ day, and not Christmas, is the children’s
    festival in Holland, Belgium, and parts of Germany, and we have
    borrowed the hanging up of stockings from them and turned it into a
    Christmas custom.[1]

Letters from Belgian children, exiled in France for more than two
years, offer further evidence of the intimate and friendly relationship
existing between St. Nicholas and his Belgian children. Here is a
touching passage from a letter written by a little eight-year-old
Belgian girl from Varengeville-sur-Mer, in France, to an American
“godmother”; the adult English used in translation fails to reproduce
the naïve charm of the original.

    We have just had a grand visit from St. Nicholas. He came in person
    to bring us some nice things as he used to do when we were home.
    We were playing when, all at once, we heard singing at one side
    and saw a bishop, ringing a bell. What joy, it is St. Nicholas! We
    kneeled down to receive his blessing, and then sang a song and went
    into the house. St. Nicholas talked to us and, best of all, he gave
    us some presents. He gave us an orange, a barley sweet, a cake, and
    some games. My, how happy we were!

                                                        GERMAINE BARBEZ.

Le 16 dec., 1916.

Another little girl, a little older, writes from the same place of ‘how
the “grand Saint Nicholas” has gone out of his way to come to see the
Belgian children on December sixth, and how he delivered admonitions
to various boys and girls but did not fail to distribute among them
dainties much appreciated by all, big and little.’

The importance of St. Nicholas in Belgian life is evident. His festival
day too, the celebration of which is so deeply rooted as not to lose
its life in an atmosphere of exile and painful memory, has continued
to hold an important place in the year’s life not only of Belgium but,
as remains to be seen, of Holland. At one time the celebration of St.
Nicholas’ day seems to have been general in most of western Europe.
There is plentiful record of the earlier popularity of this celebration
in all the southern and western parts of the countries occupied by
the peoples speaking the Teutonic languages. It can be traced from
Holland and Belgium, through eastern France, the Rhine provinces,
Luxembourg, Alsace and Lorraine, through Switzerland, both French and
German, as far east as the Tyrol and Salzburg, including on the way
Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria, in Germany.[2] In northern Germany,
Protestantism, with its aversion to saint worship, was hostile to the
St. Nicholas celebration. Also the growing concentration on Christmas
day of the different winter popular celebrations, and especially
the rapid rise in importance, during the last two centuries, of the
Christmas tree, have caused the St. Nicholas customs, in many places,
to be absorbed into the Christmas celebration, in other places, to
go quite out of use. But popular customs seem to be to some extent
affected by political boundaries, and in two of the smaller countries
of western Europe, Belgium and Holland, the St. Nicholas customs still
retain much of their earlier vigor.

In Belgium, St. Nicholas has long been among the most venerated of
saints, hardly second to St. Martin. In the whole country there are
one hundred and six churches in his honor.[3] Besides he is the patron
saint of many trades and crafts, for example, of the boatmen in cities
on the Meuse, of sawyers, dyers, turners, and haberdashers at Bruges,
of seedmen, packers, and coopers at Liège, of haberdashers and mercers
at Malines. But above all he is the protector and the corrector of

The children’s festival at Christmas time does not exist in Belgium.
The _grand réveillon_, the great Christmas feast of southern
France, which leads children to call Christmas the “day when one
eats so much,” the English Christmas, with its life and gayety and
open hospitality, have nothing corresponding at Christmas time in
Belgium,[4] where the celebration of Christmas is confined almost
entirely to services in the church. In place of the Christmas gayeties
of other countries, Belgium has its St. Nicholas festival. St.
Nicholas’ day throughout the whole country is a day of joy, especially
for the young. Even the German Christmas tree, which has been gradually
finding its way into Belgium, is introduced not on Christmas day, but
on December 6th, the day devoted to the honor of the popular saint.

A writer of about fifty years back thus describes the joyous
celebration of St. Nicholas’ day by Belgian children of that time.
“Weeks beforehand, children full of impatience, before going to sleep
ask: ‘How many times must I go to sleep before he comes?’ They sing to
him as soon as it is dark, and they see him in their dreams, giving
them gifts or punishment, according as they have been good or naughty.
Occasionally they are made happy by a little gift that comes down the
chimney into a pinafore hung up to receive it, or is found accidentally
in the corner of the room. A joyful ‘Thank you, Saint Nicholas’ greets
each such gift. Each evening every corner of the room is searched, and
the children sing with fervor their petition, one Flemish version of
which begins:

    ‘Sint Niklaes, Gods heilge man,
    Doe uwen besten tabbaerd aen,
    En rydt er mee naer spanje
    Om appelen van Oranje
    Om peeren van den boom.’”

In one of the versions of this children’s song the supplication is
addressed to “Sinte Niklaes van Tolentyn,” a saint quite distinct from
Saint Nicholas of Bari, the recognized patron of children, but the
heavenly postal arrangements seem to be effectively organized, for, so
far as known, the wrong address used, in no way prevents the desired
response from their special protector and friend.

On the eve of his festival day, St. Nicholas makes his tour, visiting
palace and cottage. Frequently in the early evening he makes a
preliminary visit in bishop’s robes, with pastoral staff and miter, at
each house making inquiries concerning the conduct of the children,
giving appropriate praise or warning, and promising on the following
morning to give more substantial reward. When he is gone, the children
place receptacles for the gifts which St. Nicholas is expected to let
fall down the chimney. The receptacle varies in different places.
Sometimes shoes are neatly polished for the purpose,[5] at other times
plates or baskets or stockings or specially made shoes of porcelain
are set on the bed, in the open chimney, before the door of a room,
or merely in the corner of a room. St. Nicholas’ steed, variously
conceived of as gray horse or white ass, is not forgotten. For him
the children put water and hay or carrot or potato peeling or piece
of bread, in the shoe or basket or stocking. In the morning, from the
tipped-over chairs and general disarray in the room, it is evident that
St. Nicholas has been present. Replacing the oats or hay or carrot are
found sweets and playthings for children that have been good, obedient,
and studious during the year.[6] In the case of bad children, rods are
left, and the fodder is untouched.

A recent writer has given a highly interesting account[7] of the
similar celebration at the present day in Holland, where St. Nicholas’
day has the same importance as in Belgium.

    St. Nicholas’ eve is a time of great importance to children because
    at that time they receive a visit from the saint, and his arrival
    is looked forward to with trembling. A large white sheet is placed
    on the floor in the middle of the room, and the children stand
    about anxiously watching the slow movement of the hands of the
    clock. In the meantime some of the elder members of the family
    dress up so as to represent St. Nicholas and his black servant. At
    five minutes before the expected time, for St. Nicholas generally
    announces at what time he may be expected, they sing songs asking
    him to give liberally as is his wont, and praising his greatness
    and goodness in eloquent terms. The first intimation of his arrival
    is a shower of sweets on the sheet spread on the floor. Then,
    amid the ensuing scramble, St. Nicholas appears in full bishop’s
    vestments, laden with presents, while in the rear comes his black
    servant with an open sack in one hand, for naughty boys and girls,
    and in the other a rod which he shakes vigorously from time to
    time. St. Nicholas usually knows the shortcomings of individual
    children, and on his departure gives each an appropriate lecture,
    promising to return later. Sometimes he makes the children repeat a
    verse to him or asks about their lessons.

The mysterious events of the ensuing night closely parallel those
recorded for Belgium. St. Nicholas’ robe, his “beste tabbaerd,” enables
him to pass from place to place instantaneously. But in his nightly
journey over the roofs of houses, he uses a horse which the children
of Holland, like those of Belgium, remember by leaving a wisp of hay
for his use.[8] If, for some reason, on account of lack of time or of
money, the parents have neglected to buy gifts, the children say, “St.
Nicholas’ horse has glass legs; he has slipped down and broken his

But the joys of St. Nicholas’ eve in Holland are not confined to
children. It is a time, like the Christmas season in England, for
family reunions and the renewal of old memories, also for the giving of
presents. But the manner of the Dutch gift-giving has its distinctive
features, for:

    St. Nicholas’ presents must be hidden and disguised as much as
    possible and be accompanied by rhymes explaining what the gift is,
    and for whom St. Nicholas intended it. Sometimes a parcel addressed
    to one person will finally turn out to be for quite a different
    member of the family from the one who first received it. For the
    address on each wrapper in various stages of wrapping, makes it
    necessary for the parcel to change hands as many times as there are
    papers to undo. Tiniest things are sent in immense packing cases.
    Sometimes the gifts are baked in a loaf of bread or hidden in a
    turf. The longer it takes to find the present, the greater the

    Great delight is taken in concealing the identity of the giver as
    long as possible. Even if the gift comes from a member of the same
    household, before the parcel is brought in, the doorbell is rung by
    a servant in order to create the impression that the parcel has
    come from an outsider. For the same purpose a parcel for a friend’s
    house is often entrusted to a passer-by.

    On the evening of the celebration, after St. Nicholas has said his
    adieux, promising to come again, the children are packed away to
    bed, and the older people have their special amusement. They sit
    about a table in the middle of the room and partake of tea and
    “speculaas,” a spice cake bearing a great picture of St. Nicholas,
    until their own surprises begin to arrive. When this part of the
    program is over, about ten o’clock, the room is cleared; the dust
    sheet laid down for the children’s scramble, is removed, the
    papers, boxes, baskets, and the like, used in packing the presents,
    are cleared away. The table is spread with a white tablecloth, and
    when all have taken seats, a dish of boiled chestnuts, steaming
    hot, is brought in and eaten with butter and salt.[10]

Belgium and Holland have their special forms of cakes and sweetmeats
for the St. Nicholas season. In Holland these are the flat hard cakes
called “Klaasjes”[11] once made exclusively in the form of a bishop
in honor of the bishop St. Nicholas, but now made in forms of every
conceivable kind of beast, bird, or fish. In certain places on the
Rhine the figure of the saint himself, the “Klasmann,” is baked in
dough with currant eyes, or an especially palatable little horse is
formed of honey cake dough and the “Klas” is inlaid on the horse.
Then there is the “Letterbanket” made in the form of letters so that
one may order his name in cake, and the “Marsepein,” now made in a
great variety of forms, but formerly made only in heart-shaped sweets
ornamented with little turtle doves made of pink sugar or with a
flaming heart on a little altar. The “Marsepein” was formerly used as a
device in wooing. The young man sent “Marsepein”[12] with a “Vryer” of
cake to the young lady of his heart, and if she accepted, he knew his
cause was won.

There are also various accounts of the way the cakes are made. In
Vorarlberg if, on the morning of St. Nicholas’ day, mist is seen to
rise, one tells the children that St. Nicholas is baking his cakes,
“Zelten” or “Klösse.” All the different figures found on the “Zelten”
have been made by St. Nicholas’ ass stepping on them with his shoes.
Another explanation of the origin of the cakes has more direct relation
with the life story of the saint. The story is told that the three
maidens rescued from shame by St. Nicholas--whose story remains to be
told in a later chapter--at their marriage, out of gratitude, baked
triple kneaded rolls and distributed them among poor children.[13]

Outside the homes, the time about St. Nicholas’ day in Belgium and
Holland is one of unusual life and gayety.

    The old-time St. Nicholas fairs are no longer held in the streets,
    at any rate, not in the large towns of Holland, but exchange of
    presents is as universal as ever, and the shops are as festive
    in appearance as American shops at Christmas time.[14] New
    attractions for children are offered each year. Life-sized figures
    of St. Nicholas are frequent in front of shop windows, and some
    establishments have a man dressed like the good saint, who goes
    about the streets mounted on a white steed, while behind him
    follows a cart laden with presents to be delivered. Crowds of
    children, singing, shouting, and clapping their hands, follow.[15]

An older authority records concerning Belgium that often in country
districts this or that peasant makes up as a long-bearded man or bishop
and rides through the dark streets on a gray horse, or an ass, or a
wooden horse, with a great basket at his side and a bundle of whips in
his hand.[16]

[Illustration: St. Nicholas in East Frisia.

Reproduced from Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, _Das festliche Jahr_.]

In no countries besides Belgium and Holland is the celebration of St.
Nicholas’ day so widely prevalent to-day. But, as already remarked,
in earlier times the celebration of St. Nicholas’ day was popular in
many parts of Teutonic Europe, particularly in Austria, Switzerland,
and southern Germany. In various parts of these countries the old St.
Nicholas customs still maintain a vigorous existence. In Württemberg
and Baden, children on St. Nicholas’ day receive gifts from their
godparents. In Switzerland the gifts are brought by “Samiklaus,” in the
Tyrol by the “Holy Man,” in lower Austria by “Niglo,” in Bohemia by
“Nikolo.”[17] At Ehingen on the Danube, it is the custom to keep tally
on a stick of the number of prayers the children have said. The child
that can show many tallies is favored by Santiklos. Before going to bed
children place bowls under the bed and say the prayer:

    “St. Nikolaus, leg mir ein,
    Was dein guter Will mag sein,
    Aepfel, Birnen, Nuss und Kern
    Essen die kleinen Kinder gern.

    (St. Nicholas put in for me
    What thy good will may be,
    Apple, pear, and good sweetmeat,
    Little children love to eat.)”

In the morning the bowls are found filled with the good things desired.

In various places in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, the saint,
represented by some older member of the family, appears, or used to
appear, in person, in bishop’s guise with staff and miter, and makes
inquiry concerning the behavior of the children, and hears the
children say their prayers. Before his coming the children have placed
shoes in the garden behind a bush, and when after his departure they
go out, they find the shoes filled with apples, nuts, and the like, if
their conduct has been good. But in the case of ill-behaved children,
the shoes are likely to be occupied by a whip.

In Italy a similar custom was formerly observed among people of higher
social station. In the courts of princes, on St. Nicholas’ day, it was
a custom to hide presents “in the shoes and slippers of persons whom it
was desired to honor, in such manner as to surprise them when they came
to dress. The custom was called Zopata from a Spanish word signifying a

The function of St. Nicholas, it will have been observed, is a double
one, to bring pleasing rewards to good children, but also to bring fear
to children whose conduct has been bad. A Swiss dialect dictionary
published in 1806, defines “Samiklaus” as a “gift such as parents make
to their children through a disguised person named Samiklaus (corrupted
from St. Nicholas) in order to give them pleasure and encourage them to
duty and obedience or to frighten them through the strangely frightful
make-up of the bogey man who accompanies the Samiklaus.”[19] As a
means of exciting fear in the ill-behaved children, the friendly
bishop was often accompanied on his rounds by a children’s bugaboo,
a frightful figure with horns, black face, fiery eyes, and long red
tongue, variously called Klaubauf, Krampus, Rumpanz, and the like.[20]

Further evidence of the earlier wider prevalence of St. Nicholas
customs is afforded by the objections[21] of seventeenth-century
Protestant preachers, quoted in a later chapter, who opposed the
attribution to St. Nicholas of gifts which, they asserted, came from
the Christ Child alone. In objections such as these, is to be found
one of the causes of the decay of distinctively St. Nicholas customs.
Or perhaps we may better say, here is an explanation why customs that
persisted, lost their association with the name of St. Nicholas. There
is apparent Protestant objection to saint worship. There is also in
evidence the rivalry of the celebration in honor of the birth of Christ
which had received the name Christmas. The Christmas celebration was in
its origin a church affair. Up to the fourteenth century the church had
tried in vain to convert it into a popular festival. It employed all
kinds of methods to attract the traditional customs and beliefs of the
beginning of winter to the church festival. But only after the beliefs
and practices earlier attached to Martinmas, to St. Andrew’s day, and
to St. Nicholas’ day were brought into association with the birth of
Christ, did the Christmas festival, after the end of the fourteenth
century, become a genuinely popular occasion.

From this time on the customs distinctive of St. Nicholas’ day became
more and more absorbed into the Christmas festival.[22] At times St.
Nicholas retains his association with the old customs, but the time
is shifted from St. Nicholas’ day to Christmas time. In Catholic
Nuremberg, for instance, at the end of the seventeenth century, the St.
Nicholas gift-giving and the Christmas gift-giving customs were united,
and the St. Nicholas customs made dependent on the Christmas customs.
Children believed that St. Nicholas was the attendant of the Christ
Child and was made to carry the wares basket at the Christmas market,
and that St. Nicholas received sweetmeats as extras from the dealers.
As Christmas time approached, these were put under the pillows of the
children, who believed them to be the gifts of St. Nicholas.[23]

In all north Germany, too, on Christmas eve, there goes about a bearded
man covered with a great hide or with straw, who questions children
and rewards their good conduct. His name varies with the locality.
In many places he is called “Knecht Ruprecht,” a name probably going
back to a pre-Christian time before St. Nicholas became associated
with the children’s festival. In other places the man is called “De
Hele Christ,” Holy Christ, who later becomes the central figure of all
Christmas activities. In many of his names, however, such as “Rû Clås,”
“Joseph Clås,” “Clåwes,”[24] “Clås Bůr,” and “Bullerclås,” one will
recognize the juvenile derivative from the name Nicholas. This figure
often rides on a white horse. Not infrequently his relation to the
Christmas festival proper needs to be made clear by the presence of the
Holy Christ as a companion, represented by a maiden in white garb who
hears the children say their prayers.

Saint Nicholas in the double rôle of children’s benefactor and
children’s bugaboo found his way to America. Among the Pennsylvania
Germans, or “Pennsylvania Dutch,” as they are more familiarly called,
at least in the country districts, he continues to play his old part.
“You’d better look out or Pelznickel will catch you,” is the threat
held out over naughty children about Christmas time. The nickel in
Pelznickel serves to show the relationship of this personage to
St. Nicholas. Pelznickel is a Santa Claus with some variations. “On
Christmas eve someone in the neighborhood impersonates Pelznickel by
dressing up as an old man with a long white beard. Arming himself with
a switch and carrying a bag of toys over his shoulder, he goes from
house to house, where the children are expecting him.

“He asks the parents how the little ones have behaved themselves during
the year. To each of those who have been good, he gives a present from
his bag. But woe betide the naughty ones! These are not only supposed
to get no presents, but Pelznickel catches them by the collar and
playfully taps them with his switch.”[25]

Eventually, in many places, St. Nicholas became quite excluded from the
customs with which he was long associated. In Schleswig-Holstein, for
instance, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the old customs
were preserved but entirely separated from their earlier associations
with St. Nicholas and St. Nicholas’ eve, and now connected with the
story of the Christ Child and His festival, Christmas. The custom was
for each child to borrow a plate or bowl from the kitchen and place
this in an appointed room or in a window. On Christmas eve, when the
tinkle of the bell summoned the children from the dark anteroom
into the room with the festal decorations, then each child found what
the Christ Child (“Kindjes”) had brought him. On the plates lay cakes,
fruits, and playthings. Perhaps a rod was laid beside the other gifts,
but it counted as the most severe punishment when the plate remained

[Illustration: Christkindchen (Kris Kringle) and Hans Trapp in Alsace.

Reproduced from Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, _Das festliche Jahr._]

Here and there also in the country, as late as 1865, there survived the
similar custom, for the children, before going to bed, to place the
plate before the window, for in the night the Christ Child took out
a pane of glass and laid his gifts on the plate so that on Christmas
morning it was evident that the “Kindjes” had been present. Here we see
St. Nicholas quite deprived of his old prerogatives and his place taken
by the “Christ Kindjes,” or as he was called in some places “Christ
kindel,” from whose name, by a process of popular etymology, presumably
was derived the name Kris Kringle.

