George Harley McKnight.

St. Nicholas : his legend a online

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Sometimes they found a place in the story reper-
tory of secular minstrels. Artists other than
literary contributed their share toward the per-
petuation of the legendary story. The separate
scenes in the lives of the popular saints were pre-
sented in stained glass windows, particularly in
France, 4 in series of pictures on canvas, in
wall paintings adorning the chapels devoted to
particular saints, especially in Italy, or in sculp-
tured 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 re-
enacted in dramatic entertainments, by towns
or guilds in honor of their particular patron saints,
or by schoolboys in honor of their patron Saint

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

36 St. Nicholas

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 human-
ity 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 rever-
ence 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.



'"PHE legendary story of St. Nicholas has certain
features that distinguish it from the legen-
dary 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 Chris-
tian 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


38 St. Nicholas

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

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 informa-
tion concerning him serves in great measure to
explain the remarkable variety of the roles he has
assumed in the world's history. Only the nebu-
lous 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, un-
wedded maids, seamen, pirates, and thieves, how
it is possible to associate him with the whimsical
children's friend Santa Claus.

The story of the boyhood of St. Nicholas, rev-
erent in tone and not a little tinged with the

















Patron Saint of Schoolboys 39

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 1 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 pre-
served in the Vatican gallery. In these interest-
ing paintings there is a scene respresenting the
infant Nicholas at the time of his birth standing

40 St. Nicholas

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 there-
fore, children don him worship before all other

But it is to be feared that the exemplary boy-
hood of St. Nicholas would hardly in itself have
sufficed to give him so firm a hold on the affec-
tions of children. Children of our day, or shall
we say of the day that has just passed, in the

Patron Saint of Schoolboys 4 1

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

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: 2

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

42 St. Nicholas

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

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 antici-
pated the method of the modern motion picture.

Another story with St. Nicholas in his favorite
role 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


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

Patron Saint of Schoolboys 43

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 intro-

44 St. Nicholas

ductory 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 Deudone. 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, natu-
rally, 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 :

Patron Saint of Schoolboys 45

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, bring-
ing 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. 3

46 St. Nicholas

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 per-
formed 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






* o
CO o




co .g

6 ?

o c

*- o







Patron Saint of Schoolboys 47

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.

Still another story in which St. Nicholas appears
as the guardian angel of schoolboys, is the one
dealing with the resuscitation of the three school-
boys 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." 4 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

48 St. Nicholas

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 con-
ventional 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 subordina-
tion 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 be-
come, 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. 4
















Patron Saint of Schoolboys 49

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 repre-
sented 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 schoolboys. s

Mrs. Jameson has still another explanation to
offer. To use her own words : ' ' The story is some-
times 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 im-
proved on for the use it serves, to excite the grati-
tude 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

50 St. Nicholas

in keeping with the tone of little Red Riding Hood
or of Bluebeard.

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
Ban, and among the frescoed scenes at Santa
Croce. It is pictured on the pages of the Salis-
bury 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 ' ' Sinter-
klaes." 6 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 Faroe Islands. The youths rising from the
cask became a constant symbol used in represent-
ing 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 sen-
tinels on each side of the recessed portals, St.
Nicholas is frequently to be met with, always to
be recognized by his conventional pedestal formed




















Patron Saint of Schoolboys 51

by the tub from which are issuing the three saved

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, >ve
may hope inspired proper emulation on the part
of schoolboys. St. Nicholas, the generous pro-
tector, 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

52 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, 7 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 read-
justment, the same magic word affords him pro-
tection. 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

A. Lorenzetti. St. Nicholas Providing the Dower for the Three Maidens



DEFERENCE has already been made to the
*- ^ fact that after the introduction of Christian-
ity 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 asso-
ciation. 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 coin-
cided 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

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Online LibraryGeorge Harley McKnightSt. Nicholas : his legend a → online text (page 3 of 9)