George Harley McKnight.

St. Nicholas : his legend a online

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tached 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. Nicho-
las retains his association with the old customs,
but the time is shifted from St. Nicholas' day to
Christmas time. In Catholic Nuremberg, for in-
stance, 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 sweet-
meats 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

Santa Claus and Kris Kringle 17

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 be-
came 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 "Ru Clas," 'Joseph Clas,"
"Clawes," 2 * "Clas Bur," and "Bullerclas," 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 role of children's
benefactor and children's bugaboo found his way
to America. Among the Pennsylvania Germans,
or "Pennsylvania Dutch, " as they are more famil-
iarly 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

i8 St. Nicholas

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 be-
came 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 en-
tirely 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


cS . *

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y M

H l-i







Santa Claus and Kris Kringle 19

of the bell summoned the children from the dark
anteroom into the room with the festal decora-
tions, 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 empty.

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 role 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 :

2O St. Nicholas

" 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 ap-
pearance, 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 Pam-
philius with the noble steed, Zink. Hansruhbart
and Brose are clad in pea straw and wear fright-
ful 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 distri-
butes 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

Santa Claus and Kris Kringle 21

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 ap-
pearance called Acesto, probably a traditional
figure that originated in customs that antedate

In all this discussion of various customs asso-
ciated 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. Nicho-
las, and as they exist to-day show only in cer-
tain external features any relation with the life
story of the kindly Eastern saint. This impres-
sion 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

22 St. Nicholas

well as St. Nicholas, figures as a giver of gifts to
children, especially in the Netherlands. At Ant-
werp 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 ap-
peared 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 stock-
ings 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 Martin-
mas 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.

Santa Claus and Kris Kringle 23

In several places in southern Germany, on St.
Martin's day, "Pelzmarte," with blackened face
and cowbells, went about giving beatings or
throwing apples into rooms, whichever the chil-
dren's behavior called for.

Some of the Martinmas customs had less re-
semblance" to St. Nicholas customs. The con-
vivial 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

24 St. Nicholas

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 coin-
cided 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 cele-
bration of saints' days later in the calendar. With
St. Nicholas, on December sixth, became asso-
ciated 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

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,

Santa Claus and Kris Kringle 25

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 doubt-
less 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 after-
wards were by the association with the Christian
saints. But in both cases this influence was only

A rapid resume may clear up some of the ob-
scure 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 further-

26 St. Nicholas

ance of human welfare. Perhaps influenced su-
perficially by conceptions of the Germanic gods,
eventually they came to be connected with the
honor of Christian saints. They afford a remark-
able 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

Santa Claus and Kris Kringle 27

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 Noel," in a manner like that in which in
England Father Christmas in part shares the role
of Santa Claus.



TT is quite apparent that the journeys of Santa
Claus by night over the housetops, and his
various chimney escapades, are beneath the dig-
nity 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 mythol-
ogy, 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.


Biography and Legend 29

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. 1 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 Constan-
tinople about the year 430, and he was titular
saint of four churches at Constantinople. 2

Yet with all this high esteem and veneration
through so many centuries, little is known con-
cerning 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 author-
ized story of his life set as the lectio or "read-

30 St. Nicholas

ing" 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 indi-
cating him to be the divine choice. In later life he
succored the oppressed, in particular saving three
tribunes unjustly condemned to death. At the Coun-
cil 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.

Biography and Legend 31

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 cus-
toms 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

32 St. Nicholas

deceive. Such is by no means the real explana-
tion 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 ex-
plain the revelations to St. Francis and the vivid
scenes from the life of Christ attributed to St.
Bonaventura. A similar condition serves to ex-
plain 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 pro-
duction 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 inten-
sity of feeling aroused by the war in Europe.
There has found wide circulation a story concern-
ing certain supernatural occurrences on the battle-
field 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". 3 The origin

Biography and Legend 33

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 never-
theless 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 recog-
nized as fiction, now finds ready credence, is re-
vealed 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

34 St. Nicholas

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 un-
sympathetic now often seeming preposterous.

The Church, too, in earlier times was not rigor-
ous 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 ob-
jects of its veneration, was hospitable to the won-
derful, 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. Legen-
dary 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.

Scenes from the Legend of St. Nicholas in the Stained Glass (thirteenth century)

of Bourges Cathedral.

Reproduced from Paul Lacroix, Science ami Art of tin- Miilillf Ages.

Biography and Legend 35

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