In various parts of the United States where Dutch and German customs
prevail, Kris Kringle appears in the combined rôle of the Christ Child
and Santa Claus, and the vigil of his festival is called “Christ Kinkle
eve.” In certain parts of Germany children sing, on Christmas eve:

    “Christkindchen komm;
    Mach mich fromm;
    Dass ich zu dir im Himmel komm.”[26]

In the principality of Waldeck[27] down as late as 1830 there survived
a popular Christmas mummers’ play custom originating in the sixteenth
century and bringing in not only Christ and St. Nicholas but other
personages grotesque in appearance, some of them survivals from folk
celebrations antedating St. Nicholas customs. In the play appear
Christ, Mary, an Angel, Peter, and Niklawes, all clad in white, and
Hansruhbart, Brose, who bears the sack, and the shepherd Pamphilius
with the noble steed, Zink. Hansruhbart and Brose are clad in pea
straw and wear frightful masks. Pamphilius has suspended from a strap
about his neck a box full of dirt with which he threatens to smear
the children. Each person in turn is summoned to speak. As the chief
offence in the case of children is reckoned the preference of small
beer to coffee. Peter distributes the gifts, which the children receive
only after they have been forgiven. He has a basket with apples and
nuts, which he throws on a table for the children. As the children
reach out for his gifts, he strikes them on the fingers with his rod.

Mumming pieces like this were popular all over Germany, the personages
varying with the locality. Sometimes the Holy Christ went about alone,
and before him the children presented themselves. But the most striking
of all the personages in these plays was the one at Waldeck called
Hansruhbart, elsewhere Ruprecht and Knecht Ruprecht, at his earliest
recorded appearance called Acesto, probably a traditional figure that
originated in customs that antedate Christianity.

In all this discussion of various customs associated with the name
of St. Nicholas there will have been seen little to connect with the
life story of a saintly person. The deeds of the children’s friend,
St. Nicholas, to be sure exhibit beneficence, but the beneficence of
a capricious, fairy-like benefactor rather than of a holy saint. In
fact it is evident that the customs in question, in their origin,
had little, if anything to do with St. Nicholas, and as they exist
to-day show only in certain external features any relation with the
life story of the kindly Eastern saint. This impression of the earlier
independence of the popular customs in question from the story of St.
Nicholas, is confirmed by the fact that many of them are associated
with other names. St. Martin, as well as St. Nicholas, figures as a
giver of gifts to children, especially in the Netherlands. At Antwerp
and certain other cities, according to a report from a generation ago,
on St. Martin’s day, as in the St. Nicholas’ day celebration already
described, a man with bishop’s vestments and crosier appeared in the
nurseries and made inquiries about the behavior of the children.
According to the nature of this report he threw on the floor from his
basket, either rods, or apples, nuts, and cakes. In Ypres children are
reported to hang stockings filled with hay in the open chimneypiece on
the eve of Martinmas. The next morning the stockings are found filled
with gifts from St. Martin who in the night has ridden over the chimney
and has been grateful for the attention paid to his gray (or white)
steed.[28] There is also an old custom in Flemish Belgium in which on
the eve of Martinmas the children are placed in the corner of a room
with their backs to the door and told not to look. The parents then
throw in at the door apples, nuts, peppercakes, and other sweetmeats of
various kinds, pretending that St. Martin has done it. If one of the
children turns around, St. Martin goes away without leaving anything.

The bugaboo feature of St. Nicholas’ day also was not lacking in the
Martinmas celebration. In several places in southern Germany, on St.
Martin’s day, “Pelzmärte,” with blackened face and cowbells, went about
giving beatings or throwing apples into rooms, whichever the children’s
behavior called for.

Some of the Martinmas customs had less resemblance to St. Nicholas
customs. The convivial customs of Martinmas have given St. Martin a
reputation for drunkenness entirely undeserved by that zealous defender
of Christianity, St. Martin of Tours. But the ones singled out for
mention evidently belong jointly to St. Martin and St. Nicholas,
although in their origin probably as little connected with the one as
with the other.

The celebration of St. Andrew’s day, also, has features similar to
that of St. Nicholas’ day. On St. Andrew’s eve (November thirtieth),
in the neighborhood of Reichenberg, children are said to hang up their
stockings at the windows and in the evening find them filled with
apples and nuts.[29]

The explanation of the origin of these customs is to be found in
practices long antedating the time of St. Martin or St. Nicholas or
even of St. Andrew. They seem to be practices rooted in pre-Christian
agricultural rites which have been superseded, or better expressed,
have survived with new meanings read into them. With the introduction
of Christianity, following the usual course of things, the older
modes of celebration were changed not so much in form as in name.
To St. Martin were devoted customs which coincided in time with the
celebration in honor of St. Martin, customs originally associated
with the first drinking of the new wine or with the autumn slaughter,
a connection not entirely lost in our own times, as indicated by the
“Martlemas beef” in Great Britain, the “St. Martin’s geese” and “St.
Martin’s swine” in Germany. With the shifting of the agricultural
practices to a later date, the customs came to be associated with the
celebration of saints’ days later in the calendar. With St. Nicholas,
on December sixth, became associated customs and practices earlier
associated with St. Martin, on November eleventh, or with St. Andrew on
November thirtieth, but in their true nature as little appropriate to
one as to the other.

There have been attempts to show points of connection between the
Christian worship of St. Nicholas and the earlier worship of the
Teutonic divinities. It has been attempted to connect the children’s
bugaboo variously called Hansruhbart, Ruprecht, and Knecht Ruprecht,
with Odin, largely through a connection between the name Ruprecht and
one of the variety of names given Odin.[30] There has been pointed out
also the parallelism between the “beste tabbaerd” of St. Nicholas sung
about by children, and the magic robe which enabled Odin to pass from
place to place; between the gray horse of St. Nicholas on which he rode
over the roofs of houses, and Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, on which he took
an autumn ride through the world; between the sheaf of grain in pagan
days left in the field for Odin’s horse and the wisp of hay left by
children in their shoes for their friend St. Nicholas. But too much
stress must not be laid on these parallelisms. The customs associated
with St. Nicholas in their origin doubtless antedate Christianity but
also antedate the worship of Odin. Possibly the pre-Christian practices
were influenced by their temporary association with the Teutonic gods
as they afterwards were by the association with the Christian saints.
But in both cases this influence was only superficial.

A rapid resumé may clear up some of the obscure places in the preceding
mass of details. In the practices associated in our time with the name
of Santa Claus we have survivals of pagan sacred custom once regarded
as important in the furtherance of human welfare. Perhaps influenced
superficially by conceptions of the Germanic gods, eventually they
came to be connected with the honor of Christian saints. They afford a
remarkable illustration of the longevity of folk customs. With meaning
lost or changed, the older forms persist. Influenced, as remains to be
shown, superficially, by the life story of the saint with whose worship
they became associated, also to some extent with the Roman festivities
of the same season, above all converted to the use of providing
pleasure, as well as just reward, for children, they have survived
to our day. But owing in part to the effort of the Church in earlier
times to convert the church ceremony in honor of the birth of Christ
into a truly popular festival, in part to the later opposition to saint
worship on the part of Protestantism, the customs once associated with
the worship of St. Nicholas are now associated with the birth of Christ.

Santa Claus, the name derived from St. Nicholas through the familiar
use of children in Teutonic countries, crossed to America. The exact
route followed by him is somewhat open to question. On the way he
traded his gray horse or ass for a reindeer and made changes in his
appearance. It is usually said, however, that he was brought to
America by the Dutch. In America he has made himself very much at home,
and according to the explanation most generally accepted, from America
he recrossed the Atlantic to England, whence he has journeyed to the
most distant parts of the British Empire, to India and to Australia,
where he is as familiarly known as in America. In England, however,
while the custom of giving gifts to children has been made a part of
the Christmas celebration, the gratitude of the children in some places
goes to Santa Claus, but in other places goes to another creation of
the popular fancy, a personage called Father Christmas. In parts of
the German-speaking countries also, as has been shown, the honors of
Christmas day are concentrated in the person of the Christ Child, and
the benefactor of children is the Christ Child himself, the “Kindjes”
or “Christ kindel,” more familiarly known in America as Kris Kringle.
In France the place of the Christ Child as the purveyor of gifts had
been in part filled by “le petit Noël,” in a manner like that in which
in England Father Christmas in part shares the rôle of Santa Claus.



It is quite apparent that the journeys of Santa Claus by night over the
housetops, and his various chimney escapades, are beneath the dignity
of the reverend Bishop of Myra, formally canonized by the medieval
church as St. Nicholas. In appearance, too, Santa Claus is more like an
elf, or one of the other beings of Teutonic mythology, than like the
Christian bishop whom early artists were fond of representing in full
episcopal vestments, with miter, pallium, and pastoral staff. In his
manners, too, he is more like a friendly fairy than a patron saint. In
reality, as has been seen, in his origin there is more of the pagan
than of the Christian. At the same time Christian legend has had its
influence. The name Santa Claus is a popular, or juvenile, derivative
from St. Nicholas, and the mysterious visit by night which wins for
Santa Claus the hearts of children, is closely associated with a famous
incident in the life story of the Christian saint.

What then do we know about St. Nicholas? “Of all patron saints,”
says Mrs. Jameson, “he is perhaps the most universally popular and
interesting. No saint in the calendar has so many churches, chapels,
and altars dedicated to him. In England, I suppose, there is hardly a
town without one church at least bearing his name.” Both in Eastern
Church and Western Church he is the object of extreme veneration, to a
degree unequalled in the case of any other saint.[31] It is established
that veneration of St. Nicholas goes back to the early centuries in the
history of the Christian faith. The Emperor Justinian built a church
in his honor at Constantinople about the year 430, and he was titular
saint of four churches at Constantinople.[32]

Yet with all this high esteem and veneration through so many centuries,
little is known concerning the facts of his life. Historical criticism
has demolished much of the story built up around his lovable
personality. One by one the cherished tales of his beneficence have
been questioned, because lacking the required corroboration of
historical evidence. There has even been raised doubt whether he ever
existed. In any case certain knowledge is extremely dim. The authorized
story of his life set as the _lectio_ or “reading” for the second
nocturn of St. Nicholas’ day (Dec. 6th) in the Roman Breviary, makes
but a slight narrative. In brief paraphrase it runs as follows:

    An only child, in infancy he manifested singular piety. His youth
    was characterized by deeds of charity, among them one that saved
    three maidens from a life of shame. In youth, on a sea voyage, he
    saved the ship in a fearful storm. In youth also he was elected
    Bishop of Myra, a miraculous sign indicating him to be the divine
    choice. In later life he succored the oppressed, in particular
    saving three tribunes unjustly condemned to death. At the Council
    of Nice he is said to have condemned the Arian heresy, and at his
    death is said to have received miraculous sign of divine approval.
    His remains are preserved with the greatest veneration at Bari in

This sober biography, so lacking in concrete detail, is the life of the
beloved saint as sanctioned by the Roman Church of to-day. As already
remarked, most even of its meager details have been questioned by
higher criticism. In earlier times, however, when the test of reality
was not as rigorously applied as is the wont to-day, there flourished a
luxuriant growth of stories about St. Nicholas as about other saints,
the objects of popular veneration and gratitude.

Much is to be said in favor of the earlier, more imaginative, lives
of the saints, _legends_ as they were technically called. It has been
remarked, with much truth, that all of us lead double lives, a life
of our fancy, in a world of things as they should be, or as we should
like them to be, and a life in a world of things as they really are.
And this is as it should be. We can lift the level of real existence by
thinking of things as we should like them to be. It is well not to walk
with one’s eyes always fixed on the ground. The uplift to be derived
from the contemplation of things as they should be as distinguished
from things as they are, is well exemplified in the case of the
legendary stories about St. Nicholas. The fact that these largely
imaginative stories existed in the belief of people served to influence
human action, leading to imitation which eventually crystallized into
some of the noblest of popular customs. In some of the beautiful
popular customs connected with the name of St. Nicholas we have the
projection into reality of fanciful stories once held worthy of
implicit faith.

Much deserves to be said also in favor of the creators of legendary
story. One is sometimes disposed to look on such story uncharitably
and to regard it as the product of willful intent to deceive. Such
is by no means the real explanation of the origin of legendary tales.
Such tales are usually the product of intense emotional life, when
the imagination becomes heated by prolonged contemplation of any
subject. Thus we must explain the revelations to St. Francis and the
vivid scenes from the life of Christ attributed to St. Bonaventura. A
similar condition serves to explain the popular capacity for belief in
tales of the supernatural. We sometimes think of such legendary story
as the exclusive product of an earlier, uncritical age. That we are
mistaken in this opinion and that the conditions for the production of
legendary story continue to exist in our own time, is illustrated in a
striking manner by certain highly interesting stories that owe, if not
their origin, at least their circulation, to the intensity of feeling
aroused by the war in Europe. There has found wide circulation a story
concerning certain supernatural occurrences on the battlefield of Mons.
“The story goes that at the crisis of the fighting, when the French
and English were growing disheartened by their ineffectual efforts to
overcome the enemy, certain celestial beings, in the midst of whom was
St. George, suddenly appeared between the armies and by their timely
aid brought victory to the Allies”.[33] The origin of this story has
been clearly explained. Its author, Arthur Machen, in a recent volume,
gives a circumstantial account of its creation. It “was conceived and
written by me,” he tells us, “in prosaic London, on the last Sunday of
August, 1914,” immediately after reading of the retreat from Mons, and
this story, for which he chose the title, “The Bowmen,” was published
in _The Evening News_ of September 29th the same year. This story then,
an admitted fiction, has nevertheless found life in popular belief. It
has found not only oral circulation but has been reproduced in print
with variants and corroborative testimony. In its circulation it has
reached the outermost bounds of the British Empire. How a story which
under ordinary conditions would at once be recognized as fiction, now
finds ready credence, is revealed in the following extract from a
personal letter from far-away Sydney in Cape Breton:

    Rev. Mr. ---- preached in Falmouth Street Church on Sunday night on
    the Angels at Mons. I had seen in the papers that the Allies had
    seen three figures in the sky in the retreat from Mons and that
    although the Germans pursued them, they never could catch up with
    them. But I just thought it some Roman Catholic superstition. But
    Mr. ---- thought otherwise. He said reliable people on both sides
    had undoubtedly seen them, and he thought the age of miracles is
    not yet past and that if anyone had told him two years ago that
    he would have been preaching to justify this vision he would have
    thought him crazy. I really never heard a more wonderful sermon.
    Rev. Mr. ---- has enlisted and goes overseas with the 85th.

The origin of such a miraculous tale and of others of the same kind,
such as that of the “Comrade in White,” and the credence given in our
own time, by critical, skeptical Protestants, enable one to understand
the origin of earlier stories of the supernatural and how in less
critical times general credence could be attached to stories to the
unsympathetic now often seeming preposterous.

[Illustration: Scenes from the Legend of St. Nicholas in the Stained
Glass (thirteenth century) of Bourges Cathedral.

Reproduced from Paul Lacroix, _Science and Art of the Middle Ages_.]

The Church, too, in earlier times was not rigorous in the exclusion
of extravagant features in the life history of its heroes. On the
contrary it permitted the fancy to play freely about the objects of
its veneration, was hospitable to the wonderful, the supernatural,
element in story. By various means it aimed to keep ever alive the
memory of the saints, not excluding the livelier details contributed
by popular tradition. Legendary stories in Latin prose formed a part
of the private reading of the clergy in their canonical hours, and in
vernacular prose or verse were read before popular congregations in
church on the days devoted to the honor of the particular saint.
Sometimes they found a place in the story repertory of secular
minstrels. Artists other than literary contributed their share toward
the perpetuation of the legendary story. The separate scenes in the
lives of the popular saints were presented in stained glass windows,
particularly in France,[34] in series of pictures on canvas, in wall
paintings adorning the chapels devoted to particular saints, especially
in Italy, or in sculptured series, in low or in high relief, as
architectural ornament or decorating the sides of baptismal fonts as
in the case of the St. Nicholas scenes represented in the fonts at
Winchester cathedral and elsewhere in England and on the continent.

In even more effective ways the stories were kept alive when the
principal scenes were reenacted in dramatic entertainments, by towns or
guilds in honor of their particular patron saints, or by schoolboys in
honor of their patron Saint Nicholas.

In all these ways the story of St. Nicholas was kept in memory. Of
Eastern origin, St. Nicholas became the object of general veneration
in the West, especially after the transfer of his remains to Bari in
Italy in the year 1087. The especial honor paid to him doubtless finds
its explanation in the nature of his life story and the particular
needs of earlier times. In the days when the idea that God is love had
not become the central feature of Christianity, when God was regarded
rather as a judge, just but therefore severe, suffering humanity
felt the need of a more approachable divine personality. This place
of intermediary between man and divine justice was taken in part by
Our Lady, the Divine Mother, and almost countless are the _Miracles
de Notre Dame_, the tales of aid afforded by her to human beings in
distress. A similar part was played to some extent by each of the
popular saints, but above all by St. Nicholas, who was the principal
agent in many stories of this kind.

It is my purpose, then, to take up in detail the story of St. Nicholas
as found in these earlier records, which reflect so well the devotion
felt for the most thoroughly human of all the saints. Though many
elements pass the bounds of modern credulity, they serve to express
the loving reverence felt for the saint who, second only to Our Lady
herself, was looked to as the beneficent source of aid in times of
human distress, and at the same time serve to explain some of the most
interesting of popular customs.



The legendary story of St. Nicholas has certain features that
distinguish it from the legendary stories of other saints. The story of
St. Nicholas is not a narrative of a single dramatic achievement, like
that in the life of St. George, nor of a glorious martyrdom, like that
of a St. Sebastian or a St. Cecilia. Nor is the name of St. Nicholas
associated with the diffusion of the Christian faith like that of St.
Augustine, St. Boniface, or St. Patrick, nor with the exposition of
Christian doctrine, like that of St. Jerome or St. Bernard. More like,
it is yet different from, that story of perfect exemplification of
the Christian life, the life story of St. Francis. The story of St.
Nicholas consists almost entirely of a series of beneficent deeds, of
aid afforded humanity in distress, accomplished either by St. Nicholas
during his lifetime or through his intervention after death. As a
benefactor he ranks almost with Divinity in his aid rendered, and even
lacks the severity of the justice that attends Divine awards.

The conception of St. Nicholas, then, is almost that of beneficence
incarnate. The minor traits of his personality, however, the nature of
his parentage, the time details in his life history, the exact manner
of his death, are left in comparative obscurity. The very vagueness of
the information concerning him serves in great measure to explain the
remarkable variety of the rôles he has assumed in the world’s history.
Only the nebulous ideas that have prevailed concerning him have made
it possible that in Scandinavia his name should be connected with that
of a hostile water demon, known in English as the “Old Nick,” while
in certain parts of Siberia he receives divine honor and is worshiped
as the “Russian god Nicolo.” A similar reason explains how he comes
to be regarded as patron saint of classes of people as dissimilar
as schoolboys, parish clerks, unwedded maids, seamen, pirates, and
thieves, how it is possible to associate him with the whimsical
children’s friend Santa Claus.

[Illustration: Beato Angelico. Three Scenes from the Early Life of St.


