December 6th: St. Nicholas Day

By Robert Chambers

December 6th is the Feast Day for St. Nicholas, archbishop of Myra, 342. It is also the day of Saints Dionysia, Theophilus, Dativa, Aemilianus, Boniface, Leontia, Tertius, Majoricus, and Peter Paschal.

St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas belongs to the fourth century of the Christian era, and was a native of the city of Patara [1], in Lycia, in Asia Minor. So strong were his devotional tendencies, even from infancy, that we are gravely informed that he refused to suck on Wednesdays and Fridays, the fast-days appointed by the church! Having embraced a religious life by entering the monastery of Sion, near Myra, he was in course of time raised to the dignity of abbot, and for many years made himself conspicuous by acts of piety and benevolence. Subsequently he was elected archbishop of the metropolitan church of Myra, and exercised that office with great renown till his death. Though escaping actual martyrdom, he is said to have suffered imprisonment, and otherwise testified to the faith under the persecution of Dioclesian.

As with Saint Cuthbert, the history of Saint Nicholas does not end with his death and burial. [2] His relics were preserved with great honour at Myra, till the end of the eleventh century, when certain merchants of Bari, on the Adriatic, moved by a pious indignation similar to what actuated the Crusaders, made an expedition to the coast of Lycia, and landing there, broke open the coffin containing the bones of the saint, and carried them off to Italy. They landed at Bari on the 9th of May 1087, and the sacred treasure, which they had brought with them, was deposited in the church of Saint Stephen. On the day when the latter proceeding took place, we are told that thirty persons were cured of various distempers through imploring the intercession of Saint Nicholas, and since that time his tomb at Bari has been famous for pilgrimages. In the ensuing article a description is given of the annual celebration of his festival in that seaport.

Perhaps no saint has enjoyed a more extended popularity than Saint Nicholas. By the Russian nation, he has been adopted as their patron, and in England no fewer than three hundred and seventy-two churches are named in his honour. He is regarded as the special guardian of virgins, of children, and of sailors. Scholars were under his protection, and from the circumstance of these being anciently denominated clerks, the fraternity of parish clerks placed themselves likewise under the guardianship of Saint Nicholas. He even came to be regarded as the patron of robbers, from an alleged adventure with thieves, whom he compelled to restore some stolen goods to their proper owners.

But there are two specially celebrated legends regarding this saint, one of which bears reference to his protectorship of virgins, and the other to that of children. The former of these stories is as follows: A nobleman in the town of Patara had three daughters, but was sunk in such poverty, that he was not only unable to provide them with suitable marriage-portions, but was on the point of abandoning them to a sinful course of life from inability to preserve them otherwise from starvation. Saint Nicholas, who had inherited a large fortune, and employed it in innumerable acts of charity, no sooner heard of this unfortunate family, than he resolved to save it from the degradation with which it was threatened. As he proceeded secretly to the nobleman’s house at night, debating with himself how he might best accomplish his object, the moon shone out from behind a cloud, and shewed him an open window into which he threw a purse of gold. This fell at the feet of the father of the maidens, and enabled him to portion his eldest daughter. A second nocturnal visit was paid to the house by the saint, and a similar present bestowed, which procured a dowry for the second daughter of the nobleman. But the latter was now determined to discover his mysterious benefactor, and with that view set himself to watch. On St. Nicholas approaching, and preparing to throw in a purse of money for the third daughter, the nobleman caught hold of the skirt of his robe, and threw himself at his feet, exclaiming: ‘0 Nicholas! servant of God! why seek to hide thyself?’ But the saint made him promise that he would inform no one of this seasonable act of munificence.

St. Nicholas giving gold to the maidens. Illustration from the Hours of Henry VIII. Jean Poyet, ca. 1500. Morgan Library.

