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"Once again St Nicholas Day"

Published December 06, 2019 by Dr John Mueller

St Nicholas, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Advent, Nicholas Of Myra

"Children, I beseech you to correct your hearts and thoughts"

- attributed to St Nicholas

Nicholas of Myra is arguably the best known and most popular of Christian saints among all faiths. This late-3rd to mid-4th century bishop from Turkey is the – highly unlikely – father of modern-day Santa Claus or Father Christmas. His feast day is on 6 December, within the first week of the penitential season of Advent. This is a good few weeks before he allegedly comes down the chimney to hide sweets and presents under a fir tree. The fat, jolly, figure we know today is popularly claimed to be the brain-child of Coca Cola advertisers, who high-jacked the man dressed in their company colours out of Advent and into Christmas to boost sales. Penitence does not sell fizzy pop well. The Christmas song 'Santa Claus is coming to Town' does however hint at the role the saint developed over the centuries: 'He's making a list and checking it twice…'

Even grown-ups have to face the stern bishops during Christmas parties in many European countries.

The historic Nicholas came from a wealthy family and, upon entering the priesthood as a very young man, gave all his worldly possessions to the poor. His role as a gift-bringer to children probably stems from this historic fact. Specifically, he is said to have given gold coins to three virgins who would otherwise have had to prostitute themselves to be able to survive. St Nicholas can thus be identified in depictions by the three golden coins or apples he has in his hand. The same three golden coins today appear in logo of pawn-brokers, of which he is the patron saint. His other attribute is a sailing boat which stems from the legend that he navigated a ship through stormy weather, only being recognised as the Bishop upon arriving in Myra. He is thus also the patron saint of seafarers and coastal towns. The 'holy legends' (so-called as the point of them is not historic, but spiritual truth) around him abound and his relics, such as a piece of his death shroud, have been a source of comfort and the object of pilgrimage for centuries. On the whole the few facts and the things he and his relics are supposed to have done conjure up the vision of a pious, ascetic man who did not suffer fools gladly. 'Muscular Christianity', one might call his brand of faith today.

He has probably been an important saint since at least the 6th century, when we have evidence his feast day was kept on 6th December. Where the historic saint, rather than the commercial 'Santa', is celebrated today, he acts as a moral guardian. Good behaviour is rewarded, bad behaviour is punished. In Germanic schools and communities special evenings are put on where children get to meet him. He has a big book in which your good works and transgressions are recorded. Helpfully, these are provided to him by the conspiratorial parents in advance. The good are rewarded, the bad are punished. The experience is harrowing, children bursting into tears is not unusual or frowned upon. Yet most recall it with fondness, as Anne Frank did in her diary:

"Once again St Nicholas Day

Has even come to our hideaway;

It won't be quite as fun, I fear,

As the happy day we had last year."

St Nicholas, complete in bishop's vestments and bushy beard, usually appears accompanied by a malevolent apparition in various guises: Krampas – a devil – in Austria, Knetch Hubrecht – a demonic servant – in large parts of the Federal Republic, Switzerland and Alsace, and Zwarte Piet – a black-faced man in elaborate Moorish costume – in Scandinavia and Holland. Only the latter has more recently been resurrected as a benign and jolly companion; originally they would all stick you in a sack and beat you if you misbehaved.

Appeasing St Nicholas and his companion is, on the whole, relatively simple. Promise to do better and say a poem, sing a song or perform a piece of music. A present will then be left in your boot by St Nicholas as a reward that night. The message is clear: You are a sinner, only confession of transgressions and subsequent penance will lead to forgiveness and possible heavenly rewards. Gifts are given for being faithful and contrite. Next time you spot the fat and jolly man encouraging you to consumption in December remember what his severe Turkish father would have asked: 'Are you naughty or nice?'

Dr John Mueller is Director of Studies in History at St Edmund's College, Cambridge and Alumni & Supporter Relations Manager at the Woolf Institute. Find out more about him.

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