The story of the boyhood of St. Nicholas, reverent in tone and not
a little tinged with the supernatural, is of the kind that one
might well look for in the legendary account of one whose memory is
entirely associated with kindness and generosity. St. Nicholas was
born, the Golden Legend[35] tells us, ‘in the city of Patras in Asia
Minor, of rich and holy kin. His father was Epiphanes, and his mother
Johane. He was begotten in the first flower of their age, and from
that time forthon they lived in continence and led an heavenly life.’
From the first the boy Nicholas manifested signs of extreme piety,
observing fasting periods even in earliest infancy. The story runs:
“Then, the first day that he was washed and bained, he addressed
himself right up in the bason, and he would not take the breast nor
the pap but once on Wednesday and once on Friday, and in his young
age he eschewed the plays and japes of other young children. He used
and haunted gladly holy church; and all that he might understand of
holy scripture, he executed it in deed and work after his power.” Thus
he is represented in the narrative of the Golden Legend. Thus too he
is represented in the series of scenes painted by Beato Angelico and
preserved in the Vatican gallery. In these interesting paintings there
is a scene representing the infant Nicholas at the time of his birth
standing up in the basin, and a second scene where he is represented
in a flower-covered ground in front of a church, devoutly standing in
front of a group of worshipers listening to the words of a bishop who
preaches from above in an outside pulpit. Chaucer’s Prioress, speaking
of the saintly boy murdered by the Jews, remarks:

    “But ay, when I remembre on this matere,
    Seint Nicholas stant ever in my presence,
    For he so yong to Christ did reverence.”

It is not hard to see why he should have been chosen as patron saint
of children, unless, indeed, the story of his pious childhood itself
originates from the fact that he was the patron saint of children. In
the words of the English _Liber Festivalis_, “his parents called him
Nycolas, that is a mannes name, but he kepeth the name of a child, for
he chose to kepe vertue, meknes, and simplenes, and without malice....
And therefore, children don him worship before all other saints.”

But it is to be feared that the exemplary boyhood of St. Nicholas
would hardly in itself have sufficed to give him so firm a hold on the
affections of children. Children of our day, or shall we say of the day
that has just passed, in the stories provided them, not infrequently
read of boys almost equally exemplary, without being unduly moved to
love, reverence, or emulation. A more sure road to the affections of
children is through benefits received or at least stories of benefits
rendered. Children love and honor St. Nicholas because they conceive of
the spirit of St. Nicholas as a guardian angel, not only looking after
their safety and well-being, but bringing them substantial rewards, and
many of the stories told of him, led children to feel toward him the
warmest gratitude and at the same time to look to him as a semi-divine
protector in time of trouble.

St. Nicholas was particularly the patron saint of schoolboys, and one
of the best known of the stories of protection afforded by him is thus
told in the Golden Legend:[36]

    A man, for the love of his son, that went to school for to learn,
    hallowed, every year, the feast of S. Nicholas much solemnly. On
    a time it happed that the father had to make ready the dinner,
    and called many clerks [schoolboys] to this dinner. And the devil
    came to the gate in the habit of a pilgrim for to demand alms;
    and the father anon commanded his son that he should give alms
    to the pilgrim. He followed him as he went for to give him alms,
    and when he came to the quarfox the devil caught the child and
    strangled him. And when the father heard this he sorrowed much
    strongly and wept, and bare the body into his chamber, and began
    to cry for sorrow, and say: Bright sweet son, how is it with thee?
    S. Nicholas, is this the guerdon that ye have done to me because
    I have so long served you? And as he said these words, and other
    semblable, the child opened his eyes, and awoke like as he had been
    asleep, and arose up before all, and was raised from death to life.

The clerks assembled at the dinner in honor of St. Nicholas, the devil
in pilgrim guise seeking alms at the door, and later strangling the
boy who has followed him outside, and the boy on the bed being brought
to life through influence of his protector saint, all with entire
disregard to unity of time, are represented in one of the animated
scenes of the painting by Lorenzetti in Florence, in which in quaintly
primitive fashion is anticipated the method of the modern motion

[Illustration: A. Lorenzetti. The Young Clerk Strangled by the Devil at
the Feast on St. Nicholas’ Eve and Brought to Life by the Saint.


Another story with St. Nicholas in his favorite rôle is thus told in
the Golden Legend:

    There was another rich man that by the merits of S. Nicholas had
    a son and called him: _Deus dedit_, “God gave.” And this rich man
    did do make a chapel of S. Nicholas in his dwelling place; and did
    do hallow every year the feast of S. Nicholas. And this manor was
    set by the land of the Agarians. This child was taken prisoner,
    and deputed to serve the king. The year following, and the day that
    the father held devoutly the feast of S. Nicholas, the child held a
    precious cup tofore the king, and remembered his prise, the sorrow
    of his friends, and the joy that was made that day in the house of
    his father, and began to sigh sore high. And the king demanded him
    what ailed him and the cause of his sighing; and he told him every
    word wholly. And when the king knew it, he said to him; Whatsomever
    thy Nicholas do or do not, thou shalt abide here with us. And
    suddenly there blew a much strong wind, that made all the house
    to tremble, and the child was ravished with the cup, and was set
    tofore the gate where his father held the solemnity of S. Nicholas,
    in such wise that they all demeaned great joy.

A variant version of this story is included in the Golden Legend. It
runs as follows:

    And some say that this child was of Normandy, and went oversea, and
    was taken by the sowdan, which made him oft to be beaten before
    him. And as he was beaten on a S. Nicholas day, and was set in
    prison, he prayed to S. Nicholas as well for the beating that he
    suffered, as for the great joy that he was wont to have on that day
    of S. Nicholas. And when he had long prayed and sighed, he fell
    asleep, and when he awoke he found himself in the chapel of his
    father, whereas much joy was made for him.

Wace, the twelfth-century author of a life of St. Nicholas in French
verse, supplies the introductory part of this story only briefly
alluded to in the Golden Legend version. He tells of the rich merchant
of Alexandria named Getro, and his wife, Eufrosine, who have longed in
vain for children. Getro hears of St. Nicholas and goes to the city
where St. Nicholas lives, to seek his aid. But he finds the saint
dead and on his bier. He asks for some of the saint’s clothes. These
he bears as holy relics to Alexandria and erects a church for them.
The next December, on St. Nicholas’ day, a son is born and receives
the name Deudoné. This son is carried off by robbers and sold to the
emperor, whom he serves as cup-bearer. On St. Nicholas’ day the boy
weeps but is cruelly beaten for it. At the same time his father in
Alexandria is praying to St. Nicholas, and on rising from prayer, finds
his son, safely restored, standing before him. After that, naturally,
there is no neglect to worship St. Nicholas on his festival day.

This story seems to be closely connected with the development of St.
Nicholas worship in western Europe following the removal of his relics
to Bari, Italy. General veneration of the saint, long popular in the
East, seems to increase in the West after that event. The particular
incident just recorded is followed in Wace by these words:

    Devant ceo ne trovons pas
    qui si servist saint Nicholas,

which may be translated, “Before this we do not find worshipers of
Saint Nicholas,” and seem to indicate that the composition of Wace was
connected in some way with a newly instituted church festival.

The story was one kept particularly in memory since, as remains to be
seen, it formed the subject of a schoolboy play enacted by the boys on
St. Nicholas’ eve. It also forms the subject of two of the scenes in
fresco, possibly by Giottino, possibly by Giotto himself, as a young
man, in the church of St. Francis at Assisi. The first scene in these
frescoes represents a boy prisoner of a Saracen king in the act of
raising a cup to his lord seated at table, when St. Nicholas, hovering
above, grasps him by the hair to bear him away. The second scene
represents St. Nicholas, bringing back the boy, with the cup still in
his hands, and restoring him to the astonished father and mother seated
at table. The scene is an animated one. The father with both arms
embraces his son, and the mother stretches out her arms. A youth in
the group, with clasped hands looks to heaven, and a monk, astonished,
lifts his arms. Not least of all, a little dog betrays his recognition
of the restored boy.[37]

Another story of this kind is thus told in the Golden Legend:

    Another nobleman prayed to S. Nicholas that he would, by his
    merits, get of our Lord that he might have a son, and promised
    that he would bring his son to the church, and would offer him
    a cup of gold. Then the son was born and came to age, and the
    father commanded to make a cup, and the cup pleased him much, and
    he retained it for himself, and did do make another of the same
    value. And they went sailing in a ship toward the church of S.
    Nicholas, and when the child would have filled the cup, he fell
    into the water with the cup and anon was lost, and came no more up.
    Yet nevertheless the father performed his avow, in weeping much
    tenderly for his son; and when he came to the altar of S. Nicholas
    he offered the second cup, and when he had offered it, it fell
    down, like as one had cast it under the altar. And he took it up
    and set it again upon the altar, and then yet was it cast further
    than tofore, and yet he took it up and remised it the third time
    upon the altar; and it was thrown again further than tofore. Of
    which thing all they that were there marvelled, and men came for
    to see this thing. And anon, the child that had fallen in the sea,
    came again prestly before them all, and brought in his hands the
    first cup, and recounted to the people that, anon as he was fallen
    in the sea, the blessed S. Nicholas came and kept him that he had
    none harm. And thus the father was glad and offered to S. Nicholas
    both the two cups.

This story is represented in one of the frescoed scenes in the
Chapel of the Sacrament at Santa Croce in Florence and in the
Franciscan Church at Assisi. It also forms one of the scenes carved on
the Winchester baptismal font.

[Illustration: Fresco at S. Croce, Attributed to G. Starnina. St.
Nicholas Restores to his Father the Son with the Cup lost at Sea.


Still another story in which St. Nicholas appears as the guardian angel
of schoolboys, is the one dealing with the resuscitation of the three
schoolboys murdered on their journey home. The story, which appears in
a number of variant forms, relates how three boys, on their journey
home from school, take lodging at an inn, or as some versions have it,
farmhouse. In the night the treacherous host and hostess murder the
boys, cut up their three bodies, and throw the pieces into casks used
for salting meat. In the morning St. Nicholas appears and calls the
guilty ones to task. They deny guilt, but are convicted when the saint
causes the boys, sound of body and limb, to arise from the casks. This
story, of repellent detail, is “not known among the Greeks, who are so
devoted to St. Nicholas.”[38] It is also not included in the Golden
Legend nor in the Roman _Breviary_. It seems to have been one of the
elements added to the legend after the development of St. Nicholas
worship in the West. Its earliest record is said to be that in the
French life of St. Nicholas by Wace. With the incident in the story,
Wace connects the great honor paid to St. Nicholas by schoolboys.
“Because,” says Wace, “he did such honor to schoolboys, they celebrate
this day [Dec. 6] by reading and singing and reciting the miracles of
St. Nicholas.”

Different attempts have been made to explain the origin of this, at
first, repellent story. One critic finds the explanation of the story
in the conventional methods of medieval art. He explains it as growing
out of a misinterpretation of an illustration representing one of
the incidents in the earlier story of St. Nicholas, the well-known
story of the succor lent by St. Nicholas to the three officers
condemned to death by Constantine. The three captives, after the
manner of the Middle Ages, were supposedly represented in a tower,
and in order to make the scene more visible, only the upper part of
the tower was represented. Then, too, in order to bring about the
desired subordination of human to divine, the medieval artist would
reduce the size of tower and prisoners in relation to the intervening
saint, so that the tower would become, in appearance, a cask, and
the three officers, little boys. From this pictorial representation
misunderstood, if we adopt this theory, arose the story of the three
boys brought to life from the packing cask.[38]

[Illustration: L. di Bicci (?). St. Nicholas and the Murdered

Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Another explanation of the story is to be found in the association,
to be discussed later, between St. Nicholas and the northern water
demon known as “Nix” or “Old Nick.” According to belief prevalent in
northern lands, the souls of drowned people are kept by Nix in pots.
When one remembers that souls were generally represented in the form
of children, one may see the close analogy between the pots of the
water demon and the tubs from which St. Nicholas resuscitated the

Mrs. Jameson has still another explanation to offer. To use her own
words: “The story is sometimes treated as a religious allegory,
referring to the conversion of sinners or unbelievers. In some pictures
the host is represented as a demon with hoofs and claws.”

The explanations just offered, afford interesting illustration of the
ingenuity of the folk-lorist but seem superfluous. The tale could
hardly be improved on for the use it serves, to excite the gratitude of
young schoolboys. The details, repellent perhaps to the modern adult,
trained in the school of modern naturalism, are, if one stops to think,
features characteristic of the world’s classic folk-tales for children.
The ogre-like ferocity of the host and hostess where the boys lodged,
is quite in keeping with the tone of little Red Riding Hood or of

In any event we may infer popularity of this tale from its wide
prevalence. The central scene of the famous story is represented among
the sculptured scenes of the church of St. Nicholas at Bari, and among
the frescoed scenes at Santa Croce. It is pictured on the pages of the
Salisbury missal and forms the subject of several canvas paintings by
early artists. Up to within recent times a picture of St. Nicholas
standing by a tub from which were emerging three boys, was to be
seen painted on the side of a prominent house in Amsterdam, with the
inscription “Sinterklaes.”[40] It was one of the stories dramatically
presented by medieval schoolboys on St. Nicholas’ eve. Down to our own
day it has continued to be the subject of a song used in the popular
dances of the Faröe Islands. The youths rising from the cask became
a constant symbol used in representing St. Nicholas. In the churches
of Brittany, and doubtless elsewhere in France and Belgium, among the
images of saints occupying places on the pillars within the church,
or standing as sentinels on each side of the recessed portals, St.
Nicholas is frequently to be met with, always to be recognized by his
conventional pedestal formed by the tub from which are issuing the
three saved boys.

[Illustration: F. Pesellino. St. Nicholas and the Murdered Schoolboys.


A charming version of the story appears in a French folk-song,
effectively rendered by Yvette Guilbert appropriately garbed in the
robes of the kindly bishop. Anatole France, too, has brought to bear
on this story, his gift of paradox in a highly diverting version
containing a sequel in which the innocent St. Nicholas suffers every
conceivable form of injury from the three rescued boys, who prove to be
incarnations of three varied forms of human depravity.

St. Nicholas, the youth of exemplary piety, we may hope inspired
proper emulation on the part of schoolboys. St. Nicholas, the generous
protector, and friend, we may be sure was an object of schoolboy
gratitude and love. The memory of his kindly deeds was kept alive
not only in recited story, but in carved stone and painted wall. The
boys themselves sang about them in beloved songs and enacted them
in spirited plays. But the beneficence of the kindly saint was not
confined to the past. The gifts mysteriously bestowed on the saint’s
festival eve have kept alive the feelings of gratitude, and through
the centuries boys have continued to look to St. Nicholas for aid and
protection. “St. Nicholas be thy speed,” facetiously remarks Launce,
to Speed who is about to give an exhibition of his ability to read.
Even in his athletics the English schoolboy has continued to invoke
the assistance of his patron saint. According to Brand,[41] if a boy
is pursued and about to be caught, the cry of _Nic’las_ entitles him
to a suspension of the play for a moment. Or if he is not ready, or is
obliged to stop, to fasten his shoe or make other readjustment, the
same magic word affords him protection. One is reluctant to associate
St. Nicholas with the methods, not always above question, sometimes
used by the athlete in order to gain time or wind, but this continued
use of the name of Nicholas in sports bears eloquent testimony to the
place their saint has occupied in the hearts of schoolboys.

[Illustration: A. Lorenzetti. St. Nicholas Providing the Dower for the
Three Maidens.




Reference has already been made to the fact that after the introduction
of Christianity the name of St. Nicholas came to be associated with
a number of customs antedating Christianity and that to some extent,
mainly superficially, the earlier customs were influenced by the new
association. Thus the gift giving of apples and pears and nuts and of
rods to children, characteristic of the pre-Christian autumn festivals,
was brought into association with St. Nicholas, probably largely
because the pre-Christian festival coincided in time with the time of
the St. Nicholas celebration, December sixth. With the transfer of this
old custom to the Christmas celebration, the custom of giving gifts
to children coalesced with another, an adult custom of gift giving,
derived from the Roman _strenæ_, a feature of the Roman celebration of
the Kalends of January, and surviving distinctly in Latin countries,
notably in the _étrennes_ of the French New Year’s Day. With both of
these customs coalescing in the general gift giving of Christmas, in
America at least, is still associated the name of Santa Claus, or St.

Aside from the coincidence in time between the St. Nicholas festival
and the pagan children’s festival, there was also a point of contact
in one of the best-known of the stories in the life of St. Nicholas,
which, associated with the earlier custom at first in a superficial
way, in time affected its character. The story in question is the
famous one of the young man St. Nicholas and his gifts to the dowerless
maidens. This story in the condensed, not too lively, version in the
Golden Legend, runs as follows:

    And when his father and mother were departed out of this life, he
    [the young man Nicholas] began to think how he might distribute
    his riches, and not to the praising of the world but to the honor
    and glory of God. And it was so that one, his neighbour, had
    then three daughters, virgins, and he was a nobleman: but for
    the poverty of them together, they were constrained, and in very
    purpose to abandon them to the sin of lechery, so that by the gain
    and winning of their infamy they might be sustained. And when
    the holy man Nicholas knew hereof he had great horror of this
    villainy, and threw by night secretly into the house of the man a
    mass of gold wrapped in a cloth. And when the man arose in the
    morning, he found this mass of gold, and rendered to God therefor
    great thankings, and therwith he married his oldest daughter. And
    a little while after this holy hermit of God threw in another mass
    of gold, which the man found and thanked God, and purposed to wake
    for to know him that had aided him in his poverty. And after a few
    days Nicholas doubled the mass of the gold, and cast it into the
    house of this man. He awoke by the sound of the gold and followed
    Nicholas, which fled from him, and he said to him: “Sir, flee not
    away so but that I may see and know thee.” Then he ran after him
    more hastily and knew that it was Nicholas; and anon he kneeled
    down, and would have kissed his feet, but the holy man would not,
    but required him not to tell nor discover this thing as long as he

[Illustration: Florentine School (Fifteenth Century). St. Nicholas and
the Three Maidens.]

This is the story which in general has linked the name of St. Nicholas
particularly with the virtue of generosity. For instance, in Dante’s
_Purgatorio_ the shade of Hugh Capet introduces the name of Nicholas in
this connection.

    Esso parlava ancor della largezza
    che fece Niccolao alle pulcelle,
    per condurre ad onor lor giovenezza.

    “It spoke further of the generosity of Nicholas toward the maidens
    in order to conduct their youth to honor.”

                                                   Canto xx., vo. 31-33.

Among schoolboys the story was particularly well known. It formed the
subject of one of the plays performed by them on St. Nicholas’ eve. It,
also, more frequently than any other incident in his life story, forms
the subject of pictures by Byzantine and early Italian painters. The
pictures representing the dejected father and the daughters preparing
for bed, one of the daughters sometimes dutifully pulling off her
father’s boots, and the youth St. Nicholas on the outside of the house
furtively casting through an open window his gifts of gold, inevitably
bring to mind the later methods of gift bestowing employed by Santa
Claus. That the connection was felt in earlier times is made clear from
earlier references to the custom, especially in the form of Protestant
objection. For instance, a preacher of Lauban in 1608, referring to
St. Nicholas’ gifts to the maidens, remarks: “Hence comes the custom
that some parents lay something on the bed for children and say St.
Nicholas has given it, which is an evil custom since by it the children
are directed to St. Nicholas when we know that not St. Nicholas but the
holy Christ Child gives us everything good for body or for soul.”[42]
Another Protestant preacher of the same period makes similar objection,
saying: “One had better tell the children that the dear Christ Child
sent such gifts; if they shall be good, better ones will follow on
Christmas day.” The surreptitious manner of conveying the gifts to the
children must have been an old practice as may be inferred from the
incident recorded of the young man of the sixteenth century who, in
attempting to imitate St. Nicholas, fell through an opening left for
grain and nearly lost his life.[43]

[Illustration: L. di Bicci (?). St. Nicholas and the Three Maidens.

