On St Nicholas’ Eve
Illustration by Paul Bommer
St Nicholas was the greek Bishop of Myra (now Demre in Lycia, part of modern-day Turkey) in the early fourth Century AD. Many miracles are attributed to his intercession and, over the centuries, he became a hugely popular saint. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus, whose English name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas (St Nick). In 1087 his relics were furtively transported to Bari in South-Eastern Italy, which is why is he sometimes referred to Saint Nicholas of Bari. His feastday is today, December 6th. Happy St Nick’s Day!
Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, pawnbrokers, children, and students (amongst others) throughout Christendom. He is show here in classical episcopal attire, with a few of the symbols assigned to him on the right – the three golden balls, a ship and infants in a barrel.
The most famous story involves helping out a poor man with three daughters. The father couldn’t afford a dowry for his three girls – it would have meant they remained unmarried and possibly be forced into prostitution. St Nick interceded by secreting donating three purses of gold coins over three nights, one for each of the three daughters. In some stories he threw the purses in through a window to avoid being identified as the donor, in others he dropped the money down the chimney, where it landed – plop – into the stocking of one of the girls. Hence the pawnbroker’s balls, Christmas stockings and gift-giving associated with the saint.
Another legend tells how a famine struck the land and a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, where he slaughtered and butchered them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only saw through the butcher’s horrific crime but also resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers. Hence the symbol of kids in a barrell or vat (I have only shown two not three as I ran our of space!) and hence St Nick’s association with children.
However, it is likely that the legend grew up from a misinterpretation of ancient icons and images of the saint where he is shown baptising heathens in a font. To show reverence for the saint, the men being christened were shown small, and over time, misread as being nippers in brine.