From this incident in his life is derived apparently the practice formerly, if not still, customary in various parts of the continent, of the elder members and friends of a family placing, on the eve of Saint Nicholas’s Day, little presents, such as sweetmeats and similar gifts, in the shoes or hose of their younger relatives, who, on discovering them in the morning, are supposed to attribute them to the munificence of St. Nicholas. In convents, the young lady-boarders used, on the same occasion, to place silk-stockings at the door of the apartment of the abbess, with a paper recommending themselves to ‘Great Saint Nicholas of her chamber.’ The next morning they were summoned together, to witness the results of the liberality of the saint who had bountifully filled the stockings with sweetmeats. From the same instance of munificence recorded of St. Nicholas, he is often represented bearing three purses, or three gold balls; the latter emblem forming the well-known pawnbrokers’ sign, which, with considerable probability, has been traced to this origin. [3] It is true, indeed, that this emblem is proximately derived from the Lombard merchants who settled in England at an early period, and were the first to open establishments for the lending of money. The three golden balls were also the sign of the Medici family of Florence, who, by a successful career of merchandise and money-lending, raised themselves to the supreme power in their native state. But the same origin is traceable in both cases—the emblematic device of the charitable Saint Nicholas.

The second legend to which we have adverted is even of a more piquant nature. A gentleman of Asia sent his two sons [4] to be educated at Athens, but desired them, in passing through the town of Myra, to call on its archbishop, the holy Nicholas, and receive his benediction.

The young men, arriving at the town late in the evening, resolved to defer their visit till the morning, and in the meantime took up their abode at an inn. The landlord, in order to obtain possession of their baggage, murdered the unfortunate youths in their sleep; and after cutting their bodies to pieces, and salting them, placed the mutilated remains in a pickling tub along with some pork, under the guise of which he resolved to dispose of the contents of the vessel. But the archbishop was warned by a vision of this horrid transaction, and proceeded immediately to the inn, where he charged the landlord with the crime.

The man, finding himself discovered, confessed his guilt, with great contrition, to St. Nicholas, who not only implored on his behalf the forgiveness of Heaven, but also proceeded to the tub where the remains of the innocent youths lay in brine, and then made the sign of the cross, and offered up a supplication for their restoration to life. Scarcely was the saint’s prayer finished, when the detached and mangled limbs were miraculously reunited, and the two youths regaining animation, rose up alive in the tub, and threw themselves at the feet of their benefactor. We are further informed, that the archbishop refused their homage, desiring the young men to return thanks to the proper quarter from which this blessing had descended; and then, after giving them his benediction, he dismissed them with great joy to continue their journey to Athens. In accordance with this legend, Saint Nicholas is frequently represented, as delineated in the accompanying engraving, standing in full episcopal costume beside a tub with naked children.

St. Nicholas resurrecting the children. From “The De Grey Hours” . Unknown artist, circa 1390. National Library of Wales/Wikimedia.

An important function assigned to St. Nicholas, is that of the guardianship of mariners, who in Roman Catholic countries regard him with special reverence. In several seaport towns there are churches dedicated to St. Nicholas, whither sailors resort to return thanks for preservation at sea, by hanging up votive pictures, and making other offerings. This practice is evidently a relic of an old pagan custom alluded to by Horace:

Me tabulâ, sacer
Votivâ paries indicat uvida 
Suspendisse potenti
Vestimenta marls Deo. [5]

The office of protector of sailors, thus attributed in ancient times to Neptune, was afterwards transferred to Saint Nicholas, who is said, on the occasion of making a voyage to the Holy Land, to have caused by his prayers a tempest to assuage, and at another time to have personally appeared to, and saved some mariners who had invoked his assistance.

St Nicholas Saves the Ship. Fra Angelico, ca. 1447-8. The Vatican/Wikimedia.

Notes:

  1. Patara later became known as Arsinoe, followed by Gelemiş in modern Turkey. Like the former city of Myra, now called Demre, it is found in the Antalya Province.

2. Regarding burial, see also “Santa Claus’ Three Graves”. You can also check Wikipedia for Saint Nicholas. As with many early medieval saints, relics of Saint Nicholas exist (or are said to exist) in several places other than his primary tomb (which, again, were translated to Bari after original burial in Gemeli, then Demri).

3. The three gold balls (in some legends, they are coins, bars, or bags of gold) also combine with the shoe/stocking motif to form the tradition of oranges at Christmas time, as decor, gifts, or in stockings. See also: “Why We Should Bring Back the Tradition of the Christmas Orange” (Smithsonian)

4. In art and in other versions, there are three boys who are resurrected.

5. “The sacred wall with my votive tablet shows that I have hung up my wet garments to the strong god of the sea.”

This text is an excerpt from the entry for December 6th from Robert Chambers’ Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, including Anecdote, Blog, and History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character. This book was first published in 1864 with additional editions published later. It is now in the public domain.

Notes and images added by Amos Staff.

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