Metropolitan Museum of Art]

That the association of St. Nicholas with gift giving was known in
England in the sixteenth century, is shown by the following lines
from Barnabe Googe’s _Popish Kingdom_, a translation from the _Regnum
Antichristi_ by Naogeorgus:

    “Saint Nicholas money used to give to maidens secretly.
    Who that be still may use his wonted liberality;
    The mothers all their children on the eve do cause to fast,
    And when they every one at night in senseless sleep are cast,
    Both apples, nuts, and pears they bring, and other things beside,
    As caps, and shoes and petticoats, with other things they hide,
    And in the morning found, they say, ‘Saint Nicholas this

Down to within recent times in the church of S. Nicola in Carcere at
Rome, the generosity of St. Nicholas was annually commemorated, by the
giving of gifts to poor children in the sacristy after the memorial
Mass on St. Nicholas’ day. This custom at Rome seems to have been
discontinued, but the memory of it, and the attending hopes for gifts,
are not extinct, as the present writer had opportunity to observe when
attending services in honor of St. Nicholas at this church on St.
Nicholas’ day, in 1914. After the Mass a throng of expectant parents
and children followed the officiating priest into the sacristy and
were permitted to kiss the ring on the hand of the officiating priest,
but in their hope for the customary presents, met with keenly felt

But although in modern times deprived somewhat of the gratitude once
felt for him as a giver of gifts, St. Nicholas for centuries has been
honored on account of another phase of his kindly art, the procuring
of husbands for marriageable girls. Reference has already been made to
the fact that in the Netherlands the special cakes of the St. Nicholas
festival are said to perpetuate a custom originated by the three
daughters in the story, who on their marriage day are said to have
baked such cakes and distributed them among poor children as a sign of

Honor paid to St. Nicholas by unwedded maids goes back a great many
centuries. Among Normans of the twelfth century he was regarded as the
peculiar saint of spinsters, who invoked him in order to procure speedy

The same idea is in evidence in English popular carols, in which St.
Nicholas is praised particularly as a provider of husbands. One song of
seven stanzas recites the story of how St. Nicholas saved the maidens,
and ends with the stanza:

    “Seynt Nicholas, at the townys ende,
    Consoylid the maydens hom to wynde,
    And throw Godes grace he xulde hem synde
      Husbondes thre, good and kind.”

The refrain is:

    “Alle maydenis for Godes Grace,
    Worchepe ye seynt Nicolas.”[46]

One of the most important of marriages in English history is associated
with this St. Nicholas custom. In one of Bishop Fisher’s sermons it is
recorded of Margaret, Countess of Richmond, mother of Henry VII., “that
she prayed to St. Nicholas, the patron and helper of all true maydens,
when nine years old, about the choice of a husband; and that the saint
appeared to her in a vision and announced the Earl of Richmond.”[47]

From another ancient authority we have similar testimony,[48] as

    St. Nicholas was likewise venerated as the protector of virgins;
    there are, or were until lately, numerous fantastical customs
    observed in Italy and various parts of France, in reference to that
    peculiar tutelary personage. In several convents it was customary,
    on the eve of St. Nicholas for the boarders (_sic_) to place each
    a silk stocking at the door of the apartment of the abbess with
    a piece of paper enclosed, recommending themselves to “great
    St. Nicholas of her chamber,” and the next day they were called
    together to witness the saint’s attention, who never failed to fill
    the stockings with sweetmeats and other trifles of that kind, with
    which these credulous virgins made a general feast.

If the kindly saint, in this case, was not in position to provide
husbands, he at least provided agreeable consolation.

The conception of St. Nicholas as the protector of maidens and the
provider of husbands and the association of this idea with the story
of his generous act toward the three maidens in distress, is by no
means extinct in our own times, as is shown by the following account of
English customs recorded in a recent newspaper:[49]

    In the mining districts of the North of England they still
    maintain the pleasant custom of collecting “maidens’ purses” on
    Christmas eve.

    These purses, in most cases subscribed for by the mining folk
    themselves, are intended as marriage portions for girls undowered
    with worldly wealth, who are expecting to be led to the altar. On
    Christmas eve the full purse is stealthily thrown in at the girl’s
    window to avoid any possibility of wounding her feelings.

    In one parish four purses are provided every Christmas eve by
    a woman now rich, who makes no secret of the fact that her own
    wedding day was brightened by the gift thrown in at the window when
    she was a miner’s lass.

[Illustration: L. di Bicci. Madonna and Child and Various Saints with
their Conventional Emblems.


Among the images of saints in France and other northern countries of
Europe, as has already been remarked, the tub with the three saved
youths is the conventional sign of St. Nicholas. Italian artists,
on the other hand, represent St. Nicholas in bishop’s garb and with
three golden balls, commonly on a book which he holds in his hand,
but sometimes in his cap or at his feet.[50] This conventional symbol
of the three balls is sometimes explained as alluding to the Trinity,
or to the loaves of bread used by the saint in feeding the poor in a
famine, but is more usually associated with the three gifts to the
three maidens, the balls of gold corresponding in appearance to the
handfuls of gold tied up in a handkerchief thrown in at the window by
St. Nicholas, in the representations of the scene.

Remote as at first thought may appear the connection between St.
Nicholas and pawnbrokers, it seems possible also to connect the three
balls, the conventional sign for St. Nicholas, with the more modern use
of the three balls as the sign of the professional money-lender. The
pawnbroker’s three balls have been sometimes explained as derived from
the arms of the Medici. A more generally received explanation is that
the three balls were used as a sign before their houses by the Lombard
bankers. “The three blue balls,” says Brand,[51] “prefixed to the doors
and windows of pawnbrokers’ shops (by the vulgar humorously enough said
to indicate that it is _two to one_ that the things are ever redeemed)
were in reality _the arms of a set of merchants from Lombardy_, who
were the first that publicly lent money on pledges. They dwelt together
on a street from them called Lombard Street, in London.” It has been
said that “the golden balls were originally three flat yellow effigies
of byzants, or gold coins, laid heraldically upon a sable field, but
that they were presently converted into balls the better to attract

A plausible explanation, which, however, remains to be proved, would
be found in the association of the three balls of the pawnbroker with
the three golden balls, the symbol of St. Nicholas, whom the Lombard
bankers might well have chosen as their patron saint. If one were
disposed to be uncharitable, one might call attention to the fact that
St. Nicholas was the patron saint not only of schoolboys and unwedded
maids, and as remains to be shown, of mariners, but also of pirates
and thieves, between whom and the kindly saint the connection is not,
at first thought, obvious, and one might try to show a relationship
between the pawnbroker who lends money on pledges, and the pirate
or thief who borrows money without a pledge. The suggestion is not
intended seriously, but it is seriously believed that the association
with St. Nicholas is not more unlikely in one case than in the other.
Confirmatory evidence is afforded by the legend of the saint, in
which is included an episode that seems to establish St. Nicholas as
the protector of the money-lender as firmly as the stories already
discussed associate him with the protection of boys and of maidens. In
the Golden Legend the story is told as follows:

    There was a man that had borrowed of a Jew a sum of money, and
    sware upon the altar of St. Nicholas that he would render and pay
    it again as soon as he might, and gave none other pledge. And
    this man held this money so long, that the Jew demanded and asked
    his money, and he said that he had paid him. Then the Jew made him
    to come before the law in judgment, and the oath was given to the
    debtor. And he brought with him an hollow staff, in which he had
    put the money in gold, and he leant upon the staff. And when he
    should make his oath and swear, he delivered his staff to the Jew
    to keep and hold whilst he should swear, and then sware that he had
    delivered more than he ought to him. And when he had made the oath,
    he demanded his staff again of the Jew, and he nothing knowing of
    his malice, delivered it to him. Then this deceiver went his way,
    and anon after, him list sore to sleep, and laid him in the way,
    and a cart with four wheels came with great force and slew him, and
    broke the staff with gold that it spread abroad. And when the Jew
    heard this, he came thither sore moved, and saw the fraud, and many
    said to him that he should take to him the gold; and he refused it,
    saying, But if he that was dead were not raised again to life by
    the merits of St. Nicholas, he would not receive it, and if he came
    again to life, he would receive baptism and become Christian. Then
    he that was dead arose, and the Jew was christened.

This story forms the subject of three spirited scenes in the frescoes
at Santa Croce, which represent the borrowing of the money, the oath on
the book before the altar of St. Nicholas, a place detail neglected in
the Golden Legend version, and the street scene where the sharper is
run over.

[Illustration: Fresco at S. Croce, Attributed to G. Starnina. Three
Scenes from the Story of St. Nicholas and the Jew Moneylender.


The singular reversal of the rôle usually assigned to the Jew in
medieval story is striking. The main purpose of the story seems to
be not so much to show the lack of appreciation on the part of St.
Nicholas of the sharp trick played, the kind of trick that medieval
story loved to record, especially when a Jew was the sufferer by the
chicanery, as to show the justice of St. Nicholas and perhaps, if we
are disposed to be skeptical about the truth of the story, owes its
origin to the desire to establish a relation of protectorship between
St. Nicholas and the money-lending class, as other stories established
him as the protector of schoolboys, of maidens, and of mariners.

Another of the best known stories of St. Nicholas, which tells of the
protection afforded a Jew on another occasion, remains to be recorded
in another connection.[53] In any event there seems to be good evidence
in the story of St. Nicholas for associating the three balls, his
conventional sign, with the three balls of the pawnbroker, and thus
establishing a connection, at first thought so far-fetched, between the
pawnbroker class and the story of the dowerless maids.



In all the representations of St. Nicholas, painting or image,
except those pictures dealing with his childhood, he appears with
the robes and insignia of a bishop. St. Nicholas is preëminently the
bishop-saint. Concerning his boyhood elevation to the episcopal rank,
legend has an interesting story to relate. Once more let us turn to the
Golden Legend, which relates the story as follows:

    After this the bishop of Mirea died and other bishops assembled for
    to purvey to this church a bishop. And there was, among the others,
    a bishop of great authority, and all the election was in him. And
    when he had warned all for to be in fastings and in prayers, this
    bishop heard that night a voice which said to him that, at the
    hour of matins, he should take heed to the doors of the church,
    and him that should come first to the church, and have the name of
    Nicholas they should sacre him bishop. And he showed this to the
    other bishops and admonished them for to be all in prayers; and he
    kept the doors. And this was a marvelous thing, for at the hour of
    matins, like as he had been sent from God, Nicholas arose tofore
    all other. And the bishop took him when he was come and demanded
    of him his name. And he, which was simple as a dove, inclined his
    head, and said: I have to name Nicholas. Then the bishop said to
    him: Nicholas, Servant and friend of God, for your holiness ye
    shall be bishop of this place. And sith they brought him to the
    church, howbeit that he refused it strongly, yet they set him in
    the chair. And he followed, as he did tofore in all things, in
    humility and honesty of manners. He woke in prayer and made his
    body lean, he eschewed company of women, he was humble in receiving
    all things, profitable in speaking, joyous in admonishing, and
    cruel in correcting.

This episode is the most celebrated in the life of St. Nicholas. It
is represented in a number of Italian paintings. The early morning
appearance of the boy Nicholas at the church and his surprise as he
learns of his election are presented in particularly lively manner in
one of the scenes from his life by Lorenzetti preserved at Florence.[54]

Interesting in itself, the story of the elevation of the boy Nicholas
to the rank of bishop also possesses interest because associated with
some of the most interesting of early church customs, those centering
about the personage of the Boy Bishop, or Nicholas Bishop as he was
sometimes called. The explanation of this interesting personage and the
customs associated with him, like that of Santa Claus, is a complex
one. In the case of the Boy Bishop customs once more we have probably
to do with the survival of pre-Christian customs with which the Church
associated new names and new meaning.

The spirit that dominated the Christian December celebration and many
details of the external form of celebration are to be found in the
Roman pagan customs of December and early January. The early winter
season in Roman times was a period of general relaxation and merry
making. In the week beginning December 17th and ending December 23d,
the ancient god Saturn resumed once more, for a limited period, the
benign rule of which he had been deprived by his more strenuous, shall
we say more efficient, son Jove. The week of the rule of Saturn, the
_Saturnalia_, was a time of revelry and riot. The serious was barred.
No business was allowed; drinking and games and noise prevailed. All
men were to be equal, rich and poor, slave and free. There was chosen
a mock king who could impose forfeits. The Roman New Year’s feast had
a similar character. As at the _Saturnalia_, masters drank and gambled
with slaves.[55] In the words of the Greek sophist, Libanius: “From the
minds of young people it (the New Year’s feast) removes two kinds
of dread: the dread of the schoolmaster and the dread of the stern

[Illustration: A. Lorenzetti. The Boy Nicholas Indicated as the Divine
Choice for Bishop.


The attitude of the Christian church toward pagan custom is well known.
Since it could not hope to extirpate old practice, it endeavored to
adapt it to Christian use, giving to it Christian meaning and, as far
as possible, Christian character. It aimed to make the birth of Christ,
and the associated events, the dominating idea in its celebration at
the beginning of winter. In spite of this intention, in the popular
customs of the Christmas season, even in the ceremonies of the Church,
there is apparent a survival of many features of pagan practice.
Especially in the practice of the week following Christmas, there
is to be observed the leveling or inversion of rank, the election
of a mock ruler, and the general relaxation of discipline that were
features of the pagan celebrations of the same season at Rome. Thus
in the three days immediately following Christmas, church discipline
was sufficiently relaxed to permit of revels in turn, by the lower
orders of clergy and by the choir boys. December 26th, St. Stephen’s
day, was the day for the deacons, since St. Stephen was a deacon. For
this day the deacons supplanted the higher dignitaries and took the
preëminence in the divine services. On Christmas night, the eve of St.
Stephen’s day, after vespers, the deacons formed a pompous procession
dressed in silk copes like priests. On St. Stephen’s day the deacons
performed the parts of the divine service. There was also a great deal
of mock ceremonial, and drinking and processions in the streets, with
visiting of houses and levying of contributions.[56] On the following
day, the day of St. John the Evangelist, the priests had their innings.
Features of their celebration were mock blessings and the proclamation
of a ribald form of indulgence. On the eve of Innocents’ day (Dec.
28th), the priests gave way to the choir boys, “the children,” for
the celebration of Childermas. On Circumcision Day (Jan. 1st), the
sub-deacons, the “rookies” among the priestly orders, took their turn
at occupying the places of the higher clergy.

The day of the sub-deacons, possibly because of its coincidence with
the Roman Kalends, was celebrated in a particularly mad fashion. In
the words “_Deposuit potentes de sede: et exaltavit humiles_” sung in
the _Magnificat_ at Vespers, was found the suggestion for a general
inversion in rank. For the time, the places of rank and honor were
taken by the lowly sub-deacons. The sacred services were burlesqued in
most shocking fashion varying in different places. In Paris[57] in
the fifteenth century, “priests danced in the choir dressed as women,
panders, or minstrels. Wanton songs were sung. Black puddings were
eaten at the horn of the altar while mass was being celebrated, and
the altar was censed with ashes or by the smoke from the soles of old
shoes.” Performers without the church were even more irreverent and
riotous in character.

The choir boy customs of Holy Innocents’ day were somewhat like those
described, although more restrained in character, since, as Mr.
Chambers has remarked, boys were more amenable to discipline than
the older clergy. There was a similar inversion of rank and, within
limit, a similar burlesque of custom, on this day the choir boys taking
precedence in rank, presided over by one of their number, usually
elected on St. Nicholas’ day, with the title of Boy Bishop, or Nicholas

A central feature of the celebration was a pompous church procession
following vespers on Childermas eve. In this procession the inversion
of rank was a feature. The book, the censer, and the candles, usually
borne by boys, on this occasion were borne by reverend canons, and
when at the end of the ceremony the procession returned to the choir,
the boys took the places of dignity in the higher stalls, with the Boy
Bishop in the stall of the bishop or dean. Then followed a feature
doubtless in the estimation of the boys not less important than the
procession, namely a supper provided by one of the church dignitaries.

On Innocents’ day all the services, including the Mass, were performed
by the boys with their “Bishop,” also in many places the “Bishop”
preached a sermon. Nor were the honor and dignity of the Boy Bishop
confined to the ceremonies within the church. In mounted procession,
with attendant boy prebends, he visited other religious houses and
houses of neighboring people of prominence, singing songs and imparting
blessings in the expectation of festal entertainment and of money gifts
as well. In the year 1555 the “chylde byshope” of St. Paul’s with his
company visited Queen Mary at St. James’s and sang a song before her
both on St. Nicholas’ day (Dec. 6th) and on Innocents’ day (Dec. 28th).
The amounts collected on these occasions were considerable. Robert de
Holme,[58] who was “Bishop” at York, received from the choirmaster, who
served as treasurer, in 1369, the sum of £3 15s. 1½d. But this was only
a part of the receipts, for at intervals during the fortnight following
Christmas, the “Bishop” with his troupe made trips in the neighborhood
which netted handsome profit, the countess of Northumberland alone
contributing twenty shillings and a gold ring.[59] In Aberdeen the
master of the grammar school was paid by a collection taken when he
went the rounds with the “Bishop.” That this source of revenue was not
a matter of trivial importance may be inferred from the interesting
statement in the municipal registers that “he hes na uder fee to leif

Some interesting details regarding French observance of the Boy Bishop
custom have been garnered by Mr. Chambers from the records for Toul. At
that place

    the expenses of the feast, with the exception of the dinner on
    the day after Innocents’ day, which came out of the disciplinary
    fines, are assigned by the statutes to the canons in the order of
    their appointment. The responsible canon must give a supper on
    Innocents’ day, and on the following day a dessert out of what
    is over. He must also provide the “Bishop” with a horse, gloves,
    and a _biretta_ when he rides abroad. At the supper a curious
    ceremony took place. The canon returned thanks to the “Bishop,”
    apologized for any shortcomings in the preparations, and finally
    handed the “Bishop” a cap of rosemary or other flowers, which was
    then conferred upon the canon to whose lot it would fall to provide
    the feast for the next anniversary. Should the canon disregard
    his duties the boys and sub-deacons were entitled to hang up a
    black cope on a candlestick in the middle of the choir _in illius
    vituperium_ for as long as they might choose.

The elaborateness, too, of the manner of celebration, as well as the
constant association with St. Nicholas, may be inferred from the
following Northumberland inventory of robes and ornaments belonging to
one of these Boy Bishops:[60]

    Imprimis, i. myter, well garnished with perle and precious stones,
    with nowches of silver and gilt before and behind. Item, iiii.
    rynges of silver and gilt, with four ridde precious stones in them.
    Item, i. pontifical with silver and gilt, with a blue stone in
    hytt. Item, i. owche, broken, silver and gilt, with iiii. precious
    stones, and a perle in the mydds. Item, a croose, with a staff of
    coper and gilt, with the ymage of St. Nicolas in the mydds. Item,
    i. vestment, redde, with lyons, with silver, with brydds of gold in
    the orferes of the same. Item, i. albe to the same, with starres in
    the paro. Item, i. white cope, stayned with tristells and orferes,
    redde sylke, with does of gold, and whytt napkins about the necks.
    Item, iiii. copes, blew sylk with red orferes, trayled, with whitt
    braunchis and flowers. Item, i. steyned cloth of the ymage of St.
    Nicholas. Item, i. taberd of skarlet, and a hodde thereto lyned
    with whitt sylk. Item, a hode of skarlett, lyned with blue sylk.

The earliest known reference to the Boy Bishop custom is from St.
Gall in the year 911. King Conrad I. was visiting Bishop Solomon of
Constance and heard so much of the Vespers procession at St. Gall that
he determined to visit the monastery at the time of the revels. He
found it “all very amusing and especially the procession of children,
so grave and sedate that even when Conrad bade his train roll apples
along the aisle, they did not budge.”[61] In later years the custom
lost much of its early sobriety, although doubtless a great deal of
dignity, real or assumed, persisted in the church procession. The
custom pervaded most of the countries of Europe in the following

In France it was not abolished until 1721. At Mainz, in Germany, it was
not wholly extinct in 1779.[62] In Belgium in the nineteenth century
there survived a number of popular customs showing for the celebration
of Innocents’ day of the present the same kind of inversion of
authority that characterized the Boy Bishop customs of earlier times.
Innocents’ day is in Belgium more than in other countries a popular
festival, making up somewhat for the fact that in Belgium, Christmas
is less of a children’s celebration than in other Teutonic countries,
or perhaps owing to the greater importance of St. Nicholas customs in
the Netherlands than in other countries. In any event, in Belgium,
Innocents’ day is a real children’s festival: children are masters in
the house, and parents must obey them. At Antwerp, in Brabant, and in
some parts of the county of Limbourg, little boys and girls dress up
for the day as papas and mammas. Usually the youngest of the family
receives the key to the pantry and orders in the kitchen the meals for
the day.[63]

In England the Boy Bishop custom, which came to an end in the sixteenth
century under Reformation influence, once prevailed throughout the
length and breadth of the land--at first in cathedrals, collegiate
churches, and schools, later “in every parish church where there
was a sufficient band of choristers to furnish forth the Boy Bishop
ceremonial, or sufficiently well-to-do parishioners to be worth laying
under contribution.”[64]

The relation of the Boy Bishop to St. Nicholas customs offers a
number of difficulties to explain. Mr. Chambers leans to the view
that the custom was originally associated with St. Nicholas’ day,
an opinion supported by the fact that the “Bishop” was elected
on the eve of St. Nicholas. But he believes that, like other St.
Nicholas customs, the Santa Claus custom for instance, it was later
transferred to the Christmas season. Something, however, may be said
for a contrary explanation. It is an established fact that medieval
schools and universities had their origin in the song schools of
the Church; consequently in schools and universities there survived
customs originally appropriate only to choir boys. In this way might
be transferred a custom observed by choir boys on the festival at
Holy Innocents’ day (Dec. 28th), to St. Nicholas’ day (Dec. 6th),
the festival day of schoolboys, and the Boy Bishop of Innocents’ day
get the name of _Episcopus Nicholatensis_, “Nicholas Bishop,” or by
an admirable Latin pun at Eton, “_Episcopus Nihilensis_,” “Bishop of
Nothing.” There is evident relationship between the custom of the Boy
Bishop and the story of St. Nicholas elected bishop when a boy. Did the
custom grow out of the story, or as is so often the case, did the story
originate as an explanation of an established custom?

Oliver Wendell Holmes, on the occasion of a visit paid, late in life,
to Westminster Abbey, singles out from “amidst all the imposing
recollections of the ancient edifice,” one that impressed him “in the
inverse ratio of its importance, ... the little holes in the stones,
in one place, where the boys of the choir used to play marbles.” In
a similar way it may be remarked that among all the magnificent
ceremonies in the history of the Church, few are more impressive than
those associated with the Boy Bishop, or Nicholas Bishop. The choir
boy, exercising his rule over his fellow boys, riding with them in
parade about the city or surrounding country, or for the nonce lording
it over his pompous superiors and indulging in playful parody of the
ceremonies in which throughout the year he has taken a not always too
patient part,--all this affords us a glimpse at natural boy nature
centuries ago.



It will have been noted that St. Nicholas is not only the patron saint
of youths, but is himself a youthful saint. His most distinctive
deeds, at least the deeds about the memory of which have most been
interwoven popular customs, are deeds performed by him as a young man.
The distinctive feature about his election as bishop was that he was
elected when a mere youth. But before his election as bishop he had
already distinguished himself by his act of generosity in saving the
three daughters of the impoverished nobleman. Also, according to the
account of his life in the Roman Breviary, the act upon which is based
his reputation as protector of seamen was accomplished by him as a
young man when on a pious pilgrimage, on the return from which he was
miraculously directed to Myra, there to be chosen bishop. In a way,
then, the election as bishop forms a kind of climax to a series of
youthful accomplishments.

But the life story of St. Nicholas differs from the typical saint’s
legend in that it is not the record of one single achievement that
absorbed all the energies of the story’s hero and whose accomplishment
formed a dramatic close. On the contrary, as already remarked, his
legend is made up of a series of beneficent acts, in part accomplished
by the living saint, in part accomplished by him after death serving
as a protecting spirit. Besides the youthful deeds already discussed,
there remain to be recorded a number of others, some of them hardly
less well known than the ones already considered, others not so widely
known but of interest, not only in themselves, but as revealing the
varied aspects of the kindness of St. Nicholas and showing the enduring
character of his fame.

[Illustration: A. Lorenzetti. St. Nicholas Saving a City in Time of


First there remain in the Golden Legend two well known stories that
deserve to be included here. One of these, in which St. Nicholas
accomplished an ultra-modern function, that of “Food Comptroller,” will
make clear why he was popular as the patron saint of cities. The story

    It was so on a time that all the province of S. Nicolas suffered
    great famine, in such wise that victual failed. And then this holy
    man heard say that certain ships laden with wheat were arrived in
    the haven. And anon he went thither and prayed the mariners that
    they would succor the perished at least with an hundred muyes of
    wheat of every ship. And they said: Father, we dare not, for it
    is meted and measured, and we must give reckoning thereof in the
    garners of the emperor in Alexandria. And the holy man said to
    them: Do this that I have said to you, and I promise, in the truth
    of God, that it shall not be lessened or minished when ye shall
    come to the garners. And when they had delivered so much out of
    every ship, they came into Alexandria and delivered the measure
    that they had received. And then they recounted the miracle to the
    ministers of the emperor, and worshiped and praised strongly God
    and his servant Nicholas. Then the holy man distributed the wheat
    to every man after that he had need, in such wise that it sufficed
    for two years, not only for to sell, but also to sow.

The art of the early Italian painters in handling narrative subjects is
once more admirably illustrated in the animated presentation of this
story in the paintings by Lorenzetti and by Fra Angelico.

In another of the stories included in the Golden Legend, St. Nicholas
twice appears in his favorite rôle as the protector of human life. The
story, with double catastrophe, goes as follows:

    And in this time certain men rebelled against the emperor; and
    the emperor sent against them three princes, Nepotian, Ursyn, and
    Apollyn. And they came into the port Adriatic for the wind, which
    was contrary to them; and the blessed Nicholas commanded them to
    dine with him, for he would keep his people from the ravin that
    they made. And whilst they were at dinner, the consul, corrupt by
    money, had commanded three innocent knights to be beheaded. And
    when the blessed Nicholas knew this, he prayed these three princes
    that they would much hastily go with him. And when they were come
    where they should be beheaded, he found them on their knees, and
    blindfold, and the righter brandished his sword over their heads.
    Then S. Nicholas, embraced with the love of God, set him hardily
    against the righter, and took the sword out of his hand, and threw
    it from him, and unbound the innocents, and led them with him all
    safe. And anon he went to the judgment to the consul, and found
    the gates closed, which anon he opened by force. And the consul
    came anon and saluted him: and this holy man having this salutation
    in despite, said to him: Thou enemy of God, corrupter of the law,
    wherefore hast thou consented to so great evil and felony, how
    darest thou look on us? And when he had sore chidden and reproved
    him, he repented, and at the prayer of the three princes he
    received him to penance. After, when the messengers of the emperor
    had received his benediction, they made their gear ready and
    departed, and subdued their enemies to the empire without shedding
    blood, and sith returned to the emperor, and were worshipfully
    received. And after this it happed that some other in the emperor’s
    house had envy on the weal of these three princes, and accused them
    to the emperor of high treason, and did so much by prayer and by
    gifts that they caused the emperor to be so full of ire that he
    commanded them to prison, and without other demand, he commanded
    that they should be slain that same night. And when they knew it by
    their keeper, they rent their clothes and wept bitterly; and then
    Nepotian remembered him how S. Nicholas had delivered the three
    innocents, and admonested the others that they should require his
    aid and help. And thus as they prayed S. Nicholas appeared to them
    and after appeared to Constantine, the emperor, and said to him:
    Wherefore hast thou taken these three princes with so great wrong,
    and hast judged them to death without trespass? Arise up hastily,
    and command that they be not executed, or I shall pray to God that
    he move battle against thee, in which thou shalt be overthrown,
    and shalt be made meat to beasts. And the emperor demanded: What
    art thou that art entered by night into my palace and durst say to
    me such words? And he said to him: I am Nicholas, bishop of Mirea.
    And in like wise he appeared to the provost, and feared him, saying
    with a fearful voice: Thou that hast lost mind and wit, wherefore
    hast thou consented to the death of innocents? Go forth anon and do
    thy part to deliver them, or else thy body shall rot, and be eaten
    with worms, and thy meiny shall be destroyed. And he asked him: Who
    art thou that so menacest me? And he answered: Know thou that I
    am Nicholas, the bishop of the city of Mirea. Then that one awoke
    that other, and each told to other their dreams, and anon sent for
    them that were in prison, to whom the emperor said: What art magic
    or sorcery can ye, that ye have this night by illusion caused us
    to have such dreams? And they said that they were none enchanters
    ne knew no witchcraft, and also that they had not deserved the
    sentence of death. Then the emperor said to them: Know ye well a
    man named Nicholas? And when they heard speak of the name of the
    holy saint, they held up their hands toward heaven, and prayed our
    Lord that by the merits of S. Nicholas they might be delivered of
    this present peril. And when the emperor had heard of them the life
    and miracles of S. Nicholas, he said to them: Go ye forth, and
    yield ye thankings to God, which hath delivered you by the prayer
    of this holy man, and worship ye him; and bear ye to him of your
    jewels, and pray ye him that he threaten me no more, but that he
    pray for me and for my realm unto our Lord. And a while after, the
    said princes went unto the holy man, and fell down on their knees
    humbly at his feet, saying: Verily thou art the sergeant of God,
    and the very worshipper and lover of Jesu Christ. And when they
    had all told this said thing by order, he lift up his hands to
    heaven and gave thankings and praisings to God, and sent again the
    princes, well informed, into their countries.

This story, although, so far as known, it does not form the subject
of any of the St. Nicholas plays presented by medieval schoolboys,
certainly possesses dramatic quality. The first intervention by the
protecting saint provides suspense like that before the arrival of
a reprieve on the stroke of twelve in a modern melodrama. The scene
is strikingly presented in one of the Santa Croce frescoes. One of
the young men is represented kneeling blindfolded awaiting the death
stroke. The executioner holds his sword lifted, while St. Nicholas
from behind grasps it by the point.

Also both this scene and the second scene in the story are represented
in the celebrated Giottesque frescoes at Assisi. In the second scene
there is represented a hall with straight ceiling supported by slender
columns. In this hall the Emperor Constantine is lying asleep. Nicholas
with uplifted hands approaches and commands him to free the three
imprisoned princes. The latter, one sees below, behind a barred window,
before which stands a great wooden cage.[65]

[Illustration: Norman Baptismal Font at Winchester Cathedral, with
Sculptured Scenes from the Life of St. Nicholas.]

The twelfth-century life of St. Nicholas by Wace, written, as the
reader is told in the opening lines, for the sake of the unlettered,
to explain to them the purpose of the St. Nicholas festival newly
instituted in the West, contains a number of episodes not included in
the more or less official account in the Golden Legend. There is one
story which seems like a variant version of that of the three murdered
schoolboys, which itself is also included by Wace.[66] A merchant is
on his way to visit the saint. On the journey he takes lodgings at an
inn and in the night is murdered by the treacherous landlord. His body
is cut to pieces and packed in a cask and salted like edible flesh. In
the night St. Nicholas restores the merchant to life with his body
entirely sound. In the morning the merchant appears, naturally to the
astonishment of the landlord, who confesses and worships St. Nicholas.

Wace also includes a short story of how St. Nicholas freed a child
possessed by the devil,[67] and still another incident, one more than
usually filled with human interest, recorded in connection with the
election of St. Nicholas as bishop. The story goes that the hostess at
an inn where the youthful bishop-elect had stayed, was so overjoyed at
the election, that she left her baby in a bath pan by the fire. In her
absence the water boiled. The mother returned in fright but found her
child safe and happy.

[Illustration: F. Pesellino. St. Nicholas Saves the Knights about to be


St. Nicholas in origin was an Oriental saint. In the Eastern Church at
the present day his worship is more active than in western Europe. In
countries like Greece of to-day there survive the conditions amid which
St. Nicholas worship had its origin and amid which legendary stories
of him were propagated. His ability to work miracles is still believed
in by many a Greek peasant. The following remarkably circumstantial
account of an incident supposed to have taken place on May 25, 1909,
will illustrate the faith in the goodness and power of St. Nicholas
still alive in certain parts of Greece.[68]

    In a romantic situation, one quarter of an hour from the village of
    Sparta in Elis, stands a fine monastery dedicated to St. Nicholas.
    Every year on the 10th of May--the anniversary of the finding
    of the saint’s ikon--there come to the monastery thousands of
    worshipers from all parts of the Peloponnese, who bring various
    offerings to the saint and remain several days in the romantic
    monastery, worshiping the wonder-working ikon and celebrating the
    annual festival.

    Amongst this year’s worshipers’ was a peasant, John Doulos, from
    the village of Bezaïté, who invoked the help of the saint on behalf
    of Kyriakula, his young daughter, who was blind. He brought her to
    worship at the shrine. The unfortunate girl had lost her sight on
    Easter day, when she thought she saw a great fire before her eyes
    and fell to the ground. From that moment she could see nothing. All
    medical skill was of no avail, and the despairing Doulos determined
    to take his daughter to the saint. They arrived at the monastery on
    the Wednesday before the festival. Thursday and Friday, days and
    nights, they spent inside the church kneeling before the ikon in
    prayer and supplication. Suddenly about dawn on the Saturday, when
    the worshipers in the church were numerous, Kyriakula arose, and
    crossing herself, cried:

    “Father, father, I see! There are the saint’s candles! There is the

    A thrill of emotion ran through those present, and all joined with
    the girl, whose sight had been restored, in worshiping the ikon of
    the wonder-working saint. After remaining many hours to bless the
    name of the saint, the healed girl left the church with her father
    and joined in the festival. Then she returned to her village, and
    her restored eyesight told better than words the saint’s miracle.



In our time the celebration of St. Nicholas’ day has lost much of the
ceremony that was once associated with it. Even in countries like
Belgium and Holland, where the day is a great folk festival, there is
little to connect the day with the story of the beloved bishop-saint.
“Sinterklaes” is better known than St. Nicholas. In early days the case
was different. Particularly in the centuries immediately following the
transfer of the St. Nicholas relics to Italy, the time when the vogue
of the eastern saint reached its height in the countries of western
Europe, in many ways his story was kept fresh in the popular memory.
Not only did the Boy Bishop custom commemorate, in somewhat extravagant
fashion to be sure, the elevation of the boy Nicholas to the rank of
bishop, but stories of the life of the saint formed an important part
of the _lectiones_, or “readings,” for the day in the church; and more
important still, some of the principal episodes in his life formed the
subject, in church schools, for hymns which later developed into little
plays.[69] In the election of the Boy Bishop was reenacted with a great
deal of adventitious detail one of these episodes. In more strictly
dramatic fashion were reenacted the four episodes: (1) of the maidens
saved from a life of shame; (2) the three murdered schoolboys restored
to life; (3) the kidnapped boy restored to his parents; and (4) the Jew
that put his treasures in charge of the image of St. Nicholas.

These little St. Nicholas plays have genuine significance in the early
history of the modern drama. At a time when the classical drama was
dead, when the works of Plautus and Terence were valued as repositories
of sententious expressions and their dramatic character apparently
not suspected, when the names tragedy and comedy were almost entirely
dissociated from dramatic meaning, by one of the strange ironies of
life, under the auspices of the Church, which had been hostile in its
attitude toward earlier drama, there was created, seemingly without
being realized, the germ from which developed the modern drama. The
St. Nicholas plays go back to an early stage in the new dramatic
development. Little dramatic scenes from scriptural story began to find
a place in the liturgy of the Church as early as the tenth century.
St. Nicholas plays are not much later, and are the earliest ones
handling scenes drawn from outside the biblical story. They begin not
later than the first of the twelfth century. St. Nicholas may almost
be regarded as the patron saint of the modern drama, since he seems to
have watched over its birth.

The St. Nicholas plays were represented apparently by the choir boys in
connection with the celebration of the festival of their patron saint.
The language used was Latin, of a schoolboy variety, but vernacular
elements soon began to appear. Forming, as they did, a part of the
school service, and presented, as they were, by choir boys, as might be
expected, they were for the most part sung or chanted. Their purpose to
provide entertainment and their dissociation from the older drama are
indicated by the names applied to these primitive dramas. _Miracula_
was the name given them when the subject-matter was in mind; when their
character and purpose were in mind the name applied to them in Latin
was _ludus_, in French, _jeu_. The actors at a comparatively early time
in English were called players before the word ‘play’ had yet acquired
its later definitely dramatic meaning.

The subjects from the St. Nicholas story used in these little plays
have been mentioned. One should notice what a range of interest is
comprised in these four stories. They afford opportunity for the use
of many of the cant phrases of the modern dramatic critic. There was
a melodrama of crime, a primitive detective play, with St. Nicholas
playing the part of detective in discovering the crime of the innkeeper
and his wife. There was a play dealing with the rough road to
matrimony, ending in a triple marriage, hardly surpassed in modern love
comedy. There was a sentimental comedy, with gripping heart interest,
in the story of the boy abducted and restored. There was a screaming
farce in the story of the Jew that was robbed. It should be noted, too,
that the modern “tired business man” would find the endings in all four
as happy as could be wished.

One of the early St. Nicholas plays also is of interest because it is
one of three plays composed by the earliest determinable personality
in connection with the authorship of modern drama. The name of the
author, Hilarius, seems to have been no misnomer. He was probably an
Englishman,[70] or an Anglo-Norman, who went to France to study under
Abélard. He is the author of a number of innocent love poems, playful
in tone, addressed to an English Rose and to his nun friends, Bona
and Superba. From his writings we learn that he was not only lively,
but fat. Along with a number of other students, on account of some
misbehavior, he seems to have suffered a kind of rustication and been
obliged to leave the monastery where he was studying and to take up
residence in a neighboring village. In a mock elegy he feigns despair
at being deprived of the privilege of hearing lectures. Altogether
the character of this medieval student is easy to associate with the
farcical little Latin play which he wrote, back in the twelfth century,
presenting the story of the Jew who committed his valuables to the care
of the image of St. Nicholas.

This play,[71] or operetta, for it was intended for song and chant
by the choir boys, is composed in rimed Latin stanzas, practically
impossible to reproduce in form and in spirit with any degree of
literalness in English, although Professor Gayley has accomplished the
miraculous with one or two of them.

The _dramatis personæ_ in the play are: Barbarus (a Heathen), owner of
the treasure, corresponding to the Jew in the Golden Legend version of
the story, four or six robbers, and St. Nicholas. At first the Heathen,
having assembled his treasures, approaches an image of St. Nicholas
(represented by a man standing in a shrine) and puts them in care of
the image, saying (probably in song):

    “Nicolæ, quidquid possideo,
    hoc in meo misi teloneo;
    te custodem rebus adhibeo;
        serva quæ sunt ibi:
    meis, precor, attende precibus;
    vide, nullus sit locus furibus!
    Pretiosis aurum cum vestibus
        ego trado tibi.”

The thought of which may be rendered freely:

    Nicholas, all that I possess, I have put in this chest. I leave
    it to you in charge; keep what is here. I pray you, listen to my
    request. See to it that no thief gets in. I am putting in your
    charge gold and precious raiment.

In a second like stanza Barbarus expresses the security that he feels
now that his valuables are in the charge of the image of St. Nicholas
and at the same time warns the image that there will be trouble if
anything happens to his property.

When Barbarus has gone, tramps, noticing the house open and without
guardian, carry off everything. When Barbarus returns, he finds his
treasure gone and expresses his feelings in song. His song consists of
three Latin stanzas, each with a French refrain probably joined in by
the other members of the boy choir. It begins:

    “Gravis sors et dura!
    Hic reliqui plura,
    sed sub mala cura;
        Des! quel domage!
    qui pert la sue chose, purque n’enrage?”

The rime scheme of which may be reproduced something like this:

    Hard luck and sad!
    I left all I had,
    But the care was bad.
      Gad, what a shame!
    If I am mad, I’m not to blame.

Two stanzas with the same refrain follow. Then Barbarus turns to the
image and lays on it the blame in two additional stanzas with the
threatening French refrain:

      “Ha! Nicholax,
    se ne me rent ma chose, tu ol comparras.”

    (If you don’t give me back my things, I’ll make you pay for it.)

Barbarus then takes up a whip and vents his feelings in two additional
stanzas of the same sort, the form and spirit of which Professor Gayley
has admirably caught in English[72]:

    By God, I swear to you
    Unless you “cough up” true,
    You thief, I’ll beat you blue,
          I will, no fear!
    So hand me back my stuff that I put here!

The amount of whipping and other stage “business” to accompany this
recitative might safely be trusted to choir boy impromptu. The Latin
text of the play at this point gives the following simple directions:
“Then St. Nicholas shall go to the thieves and say to them:”

In four Latin stanzas he tells the thieves that he has been whipped
because he cannot restore the things left in his charge, and threatens:

    “Quod si non feceritis
    suspensi eras eritis
        crucis in patibulo;
    vestra namque turpia,
    vestra latrocinia,
    nuntiabo populo.”

    (If you don’t do this, you will be hanged to-morrow on a gibbet,
    for your misdeeds and thievery, I will proclaim abroad.)

The threats have the desired effect on the thieves, who in fear return
the goods, with no accompanying words provided by the playwright.

When Barbarus finds his treasures again, in a series of three
macaronic stanzas, Latin and French, he expresses his joy and surprise,
ending with praise for the guardian:

    “Quam bona custodia
          jo en ai;
    qua redduntur omnia!
    De si grant mervegle en ai.”

    (What a good watch I have had! it returns everything. I am quite

The alternating lines in French form a refrain in which, as in the
other songs, the other choir boys have a chance to join.

Then Barbarus approaches the image and in three like stanzas, Latin and
French, expresses his gratitude.

At this point St. Nicholas in person makes his appearance. He disclaims
any credit to himself, and bids Barbarus praise God alone, through Whom
his things have been restored.

Barbarus in reply renounces heathen faith and praises God, the maker of
heaven and earth and sea, Who has forgiven his sin.

The printed text of the little play is simple enough, but the easy
swing of the series of Latin songs and the French refrains offering
opportunity for choral participation, the beating of the image, and
the impromptu comedy “business” which choir boys might be counted on
to supply, would provide as much entertainment at a church festival
to-day as they doubtless did in the St. Nicholas’ eve celebration of
the twelfth century.

In a single manuscript there are preserved four St. Nicholas plays
of a century later. The stories presented in these plays are the
four mentioned above. The play of the abducted son of Getro may here
represent the series.

This Latin play,[73] almost entirely in rimed couplets, is more serious
in tone and in general a more elaborate production than the little
play by Hilarius. It was staged in characteristic medieval fashion,
with simultaneous set; that is to say, there were a number of prepared
stations, side by side, all visible, and the action shifted from one
station to another. A rubric in the manuscript indicates the stage

    In order to represent how St. Nicholas freed the son of Getro from
    the hands of Marmorinus, King of the Agarenes, King Marmorinus
    shall appear, surrounded by armed servitors and seated on a
    high seat as if in his own kingdom. In another place, shall be
    represented Excoranda, the city of Getro, and in it Getro, with his
    consolers, his wife Euphrosina and their son Adeodatus. East of the
    city of Excoranda shall be the church of St. Nicholas in which the
    boy is taken captive.

The action shifts from one of these stations to the other, all the
stations and all the characters, however, being constantly visible.

In the opening scene the servitors approach King Marmorinus, and,
“either all together, or the first one speaking for all,” say:

    Hail prince, hail greatest king. Do not delay to declare thy will
    to thy servants; we are ready to do what thou dost wish.

These words apparently are sung, since they are in rimed verse and
since song alone would be appropriate for speech in unison. The king

    Go then, do not delay, and subject to my rule whatever people you
    can; kill any that resist.

With this the action shifts to another station.

“In the meantime Getro and Euphrosina with a band of schoolboys,” the
stage directions tell us, “shall go to the church of St. Nicholas,
to celebrate his festival, and shall bring with them their son; and
when they shall see the armed servitors of the king coming there, they
shall flee to their own city, in their fright forgetting the boy. But
the servitors of the king shall seize the boy and bring him into the
presence of the king, and either the second of them or all in unison
shall say,” apparently in song:

    We have done, O king, what thou didst order; we have subjected many
    people to thee and of the things acquired, we are bringing to thee
    this boy.

Then the third one, or all in unison, shall say:

    The boy is fair of face, of active mind, and noble race; it is
    fitting, in our opinion, that he enter thy service.

The king:

    Praise be to Apollo who rules all, and thanks to you who have made
    so many countries subject and tributary.

And then, addressing the boy:

    Good boy, tell us, what is thy land, what thy race; what is the
    faith of the people of thy country; are they gentile or Christian?

The boy:

    My father, Getro by name, is prince of the people of Excoranda;
    he worships God, who rules the seas, who made us and thee and all

The king:

    My god, Apollo, is the god that made me. He is true and good. He
    rules the land, he reigns in the air; him alone we ought to believe

The boy:

    Thy god is false and evil; he is stupid, blind, deaf, and mute.
    Thou shouldst not worship such a god, who cannot rule even himself.

The king:

    Say not such things; do not offend my god; for if thou dost make
    him angry, thou canst not in any way escape.

In the meantime, the directions tell us, Euphrosina shall discover that
her son has been forgotten and shall return to the church. And when she
shall not find the boy, she shall sing the following _Miserere_:

    “Heu! heu! heu mihi miseræ!
    Quid nunc agam? Quid quæm dicere?
    Quo peccato merui perdere
    natum meum, et ultra vivere?

    Cur me pater infelix genuit?
    Cur me mater infelix abluit?
    Cur me nutrix lactare debuit?
    Mortem mihi quare non præbuit?”

The consolers shall come to her and say:

    In what way does this grieving aid? Cease to weep, and pray for thy
    son to the highest Father, and he will give him aid.

Euphrosina, not heeding the words of consolation, shall continue:

    Dear son, most beloved child; child, the great part of my soul; now
    thou art to us the cause of sadness who wert the cause of joy.


    Do not despair of the grace of God. He whose great mercy gave thee
    this boy, will return to thee either him or another.


    My soul is disturbed within me. Why should death delay? When I am
    not able to see thee, my son, I prefer to die rather than to live.


    Struggle, grief, and despair injure thee and do not profit thy
    son; instead, from thy wealth give to schoolboys and to the poor.
    Ask the kindness of Nicholas that he may pray for the mercy of the
    Father on high for thy son, that thy prayer may not fail.

Euphrosina (praying to St. Nicholas):

    Nicholas, most holy father, Nicholas most dear to God, if thou
    wishest that I should worship thee longer, cause my son to return.
    Thou that didst save many in the sea, and three men from the bonds
    of death, listen to the prayer of me, a suppliant, and assure
    me that it will be granted. I will not eat of flesh longer, nor
    partake of wine, nor enjoy anything more until my son shall return.


    Dear sister, cease to mourn: thy tears avail thee nothing. But
    seek the propitiation of the Father on high for our son. To-morrow
    is the festival of St. Nicholas whom all Christianity ought to
    worship, to venerate, to bless. Hear, then, my counsel. Let us go
    to his festival. Let us praise his greatness and seek his support.
    Perhaps it is an inspiration of God that admonishes me on account
    of our son. With the grace of God we must pray for the great
    kindness of Nicholas.

Then they shall get up and go to the church of St. Nicholas. And when
they have entered, Euphrosina shall stretch her hands out toward heaven
and say:

    Highest Father, king of all kings, sole king, and sole hope of
    mortals, make to be returned to us our son, the solace of our life.
    Hear the prayers of us suppliant. Thou that didst send thy Son
    into the world to make us citizens of Heaven, to save us from the
    bars of hell. Father God, thou whose power dost supply everything
    good, do not cast off me a sinner, but let me see again my son.
    Nicholas, whom we call a saint, if all is true that we believe
    concerning thee, let thy prayers go forth to God for us and our son.

“After these words,” the directions tell us, “she shall leave the
church and go home and there prepare a table with bread and wine for
the entertainment of schoolboys and the poor. When these have been
invited and have begun to eat, Marmorinus (at the other end of the
stage) shall say to his servitors”:

    My beloved, I want to tell you that I have never in my life felt
    such hunger as I have to-day. I can’t stand it. Make ready what I
    ought to eat and save my life. Why delay? Go quickly, prepare at
    once something for me to eat.

The servitors then shall go and bear food to the king and shall say:

    We have prepared the food as thou didst command and here it is. Now
    if thou dost wish, thou mayst grow fat in extinguishing thy hunger.

Then water is brought, and the king washes his hands and begins to eat
and says:

    I was hungry, now I am thirsty. Bring me wine, and no delay about
    it, my servant, son of Getro.

The boy, hearing this, shall sigh deeply, saying to himself:

    Alas! Alas, poor me! I should like to die, for as long as I live, I
    shall never be free.

The king, addressing the boy:

    Why dost thou sigh so? What ails thee? What dost thou want?

The boy:

    I was thinking of my misery, of my father and my native land. I
    began to sigh, and said to myself, “It is a year to-day since I
    entered this country, and was made a miserable slave, subject to
    royal power.”

The king:

    Poor wretch, why dost thou think about it? What good does thy
    grieving do? None can take thee from me as long as I do not care to
    lose thee.

“In the meantime,” the directions tell us, “some one in the likeness of
Nicholas shall take up the boy holding in his hand the cup with fresh
wine, and shall place him before his father’s city and, as if not
seen, shall depart. Then one of the citizens shall say to the boy”:

    Boy, who art thou, and where goest thou? Who gave thee the cup with
    the fresh wine?

The boy:

    I am here and am not going farther. I am the only son of Getro.
    Glory and praise to Nicholas whose grace brought me back here.

Then that citizen shall run to Getro and say:

    Be glad, Getro. Weep no more. Outside stands thy son. Praise be to
    Nicholas whose grace restored him.

“When Euphrosina hears this message, she shall run, and after kissing
and embracing her son many times, shall say”:

    To our God be glory and praise. Whose great mercy, turning our
    grief to joy, has released our son. To our father Nicholas be
    enduring praise and thanks, whose prayer to God aided us in this

The play ends with the choral singing of the Latin hymn to St.
Nicholas, beginning with the words “_Copiosæ Caritatis_.”

       *       *       *       *       *

As already remarked, these Latin plays of St. Nicholas are the
earliest plays handling subjects outside the scriptural narrative,
also one of the St. Nicholas stories is the subject of one of the
group of plays by the earliest medieval dramatist known by name. In
another way the name of St. Nicholas is associated with the beginnings
of the modern drama, in that one of the St. Nicholas stories provides
the theme for one of the earliest of plays in a vernacular tongue and
produced under secular control. The play in question is the famous
one by Jean Bodel produced at Arras in the very first years of the
thirteenth century. The time of production was probably the eve of St.
Nicholas’ day, and the producing actors were the members of a secular
fraternity of which St. Nicholas was the patron saint, possibly, Gaston
Paris[74] suggests, the famous minstrel brotherhood at Arras that had
for its palladium the famous candle, said to have set itself on the
viol of one of the brotherhood while he played before the altar.

The story told in this play is one already well known as a subject
for dramatic rendering in Latin, one of three handled by Hilarius,
the story of the image of St. Nicholas and the robbers. But in this
vernacular play St. Nicholas himself is overshadowed by the new
elements that have been joined to the story. The Jew, or pagan, of
earlier versions of the story, here appears as a Saracen king at war
with the Christians. The thieves are tavern revelers who steal in order
to pay their tavern score.

In condensed summary, following largely the summary by Creizenach,[75]
the story runs as follows:

After a prolog in which the content of the story is related, the
messenger Auberon appears and announces to the king that the Christians
have invaded his land. The king is enraged at his idol Tervagant
that this has been possible in spite of the fact that the image has
recently been richly gilded. Auberon is sent forth to summon the
emirs with their armies. There follows a scene between the Christians
and Saracens, which is imbued with all the ardor and spirit of the
crusading times. The Christians show divinely inspired bravery and
are visited by an angel which encourages them in the fight. They are
defeated in battle, but the angel announces that they have won a place
in Paradise. The Saracens find on the battlefield only one Christian
alive, and he is kneeling before an image of St. Nicholas. The man with
his image is brought before the Saracen king, who in ridicule asks what
the ugly old chap is good for. The Christian announces that the image
is excellent as a protector of treasure. The king determines to test
the image and causes his herald Connart to proclaim that the treasure
will be left open, guarded only by the image of St. Nicholas. The
Christian prisoner is given over to the hangman Durand to die if his
patron saint does not live up to his reputation.

The scene shifts to a tavern. The innkeeper has his man servant
announce that he has a fine wine for the epicure, a wine which he
describes in most eloquent fashion. The rogues assemble, and in a
drawn-out scene manifest their appreciation of the good wine, but at
the end are unable to pay their score. They determine to steal the
unguarded royal treasure, and the innkeeper agrees to receive the
stolen goods. They enter the treasure chamber, and with great labor,
which affords much comedy, get away with the heavy chest.

The theft is discovered, and the Christian prisoner is ordered to be
hanged, but gets a suspended sentence of one day, and cheered by an
angel, awaits the intervention of the saint.

The thieves, in the meantime, have brought the treasure to the tavern
and continue their revelry until they fall asleep. Hardly has sleep
overtaken them, when the saint appears and in gruff language demands
the return of the treasure, with the gallows as the alternative.
The thieves, panic-stricken, carry the treasure back. One of them
proposes that each take a handful of gold pieces, but they are too much
terrified, and in the end the ringleader must leave his mantle with the
innkeeper in settlement.

The king, delighted at the protection afforded, takes the Christian
into high favor, naturally to the disappointment of the hangman. He
also decides to abjure his old faith, and his emirs feel it their
feudal duty to follow his example, with the exception of one, who,
however, is compelled to kneel before the saint’s image. In the midst
of all this the image of Tervagant utters a frightful shriek, but
is, by command of the king, cast out of the “Synagogue” in shame and
disgrace while the Christian starts a _Te Deum_, in which the actors,
and, perhaps, the spectators, join.

In this play it will be observed that the old story is made to serve
a new purpose. St. Nicholas is made an exponent of the virtue of
Christianity as opposed to the Saracen faith. The story is developed
with much supporting detail. The struggle between Christian and Saracen
is represented with true crusading zeal, in the spirit which pervaded
the contemporary romances of Charlemagne and his paladins. On the
other hand, balancing with these scenes, noble in tone, were the low
comedy scenes provided by the tavern revelers, drinking, casting dice,
quarreling, and speaking a slang often unintelligible to the modern
reader, in general affording remarkable genre pictures of French life
in the early thirteenth century.

In his two-sided development of the dramatic values in this story,
the author established a method which one might have expected to be
followed by his contemporaries, a method actually followed, a little
later, in the development of the native English drama. In reality,
however, the play occupies a solitary position in its own day and age.
To the author must be given the credit of original creation, of being
ahead of his time. But this credit the author must share with the story
of his play, for has not the name of St. Nicholas through all the
centuries, down to our own time, been constantly associated, not only
with the idea of noble beneficence, but with a peculiar quality of good
nature and fun?



Anyone brought up in a Protestant country, in the Protestant faith,
will not find it easy to form an adequate conception of the nature of
saint worship. Such a person, however, if he should visit certain of
the less progressive provinces of Catholic Christendom, would find
surviving in much of its pristine vigor, with much of its original
_naïveté_, the saint worship once universal in the Christian world. In
Sicily, for instance, he would find each city with its patron saint
revered and honored very much as in the earlier days. If he should
happen to be in Catania on one of the two days in the year devoted to
the honor of Catania’s patron saint Agatha, he would see the image
of St. Agatha surrounded by native offerings of extravagant value,
in a resplendent car drawn by white-robed men, and he would hear
enthusiastic shouts of “Viva Sant’ Agatha!” whenever a new candle for
the car was offered by one of the votaries of the saint. In Palermo
he would find like honor paid on her festival day to St. Rosalia,
the patron saint of Palermo; in Syracuse he would find St. Lucy; in
Taormina, St. Pancras, similarly honored. These Sicilian celebrations
of saints’ days, featured as they are by the presence of such modern,
ultra-secular inventions as fireworks, nevertheless retain not only
much of the form but to some extent the spirit of earlier celebrations.

[Illustration: Triumphal Car of St. Lucy used in the Annual Procession
in Honor of the Saint at Syracuse in Sicily.]

Nor is the Sicilian worship of saints entirely one-sided. On the one
hand honors are paid, but on the other hand benefits are supposed to
be received. An idea of the nature of the protection afforded by the
saints and of the intimate relation existing between saint and votary
may be gained by a visit to the church of San Nicola at Girgenti. There
one will find the picture of the saint surrounded by representations,
in silver, or more often in wax or carved and painted wood, of swollen
limb, cancerous breast, goitered throat, injured eye, carbuncle, and
the like, healed through the intervention of the saint. Even more
specific, more living, record of protection received is afforded by the
votive offerings on one wall of the church in the form of naïve little
paintings illustrating the aid afforded by St. Nicholas, one “showing
a spirited donkey running away with a painted cart, the terrified
occupant frantically making signals of distress to S. Nicola in heaven
who is preparing promptly to check the raging ass, others showing S.
Nicola drawing a petitioner from the sea, or turning a mafia dagger
aside, or finding a lost child in the mountains.”[76]

In Catholic Brittany, too, one will find similar forms of saint
worship. One will find the so-called “Pardons,” or pilgrimages on
different days of the year to different ones of the famous shrines of
Brittany, occasions celebrated with festal processions accompanying
the image or the relics of the saint honored. In the Breton churches
also one will find the same form of testimony, as in Sicily, to the
protection offered by the various saints. In the church of St. Sauveur
at Dinan, in the chapel of St. Roch, one will find a representation of
the saint over the altar and on the wall a framed _vœu_, to the effect
that St. Roch confers many benefits, especially in case of pestilence,
that he saved the city from pestilence in 16--, and that the _vœu_ is
for the sake of preserving the memory of his goodness to the city. On
the wall also are framed litanies to St. Roch and individual votive
offerings with dates, many in the form of hearts, others framed
inscriptions with “_Merci Bon St. Roch_,” accompanied by the date of
the benefit received. Over the door of a house in Brittany also one
often finds the image of the patron saint of the occupant.

In Brittany down to our own time honor continues to be paid to a
great number of saints not known elsewhere, never canonized by the
Roman church and probably in their origin having little of Christian
character, more than likely Christian representatives of earlier,
local, pagan divinities. The functions of these local Breton saints
are specialized to an extent hardly found elsewhere at the present
time. Ailments are subject to the cure of particular saints. The
specialization is hardly equalled even by that in the modern practice
of medicine. Saint Mamert is invoked in case of pains of the stomach,
Saint Méen for insanity, Saint Hubert for dog bites, Saint Livertin for
headache, Saint Houarniaule for fear, Saint Radegonde for toothache.

There is a certain beauty in the intimate relations existing between
simple people and their divine representative, but the naïve character
of the practice, in a striking manner, brings to one’s realization
the superstitious mode of thought prevalent in medieval times. The
Reformation, in the sixteenth century, did much to dispel these older,
superstitious forms of religious thought. As already remarked, among
Protestants the old reverence of the saints is hardly understood. In
the modern Catholic church, too, the extravagant features of saintly
legend and of saint worship have been largely eliminated, only vestiges
surviving in those provinces little affected by modern progress.

[Illustration: Images of Breton Saints, Preserved at

Evidence of similar specialization in earlier forms of saint worship,
and of Protestant ridicule of it, is to be found in Barnabe Googe’s
sixteenth-century translations from Naogeorgus[77]:

    To every saint they also doe his office here assine,
    And fourtene doe they count of whom thou mayst have ayde divine;

       *       *       *       *       *

    Saint Barbara lookes that none without the body of Christ doe dye,
    Saint Cathern favours learned men, and gives them wisdome hye;

       *       *       *       *       *

    Saint Appolin the rotten teeth doth helpe, when sore they ake;
    Otilla from the bleared eyes the cause and griefe doth take;

       *       *       *       *       *

    Saint Gertrude riddes the house of mise, and killeth all the rattes;
    The like doth bishop Huldrich with his earth, two passing cattes;
    Saint Gregerie lookes to little boys, to teach their a, b, c,
    And makes them for to love their bookes and schollers good to be;
    Saint Nicolas keepes the mariners from daunger and diseas
    That beaten are with boystrous waves and tost in dreadfull seas.

Not only were the saints invoked for protection against particular
ills, but the guilds, or craft fraternities, had each its patron saint.
Cities and nations also had each its particular saintly guardian, and
individuals, by assuming the names of particular saints, aimed to
establish a protective relationship. Variations in these relationships
existed, but some ones widely recognized were that between St. Agatha
and nurses, St. Catherine and St. Gregory and studious persons, St.
Cecilia and musicians, Saints Cosmas and Damian and physicians, St.
Luke and painters, St. Sebastian and archers, St. Valentine and lovers,
St. Ives and lawyers, Saints Andrew and Joseph and carpenters, St.
George and clothiers, and so on. Of countries Scotland comes under
the care of St. Andrew, England under that of St. George, Ireland
under that of St. Patrick, Wales under that of St. David. St. Anthony
belongs especially to Italy, St. Denis to France, St. Thomas to Spain,
St. Mary to Holland, St. Sebastian to Portugal. Of cities Venice is
under the protection of St. Mark, Florence of St. John, Paris of St.
Genevieve, Vienna of St. Stephen, Cologne of the Holy Magi.[78]

As compared with some of the other saints in affording protection St.
Nicholas is less the specialist and more the general practitioner.
He certainly has his share of duties assigned him. With St. Mary and
St. Andrew he shares the guardianship of Russia, with Olaf that of
Norway,[79] with St. Julian of Rimini, that of the whole eastern coast
of Italy. Of cities he is the patron saint: in the North, of Moscow and
Aberdeen, in the South, of Bari and Corfu, in intermediate countries,
of Amiens, Civray (Poitou), Ancona, Fribourg (Switzerland), and several
places in Lorraine.[80]

The guardianship of St. Nicholas over schoolboys and unwedded maids
has already been discussed. Mention has also been made of St. Nicholas
as patron saint of various crafts in the towns of the Netherlands. To
the list of occupations protected, may be added those of butchers,
fishermen, pilgrims, brewers, chandlers, and coopers,[81] with all
of which St. Nicholas is more or less closely associated as patron
saint. It remains to consider in more detail the part played by St.
Nicholas as the protector of mariners and the less prominent, but not
the less interesting, relationship between St. Nicholas and thieves.

[Illustration: Beato Angelico. St. Nicholas Saves the City in Time of


Throughout the Christian world, everywhere, the devotion of sailors to
St. Nicholas is much in evidence. In Greece, where St. Nicholas is one
of the most popularly honored saints, at the present day, according
to a recent authority,[82] “everyone connected with seafaring appeals
to him for protection and relief. All ships and boats carry his ikon
with an ever-burning lamp, and in his chapels, models of boats, coils
of cables, anchors, and such things, are given as votive offerings.
Pirates even used to give him half their booty in gratitude for favors
received. On account of this worship, St. Nicholas has been said to
have supplanted Poseidon, for the cults lie along the same lines.
During a recent strike at the Piræus the seamen swore by St. Nicholas
not to yield, and they would not break their vow although they wished
to compromise. The Archbishop had to come specially to release them
from their oath.”

In Russia, as in Greece, an ikon of St. Nicholas is carried in every
merchantman.[83] In other countries there is plentiful record of
similar association of St. Nicholas with the protection of the sea. In
the Island of Minorca, in the eighteenth century, near the entrance
to the harbor, stood a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas, to which,
according to an old account, “the sailors resort that have suffered
shipwreck, to return thanks for their preservation, and to hang up
votive pictures (representing the dangers they have escaped), in
gratitude to the saint for the protection he vouchsafed them, and in
accomplishment of the vows they made in the height of the storm.”[84]

In Teutonic countries St. Nicholas played a similar part. In Germany it
was formerly customary for sailors escaped from shipwreck to dedicate
a piece of old sail to St. Nicholas.[85] In every Hanseatic city there
was a church to St. Nicholas, and in Hanseatic cities favorite personal
names were Nicolaus, Claas, Nickelo, and other popular derivatives from
St. Nicholas. There were also churches dedicated to St. Nicholas in
places threatened by injury from water, for instance at Quedlingburg.
In Switzerland, too, St. Nicholas is the patron of travelers by water.
Sailors on the Lake of Lucerne are said to make vows and votive
offerings to him, and by Swiss waters formerly there were everywhere to
be found St. Nicholas chapels.[86]

The association of St. Nicholas with the sea is found in one of the
best known of the incidents in his legend, although, in this case,
even more than the case of the other incidents of his life story, there
is room for question whether he is to be regarded as the protector of
seamen because of the incident in his story, or the incident in the
story originated as an explanation of the veneration paid St. Nicholas
by seamen.

The incident in question is thus recorded in the Golden Legend:

    It is read in a chronicle that the blessed Nicholas was at the
    Council of Nice; and on a day as a ship with mariners were in
    perishing on the sea, they prayed and required devoutly Nicholas,
    servant of God, saying: If those things that we have heard of thee
    be true, prove them now. And anon a man appeared in his likeness
    and said: Lo! see ye me not? ye called me, and then he began to
    help them in their exploit of the sea, and anon the tempest ceased.
    And when they were come to his church, they knew him without any
    man to show him to them, and yet they had never seen him. And then
    they thanked God and him of their deliverance. And he bade them to
    attribute it to the mercy of God, and to their belief, and nothing
    to his merits.

It is worthy of note that the mariners of this story, when in distress,
already know of the reputation of St. Nicholas for efficacy in such
situations, which seems to indicate that in this case story grew from
belief rather than belief from story.

The story of the rescue at sea accomplished by the intervention of the
saint forms a favorite subject for Italian painters, particularly those
of the earlier period. The picture by L. Monaco represents the scene in
a manner delightfully primitive.

The aid afforded by St. Nicholas to mariners in distress also forms the
subject of a story sung in a popular Servian carol,[87] in which there
is much in evidence the peculiar charm of the folk-tale. The story goes
that all the saints, festively assembled, were drinking wine. When the
cup, out of which each drank in turn, was passed to St. Nicholas, he
was too sleepy to hold it, and let it drop. St. Elias shook him by the
arm and aroused him. “Oh! I beg the pardon of the company,” said the
sleepy saint, “but I have been very busy and I was absent from your
festival. The sea was rough, and I had to give my help to three hundred
ships that were in danger.”

[Illustration: L. Monaco. St. Nicholas Rescues the Seamen.


It is not easy to associate St. Nicholas with the thought of severity.
One can hardly conceive of him as a stern judge. Was he open to the
charge of being what is popularly called “easy”? Certain it is that
his beneficence had a wide scope. The universality of his guardianship
can hardly be better illustrated than by the fact that he not only
afforded protection from robbers and shielded the unjustly condemned,
but at the same time shared with St. Dismas the questionable honor of
being the protector of pirates and thieves.

This protective relationship, in Elizabethan times, formed the subject
of a stock jest. Robbers and thieves were facetiously called “St.
Nicholas’ clerks.”

“Sirrah,” says Gadshill, “if they meet not with St. Nicholas’ clerks,
I’ll give thee this neck.”

“No,” rejoins the Chamberlain, “I’ll none of it; I pr’ythee keep that
for the hangman; for I know thou worshipp’st Saint Nicholas as truly as
a man of falsehood may.”[88]

How did St. Nicholas get into such evil associations? It will be
remembered that the seamen protected by him included pirates, and
that Greek pirates are said to have shared their booty with him.
Have these evil associations corrupted his good manners, and has he
thus been brought into association with thieves and robbers? Perhaps
so. But other explanations have been offered. His name has become
associated with that of the “Old Nick” in a way that remains to be
explained. Perhaps in this way he has come to acquire the function of
the “Old Nick,” as the protector of evil. A more plausible explanation
accounts for his association with thieves by the popularly known story,
which formed the subject of one of the St. Nicholas plays, that of
the thieves who had stolen goods left under the guardianship of St.
Nicholas’ image and who were compelled by the saint to restore the
goods and thus brought “to the way of trouth.”

Whatever the cause, the association was one well established. St.
Nicholas’ clerks were well known in Elizabethan times,[89] and are
frequently referred to in literature. There were also lively popular
stories on the subject, one of which forms the subject of a stanza in a
merry St. Nicholas carol.[90]

    “Another he dede sekyrly,
    He saved a thief that was ful sly,
    That stal a swyn out of his sty,
          His lyf than savyd he.”



It is well known that when paganism was superseded by Christianity, the
older religion was by no means obliterated. In Greece the pagan temples
often were converted into Christian churches. At Athens, the Parthenon,
a temple of the Virgin Pallas, became a church of the Virgin Mary; the
temple of Theseus became a church devoted to a Christian hero, also
a dragon-slayer, St. George of Cappadocia. In the structure of new
churches, material from the older temples was freely used. In many of
the churches of Rome may be seen beautiful classical columns taken
from the earlier pagan structures. A fine instance of the mingling of
elements, old and new, in Christian architecture, is to be seen at
Syracuse in Sicily, where the older classical temple of Minerva has
been transformed into a renaissance cathedral. The columns of the Doric
temple are built into the wall of the church but are too thick to be
concealed. On the outside they may be seen, at times a protruding Doric
capital, at times a whole Doric column; within the church, they form
a line of magnificent weathered columns bordering the outer side of
each aisle. In this church, to the Christian and pagan combination,
is superadded a third element, in the form of rounded Saracenic

The hybrid nature of this Christian architecture in the countries
pervaded by classical civilization finds a striking parallel in the
Christian practices and Christian beliefs of these countries. In these,
too, there is evident a mingling of elements new and old, Christian
and pagan, with here and there a tinge taken on from later forms of
non-Christian religion, corresponding to the Saracenic element in the
architecture of the cathedral at Syracuse. Just as the graceful classic
columns survive as beautiful features in the Christian churches,
so, many fair products of the poetic imagination belonging to the
earlier faith have found a place in the Christian religion. This is
particularly true in the case of the saints, who continue to exert over
the forces of nature the same control in the interests of man that the
minor gods and demi-gods had done before.

In modern Greece there is to be found ample illustration of Christian
appropriation of the old. When gods have not been directly transformed
into saints, at least many of their attributes have been taken over.
In the island of Naxos, St. Dionysios is widely worshiped, and like
the god of similar name, is connected in popular story with the origin
of the wine. There is a story of the journey of the saint from Mt.
Olympos to Naxos, in which there is assuredly more of the pagan than
of the saintly quality. “He [St. Dionysios] noticed an herb by the way
and planted it in the bone of a bird, then in the bone of a lion, and
lastly in the bone of an ass. At Naxos he made the first wine with
its fruit. The intoxication which followed the drinking of this wine
had three stages: first, he sang like a bird; then, felt strong as a
lion; and lastly, became foolish as an ass.”[91] In a similar way, St.
Demetrios, as the popular patron of Greek husbandmen and shepherds,
and the protector of agriculture in general, assumes the functions of
the Earth-Mother, Demeter,[92] and St. Artemidos, as patron of weakly
children, has taken over some of the attributes of Artemis, to whom
belonged protecting powers over children, animals, and vegetation.[93]
Still better known is the case of St. Elias, who has acquired many
of the attributes of the sun-god, Helios. “It would be difficult to
find any spot in Greece from which one could not descry on a prominent
hilltop a little white chapel dedicated to him, where at least once a
year, on the 20th of July, a service is held. This hilltop saint is
believed by the peasants to be lord of sunshine, rain, and thunder.”[94]

Venus, too, finds her place in Christian worship under the name of St.
Venere. In West Albania, where the practice has been imported from the
south of Italy, “she is invoked by girls as patroness of marriage.”[95]
In the territory of St. Sophia, in Calabria, her festival is celebrated
on the 27th of July, and the girls sing a song, in substance “a
prayer to St. Venere not to leave them husbandless now that all their
companions are married and gone.”[96] St. Merkurios, also, has many
of the attributes of the pagan god Mercury. There is an ancient story
in which the saint plays the rôle of messenger formerly assigned to
the god. Basil, Bishop of Cæsarea, in a vision, saw the heavens open,
revealing Christ enthroned. “Then Christ called, ‘Merkurios, go and
slay Julian the King, the persecutor of the Christians.’ And St.
Merkurios stood before Him wearing a gleaming iron breastplate, and
on hearing the command, he disappeared. Then he reappeared and stood
before the Lord and cried, ‘Julian the King has been slain as Thou
didst command, O Lord.’”[97]

In many other cases, where the direct pagan inheritance is not so
easily traced, saints in modern Greece accomplish functions precisely
similar to those accomplished in ancient times by minor deities. St.
George is regarded as the protector of the crops, probably on account
of the etymology of his name (_Ge_=“earth,” _ergein_=“work”). For a
similar reason, apparently, St. Maura is invoked in case of ulcers or
smallpox. Other saints with similar functions are St. Madertos invoked
in case of pestilence among beasts, St. Blasios in case of sore throat,
and St. John in cases of fever.

People accustomed to seek divine aid in this way, in case of trouble,
are not easily to be deprived of their recourse. If they are forbidden
to worship their pagan divinities, then substitutes must be found.
Thus seamen deprived of Poseidon as source of aid, had recourse to St.
Phokas and later turned to St. Nicholas, possibly, as has been pointed
out, due to the story, in the legend of St. Nicholas, of aid rendered
by him to the ship in distress. The connection once established, St.
Nicholas came more and more to occupy the place formerly held by
Poseidon. Hence probably the position held by St. Nicholas in popular
belief, especially in eastern Christendom, as the guardian of sailors.

There is one modern Greek story of St. Nicholas as patron saint of
seamen which deserves to be told because it shows the occasional
survival, in the popular worship of saints, of pagan elements which
the Christian Church could not countenance. The story, as told by an
old Greek man, is to this effect: “At the time of the Revolution a
number of Greek ships assembled off Kamári. There was great excitement
and trepidation. So they thought things over and decided to send a
man to St. Nicholas to ask him that their ships might prosper in the
war. They accordingly seized a man and took him to the large hall at
Kamári. There they cut off his head and his hands, and carried him
down the steps into the hall.” This was a pagan rite obviously not to
be tolerated by the Christian God, for the story goes, “thereupon God
appeared with a bright torch in his hand, and the bearers of the body
dropped it, and all present fled in terror.”[98]

It is evident that St. Nicholas inherited some of the attributes of
Poseidon, or Neptune. But that does not sum up the extent of his pagan
heritage. Probably earlier than the association of St. Nicholas with
Poseidon is that with Demeter, or Diana, whose cult was particularly
in vogue in Lycia, the scene of the principal events in the story of
St. Nicholas.

In the Eastern Church there were two celebrations in honor of St.
Nicholas, not only the one on the 6th of December, but one on the 9th
of May. The May celebration, which is still kept up by Italians, even
in America, is usually said to be in honor of the removal of the relics
of St. Nicholas to Bari, but not unlikely is the continuation of the
Rosalia, a local pagan spring festival at Myra, the Lycian home of
St. Nicholas. Not only in Lycia, but elsewhere, the St. Nicholas cult
supplanted the earlier worship of Artemis. In Ætolia “at the village of
Kephalovryso, there is a little ruined temple of St. Nicholas which,
according to an inscription built into the church, stands on the site
of a temple of Artemis. Another instance of the same transference
occurs at Aulis, where a little Byzantine church of St. Nicholas has
replaced the Artemisium.”[99]

Following the substitution of the Christian worship of St. Nicholas for
the pagan worship of Artemis, there were two natural consequences. In
the first place the pagan deity, formerly revered, came to be regarded
as an evil spirit. In the second place this evil spirit was supposed to
be particularly hostile to the Christian saint that had replaced her
in popular worship. This hostility is reflected in the well-known story
of the devil’s plot against the church of St. Nicholas. The Golden
Legend version of the story is as follows:

    And in this country the people served idols and worshiped the false
    image of the cursed Diana. And to the time of this holy man, many
    of them had some customs of the paynims, for to sacrifice to Diana
    under a sacred tree; but this good man made them of all the country
    to cease then these customs, and commanded to cut off the tree.
    Then the devil was angry and wroth against him and made an oil that
    burned, against nature, in water, and burned stones also. And then
    he transformed him in the guise of a religious woman, and put him
    in a little boat, and encountered pilgrims that sailed in the sea
    towards this holy saint, and areasoned them thus, and said: I would
    fain go to this holy man, but I may not, wherefore I pray you to
    bear this oil into his church, and for the remembrance of me, that
    ye anoint the walls of the hall; and anon he vanished away. Then
    they saw anon after another ship with honest persons, among whom
    there was one like to S. Nicholas, which spake to them softly: What
    hath this woman said to you, and what hath she brought? And they
    told to him all by order. And he said to them: This is the evil
    and foul Diana; and to the end that ye know that I say truth, cast
    that oil into the sea. And when they had cast it, a great fire
    caught it in the sea, and they saw it long burn against nature.
    Then they came to this holy man and said to him: Verily thou art he
    that appeared to us in the sea and deliveredst us from the sea and
    awaits of the devil.

But the victory over the pagan deity was not a complete one. Constant
association of St. Nicholas custom with earlier worship of Artemis was
not without its influence on the popular conception of the Christian
saint. One is tempted to assume the malevolent and insidious work of
the pagan deity aiming to corrupt the character of the benevolent
bishop. In any event from Artemis as well as from Poseidon St. Nicholas
inherited attributes which serve to explain some of the elements in his
complex personality. It is to be remembered that Artemis of Ephesus was
not only a spring deity but also in part a sea and a river goddess.
Hence her epithet, “Potamia.” Both associations, that with spring, and
especially that with the sea, Artemis shares with St. Nicholas.[100]
Artemis-Cybele is often represented as a sea monster with the tail of
a fish. There are traces of a similar grotesque popular conception
of St. Nicholas in the Sicilian popular legend with the hero named
Nicolo-Pesce. This conception of St. Nicholas is much in evidence in
western Europe and serves to explain the connection of St. Nicholas
with a conception widely prevalent there, of a water spirit or god.
Among Teutonic peoples, particularly, this water spirit is widely
known with various names, such as Nix, Nickel, Nickelman, Nick, Nökke.
Millers are said to be particularly afraid of this spirit and to
throw different things into the water on the sixth day of December,
St. Nicholas’ day, to propitiate it.[101] In the character of Nikur,
a Protean water sprite (Edda, _Doemesaga_, 3), he inhabits the lakes
and rivers of Scandinavia, where he raises sudden storms and tempests
and leads mankind into destruction.[102] Danish peasantry, in earlier
times, conceived of the Nökke (Nikke) as a monster with human head,
dwelling both in fresh and in salt water. Where anyone was drowned,
they said, _Nökken tag ham bort_, “the Nökke took him away.” The
Icelandic Neck, a kelpie or water spirit, appears in the form of a fine
horse on the seashore. If anyone is foolish enough to mount him, he
gallops off and plunges into the water with his burden.[103]

In France there is known a similar water monster, and there,
paradoxical as it may seem, it has taken the name of the benevolent
St. Nicholas. It is a terrible monster that seizes fishermen who walk
without permission by the water side at nightfall. It has claws and
tears the faces of the children that remain too late on the beach.[104]

The water monster under discussion was known in England. Back in the
eighth century, in the story of Beowulf, there are introduced water
monsters, apparently conceived of as like walruses or sea-lions, but
malevolent in character. These are called _niceras_. The “Old Nick,”
a name familiar since the early seventeenth century, seems to have
originated in the conception of this water monster once prevalent in
the North of England. The conversion of the name of the water demon
into a name for the Devil is not an unusual phenomenon. The process is
illustrated in the history of the Greek word “demon” itself, which, at
first meaning “spirit,” in no evil sense, with the hostile attitude
assumed toward earlier religious conceptions following the introduction
of Christianity, came to be used as a name for an evil spirit or devil.
The same conversion of an old name to a new use is to be seen in the
case of the “Old Nick,” in the beginning the name of a water spirit,
later a name for the Devil. In this case the malevolent character of
the water spirit made the conversion one easy to comprehend.

What, then, is the relation of this well known, usually malevolent,
water spirit to St. Nicholas? An attempt has recently been made to
show that the Eastern conception of St. Nicholas as a water spirit,
originating in the older mythical beliefs concerning Artemis, was
carried by seamen to the West of Europe and that in this way the name
St. Nicholas is the base of the different forms for the name of the
water spirit.[105] This theory can hardly be sustained, since there
is no proof of the popularity of St. Nicholas in the West so early
as the earliest reference to the water spirit, that is to say, in
the case of the _niceras_ of the English _Beowulf_, and because in
popular contraction of the name Nicholas, it is the second part of the
name, the -clas, that usually survives. A more likely explanation is
that the confusion between the water spirit, variously known as Nick,
Neck, Nicor, Nökke, Nickel, Nickelmann, and St. Nicholas, is explained
by a well-known process of popular etymology. St. Nicholas with his
attributes as controller of the waters, inherited from the mythical
Poseidon and Artemis, when in the eleventh century he became known in
the West, became confused with the more and more vaguely conceived
pagan water spirit of similar name, and in the end, in certain places,
became identified with him, thereby inheriting some of his qualities,
and influencing the form of his name.

Over in Russia also St. Nicholas has fallen heir to similar attributes.
In this way he has come to figure in an interesting episode in recent
musical history, an episode which illustrates in a most interesting
way how the influence of St. Nicholas has penetrated to affairs of
our own time. Rimsky-Korsakoff, in his opera, _Sadko_, composed in
1896, made use of an old Novgorod folk-tale of the Volga. This story
centers about a river deity said to be something like the Old Man of
the Sea in the Arabian Nights Tales. Under Christian influence this
tale has been converted into a story of St. Nicholas, one of many told
of him in Russia, where he is one of the most popular of the saints.
Both versions of the popular story persist, the earlier, pagan form
and the one where St. Nicholas has inherited the prominent part.
Rimsky-Korsakoff, after some hesitation which of the two versions to
use, finally made choice of the later, St. Nicholas, version. But here
he came into conflict with Russian orthodox bureaucracy, which would
not permit such irreverent use to be made of the Russian patron saint
Nicholas. The composer, therefore, made a change, substituting the
names of the older version. But in his opera he had made free use of
musical themes derived from the liturgy of the St. Nicholas festival,
and this music he retained, making a humorous incongruity between the
sacred music and the pagan story. A quarrel with officialdom resulted,
which is said to have been one of the reasons why Rimsky-Korsakoff lost
his position as Director of the Conservatoire at Petrograd.

Attempt has been made to connect St. Nicholas, through his relationship
to the Teutonic water spirit, with Odin, who in one of the Edda poems
is given the name Hnikar. This particular link between St. Nicholas and
Odin has not been successfully established. It is certain, however,
that a relationship exists. The time of the St. Nicholas festival,
December 6th, and of Christmas, where St. Nicholas has come to play
an important part, coincides in part with the season of the year when
Odin, as god of the air, made his nightly rides, or, as god of the
dead led through the air the troops of spirits of departed ones. The
coincidence in time, under Christian influence, led to the transfer
to St. Nicholas of some of the functions of Odin. The heritage of St.
Nicholas from Odin has been discussed in an earlier chapter. From Odin
St. Nicholas inherited his gray horse, which in some Germanic countries
he uses in his nightly rides, but which he traded for a reindeer before
coming to America. For this horse of St. Nicholas children in parts
of Europe leave the hay and oats once left for the horse of Odin. From
Odin, too, Santa Claus inherited certain details of his appearance,
most notably his long white beard as distinguished from the kind of
beard familiar in pictures of the bishop-saint.

From others of the Teutonic gods St. Nicholas received legacies. In him
various scholars[106] have recognized attributes of Fro and of Niordhr,
the father of Fro. The task of purveying gifts for children, for which
St. Nicholas uses the horse of Odin, is a function sometimes attributed
to the spirits of the dead, who, with or without Odin as a leader, in
the time of the shortest days of the year are supposed to revisit their
earthly homes.[107]

From this discussion one will see that the Christian saint Nicholas
has the same perplexing variety of aspects that make it so difficult
to form any single unified conception in the case of one of the pagan
gods. At Bari, in Italy, where his relics are preserved, on his
festival day, he receives the honors of a water god not necessarily
malevolent in character. His image is borne by sailors in procession
out to sea and at nightfall is escorted back to the cathedral with
torches, fireworks, and chanting.[108] In parts of France he has
inherited different qualities; his name is given to a water spirit, a
veritable ogre in its malevolence. In many other countries, including
our own, he has inherited the pleasant rôle of children’s benefactor.
If one wishes to gain a realization of how popular heroic conceptions
are formed, one should compare the many-sided St. Nicholas known in our
own day in the various countries of Christendom with the simple figure,
as clearly as one may distinguish it, of the kindly youth that was born
at Patras in Asia Minor in the early days of Christianity.



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[109] 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[110] 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.”

[Illustration: 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.[111] 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.



    And when it pleased our Lord to have him depart out of this world,
    he prayed our Lord that he would send him his angels, and inclining
    his head, he saw the angels come to him, whereby he knew well
    that he should depart, and began this holy psalm: _In te domine
    speravi_, unto _in manus tuas_, and so saying: “Lord into thine
    hands I commend my spirit,” he rendered up his soul and died, the
    year of our Lord three hundred and forty-three, with great melody
    sung of the celestial company.

This is the Golden Legend account of the end of the earthly life of
the kindly bishop-saint. His body was placed in a tomb of marble, and
in the year 1087 was discovered by Italian merchants and borne by them
to the city of Bari in Italy. There his tomb is a famous center for
pilgrimages. On his festival day, many thousands bearing staves bound
with olive and pine honor his memory.[112] It is said that when his
tomb at Myra was opened, the body was found swimming in oil, and that
to this day there continues to issue from his body a holy oil “which is
much available to the health and sicknesses of many men.”

St. Nicholas, the guardian of so many things, also keeps guard over his
own remains. Wace relates the story of a man carrying off a supposed
tooth of the holy saint. In the night St. Nicholas appeared and
admonished the thief, and in the morning the tooth was gone.

St. Nicholas was mortal. But his deeds are immortal. His beneficent
acts have flowered in legendary story and have found fruition in
universal popular customs animated by the same spirit of kindness that
pervaded the whole life of the saint. Probably the life history of no
other person, save that of the Founder of Christianity himself, has
been so intimately woven about human custom and human life as that of
St. Nicholas. In certain parts of Siberia he is worshiped as a god.
Even in our own country, although we are supposed to have outgrown
idolatry, representations of Santa Claus about Christmas time, in shop
windows and on street corners, are objects of worship little short of
idolatry. To Santa Claus also at Christmas time are addressed the most
sincere, even if not the most unselfish, supplications.

We may well conclude our present consideration of St. Nicholas and
his works with an invocation to him, using the words composed by the
recluse Godric, back in the twelfth century, which form one of the very
earliest of English lyrics:

    Sainte Nicholaes, godes druth,
    Tymbre us faire scone hus--
    At thi burth, at thi bare--
    Sainte Nicholaes, bring us wel thare.



[1] Manchester _Guardian_.

[2] A. Tille, _Die Geschichte der Deutschen Weihnacht_, Leipzig, 1893,
p. 30.

[3] O. von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, _Traditions et Légendes de la
Belgique_, p. 302.

[4] Do., p. 323.

[5] Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, _Das festliche Jahr der germanischen
Völker_, Leipzig, 1863, pp. 360 ff.

[6] Do., pp. 362, 363.

[7] P.M. Hough, _Dutch Life in Town and Country_, London and New York,
1901, pp. 116 ff. The present account of St. Nicholas customs in
Holland is based on notes from the book by Hough, but is not quoted
exactly in order of details nor in wording.

[8] Do., p. 121.

[9] I. von Zingerle, _Zeitschrift für Volkskunde_, ii., 329 ff.

[10] Hough, _op. cit._, p. 117.

[11] Do., p. 125.

[12] Do., p. 125.

[13] I. von Zingerle, _op. cit._, p. 343.

[14] Hough, _op. cit._, p. 125.

[15] Do., p. 126.

[16] Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, _Das festliche Jahr_, p. 362.

[17] Tille, _op. cit._, p. 35.

[18] Brand, _Popular Antiquities_, i., p. 420.

[19] Tille, _op. cit._, p. 299.

[20] Do., p. 36.

[21] Do., p. 33.

[22] Do., p. 36.

[23] Do., p. 202.

[24] Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, _Das festliche Jahr_, p. 382; C. A. Miles,
_Christmas_, London, 1912, p. 231.

[25] _St. Nicholas, Our Holidays_, New York, 1916, p. 64.

[26] W. A. Wheeler, _Dictionary of Noted Names in Fiction_, Boston,

[27] Tille, _op. cit._, p. 119.

[28] Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, _op. cit._, p. 342.

[29] Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, quoted by Miles, _op. cit._, p. 277,

[30] Hough, _op. cit._, p. 120.


[31] G. de Saint Laurent, _Guide de l’Art Chrétien_, 1874, v., p. 349.

[32] A. Butler, _Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and other Principal
Saints_, London, 1838.

[33] New York _Times_, Oct. 24, 1915.

[34] Mrs. Jameson, _Sacred and Legendary Art_, vol. ii.


[35] _The Golden Legend_, Caxton translation, Temple Classics series,
vol. ii., pp. 109-122.

[36] Do., pp. 119, 120.

[37] Mrs. Jameson, _op. cit._; also H. Thode, _Franz von Assisi_,
Berlin, 1904.

[38] C. Cahier, _Caractéristiques des saints dans l’art populaire_,
Paris, 1867, vol. i.

[39] E. Anichkof, “St. Nicholas and Artemis,” _Folk-Lore_, v., pp. 108

[40] Hough, _op. cit._, p. 122.

[41] Brand, _op. cit._, i., p. 417.


[42] Tille, _op. cit._, p. 32.

[43] Do., p. 300.

[44] Brand, _op. cit._, i., p. 420.

[45] R. T. Hampson, _Medii Aevi Kalendarium_, London, 1841, ii., p. 76.

[46] T. Wright, _Songs and Carols_, Warton Club, 1856, p. 4.

[47] Brand, _op. cit._, i., p. 421.

[48] Brady, _Clavis Calendaria_, quoted by W. Hone, _The Every-Day
Book_, London, 1838.

[49] New York _Times_, April 18, 1915.

[50] Mrs. Jameson, _op. cit._

[51] Brand, _op. cit._, ii., p. 356.

[52] _Encyclopedia Britannica_, article “Pawnbrokers.”

[53] _Cf._ the story of the Jew who left his property under the
protection of the image of St. Nicholas.


[54] Galleria antica e moderna.

[55] C. A. Miles, _op. cit._, p. 168.

[56] A. F. Leach, “The Schoolboy’s Feast,” _Fortnightly Review_, vol.
lix., pp. 128-141.

[57] E. K. Chambers, _The Mediæval Stage_, London, 1903, i., p. 294.
The total amount of the debt to Chambers’s work it has not been
possible to indicate in these notes.

[58] Do., p. 357.

[59] Do., p. 348.

[60] Brand, _op. cit._, i., p. 423.

[61] Chambers, _op. cit._, p. 338.

[62] Tille, _op. cit._, p. 31, quoted by Chambers.

[63] Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, _Traditions et Légendes de la Belgique_, p.

[64] Leach, _op. cit._


[65] H. Thode, _Franz von Assisi_, Berlin, 1909.

[66] Verses 1080-1143.

[67] Verses 208-216.

[68] M. Hamilton, _op. cit._, pp. 47, 48.


[69] G. R. Coffman, _A New Theory concerning the Origin of the Miracle
Play_, Univ. of Chicago _diss._, 1914.

[70] Henry Morley, _English Writers_, 1889, vol. iii., pp. 105-114.

[71] E. Du Meril, _Les Origines Latines du Théâtre Moderne_, new
edition, Paris, 1897, pp. 272-276.

[72] C. M. Gayley, _Plays of our Forefathers_, New York, 1907, p. 64.

[73] Du Meril, _op. cit._, pp. 276-284.

[74] Gaston Paris, _La littérature française au Moyen-Age_, Paris,
1890, §167.

[75] W. Creizenach, _Geschichte des neueren Dramas_, Halle, 1893, i.,
pp. 139-141.


[76] E. Bisland and A. Hoyt, _Seekers in Sicily_.

[77] Brand, _op. cit._, pp. 363, 364.

[78] Do., pp. 363, 364.

[79] H. F. Feilberg, _Jul_, Copenhagen, 1909, i., p. 105.

[80] C. Cahier, _op. cit._

[81] This additional list is derived from somewhat scattered references
in works cited above by Brand and by Cahier.

[82] M. Hamilton, _op. cit._, pp. 29, 30.

[83] E. Anichkof, _op. cit._, pp. 108 ff.

[84] Brand, _op. cit._, i., p. 419.

[85] Anichkof, _op. cit._

[86] Zingerle, _op. cit._, p. 334.

[87] Anichkof, _op. cit._, p. 109.

[88] First part of _Henry IV._, Act II., scene i.

[89] Brand, _op. cit._, i., p. 418. _Cf._ also the Oxford Dictionary
under Nicholas.

[90] T. Wright, _op. cit._, p. 99.


[91] M. Hamilton, _op. cit._, p. 16.

[92] Do., p. 13.

[93] Do., p. 18.

[94] Do., p. 20.

[95] Do., p. 33.

[96] Do., p. 34.

[97] Do., p. 31.

[98] J. C. Lawson, _Modern Greek Folk-Lore and Ancient Greek Religion_,
Cambridge, 1910, p. 135.

[99] M. Hamilton, _op. cit._, p. 30.

[100] E. Anichkof, _op. cit._, p. 114.

[101] Do., pp. 115, 116.

[102] Hampson, _op. cit._, p. 68.

[103] Keightley, _Fairy Mythology_, i., pp. 234, 235, quoted by
Hampson, _op. cit._, p. 75.

[104] _Revue des traditions populaires_, i., p. 7, quoted by Anichkof.

[105] This is the main thesis of the article by Anichkof.

[106] J. W. Wolf, Hocker, and Al Kaufmann, quoted by Zingerle, _op.
cit._, p. 331.

[107] A. Tille, _Yule and Christmas_, London, 1899, p. 115; H.
Feilberg, _Jul_, Copenhagen, 1904, ii., p. 179.

[108] C. A. Miles, _op. cit._, p. 221.


[109] C. Cahier, _op. cit._

[110] Wace, _op. cit._, vv. 342 ff.

[111] J. V. Jarnik, _Zeitschrift für Volkskunde_, ii., pp. 348, 349.


[112] Miles, _op. cit._, p. 221.

    Transcriber's notes:

    The following is a list of changes made to the original.
    The first line is the original line, the second the corrected one.

    Belgian children, exiled in France for more that two years,
    Belgian children, exiled in France for more than two years,

    paintings there is a scene respresenting the infant Nicholas
    paintings there is a scene representing the infant Nicholas

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