George Harley McKnight.

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from the Roman strence, a feature of the Roman
celebration of the Kalends of January, and sur-
viving distinctly in Latin countries, notably in


54 St. Nicholas

the etrennes of the French New Year's Day. With
both of these customs coalescing in the general
gift giving of Christmas, in America at least, is
still associated the name of Santa Claus, or St.

Aside from the coincidence in time between the
St. Nicholas festival and the pagan children's festi-
val, there was also a point of contact in one of the
best-known of the stories in the life of St. Nicho-
las, which, associated with the earlier custom at first
in a superficial way, in time affected its character.
The story in question is the famous one of the
young man St. Nicholas and his gifts to the
dowerless maidens. This story in the condensed,
not too lively, version in the Golden Legend, runs
as follows:

And when his father and mother were departed out
of this life, he [the young man Nicholas] began to
think how he might distribute his riches, and not to
the praising of the world but to the honor and glory
of God. And it was so that one, his neighbour, had
then three daughters, virgins, and he was a nobleman:
but for the poverty of them together, they were
constrained, and in very purpose to abandon them to
the sin of lechery, so that by the gain and winning
of their infamy they might be sustained. And when
the holy man Nicholas knew hereof he had great hor-
ror of this villainy, and threw by night secretly into
the house of the man a mass of gold wrapped in a















The Dovverless Maidens 55

cloth. And when the man arose in the morning, he
found this mass of gold, and rendered to God therefor
great thankings, and therwith he married his oldest
daughter. And a little while after this holy hermit
of God threw in another mass of gold, which the man
found and thanked God, and purposed to wake for
to know him that had aided him in his poverty.
And after a few days Nicholas doubled the mass of the
gold, and cast it into the house of this man. He
awoke by the sound of the gold and followed Nicholas,
which fled from him, and he said to him: "Sir, flee
not away so but that I may see and know thee. ' ' Then
he ran after him more hastily and knew that it was
Nicholas; and anon he kneeled down, and would have
kissed his feet, but the holy man would not, but re-
quired him not to tell nor discover this thing as long
as he lived.

This is the story which in general has linked
the name of St. Nicholas particularly with the
virtue of generosity. For instance, in Dante's
Purgatorio the shade of Hugh Capet introduces
the name of Nicholas in this connection.

Esso parlava ancor della largezza

che fece Niccolao alle pulcelle,

per condurre ad onor lor giovenezza.

" It spoke further of the generosity of Nicholas
toward the maidens in order to conduct their youth
to honor."

Canto xx., vo. 31-33.

56 St. Nicholas

Among schoolboys the story was particularly
well known. It formed the subject of one of the
plays performed by them on St. Nicholas' eve.
It, also, more frequently than any other incident
in his life story, forms the subject of pictures by
Byzantine and early Italian painters. The pic-
tures representing the dejected father and the
daughters preparing for bed, one of the daughters
sometimes dutifully pulling off her father's boots,
and the youth St. Nicholas on the outside of the
house furtively casting through an open window
his gifts of gold, inevitably bring to mind the
later methods of gift bestowing employed by Santa
Claus. That the connection was felt in earlier
times is made clear from earlier references to the
custom, especially in the form of Protestant
objection. For instance, a preacher of Lauban
in 1608, referring to St. Nicholas' gifts to the
maidens, remarks : ' ' Hence comes the custom that
some parents lay something on the bed for chil-
dren and say St. Nicholas has given it, which is an
evil custom since by it the children are directed
to St. Nicholas when we know that not St. Nicho-
las but the holy Christ Child gives us everything
good for body or for soul." 1 Another Protestant
preacher of the same period makes similar objec-
tion, saying: "One had better tell the children









The Dowerless Maidens 57

that the dear Christ Child sent such gifts; if
they shall be good, better ones will follow on
Christmas day." The surreptitious manner of
conveying the gifts to the children must have
been an old practice as may be inferred from the
incident recorded of the young man of the six-
teenth century who, in attempting to imitate
St. Nicholas, fell through an opening left for grain
and nearly lost his life. 2

That the association of St. Nicholas with gift
giving was known in England in the sixteenth
century, is shown by the following lines from
Barnabe Googe's Popish Kingdom, a translation
from the Regnum Antichristi by Naogeorgus:

"Saint Nicholas money used to give to maidens


Who that be still may use his wonted liberality;
The mothers all their children on the eve do cause to

And when they every one at night in senseless sleep

are cast,
Both apples, nuts, and pears they bring, and other

things beside,
As caps, and shoes and petticoats, with other things

they hide,
And in the morning found, they say, 'Saint Nicholas

this brought.'" 3

Down to within recent times in the church of
S. Nicola in Carcere at Rome, the generosity of

58 St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas was annually commemorated, by
the giving of gifts to poor children in the sacristy
after the memorial Mass on St. Nicholas' day. This
custom at Rome seems to have been discontinued,
but the memory of it, and the attending hopes for
gifts, are not extinct, as the present writer had
opportunity to observe when attending services
in honor of St. Nicholas at this church on St.
Nicholas' day, in 1914. After the Mass a throng
of expectant parents and children followed the
officiating priest into the sacristy and were per-
mitted to kiss the ring on the hand of the offici-
ating priest, but in their hope for the customary
presents, met with keenly felt disappointment.

But although in modern times deprived some-
what of the gratitude once felt for him as a giver
of gifts, St. Nicholas for centuries has been hon-
ored on account of another phase of his kindly
art, the procuring of husbands for marriageable
girls. Reference has already been made to the
fact that in the Netherlands the special cakes of
the St. Nicholas festival are said to perpetuate a
custom originated by the three daughters in the
story, who on their marriage day are said to have
baked such cakes and distributed them among
poor children as a sign of gratitude.

Honor paid to St. Nicholas by unwedded maids

The Dowerless Maidens 59

goes back a great many centuries. Among
Normans of the twelfth century he was regarded
as the peculiar saint of spinsters, who invoked
him in order to procure speedy marriage. 4

The same idea is in evidence in English popular
carols, in which St. Nicholas is praised particu-
larly as a provider of husbands. One song of
seven stanzas recites the story of how St. Nicholas
saved the maidens, and ends with the stanza:

" Seynt Nicholas, at the townys ende,
Consoylid the maydens horn to wynde,
And throw Godes grace he xulde hem synae
Husbondes thre, good and kind."

The refrain is:

' ' Alle maydenis for Godes Grace,
Worchepe ye seynt Nicolas." 5

One of the most important of marriages in English
history is associated with this St. Nicholas custom.
In one of Bishop Fisher's sermons it is recorded
of Margaret, Countess of Richmond, mother of
Henry VII., "that she prayed to St. Nicholas,
the patron and helper of all true maydens, when
nine years old, about the choice of a husband;
and that the saint appeared to her in a vision and
announced the Earl of Richmond." 6

60 St. Nicholas

From another ancient authority we have similar
testimony, 7 as follows :

St. Nicholas was likewise venerated as the pro-
tector of virgins; there are, or were until lately,
numerous fantastical customs observed in Italy and
various parts of France, in reference to that peculiar
tutelary personage. In several convents it was
customary, on the eve of St. Nicholas for the board-
ers (sic) to place each a silk stocking at the door of
the apartment of the abbess with a piece of paper
enclosed, recommending themselves to "great St.
Nicholas of her chamber," and the next day they
were called together to witness the saint's attention,
who never failed to fill the stockings with sweet-
meats and other trifles of that kind, with which
these credulous virgins made a general feast.

If the kindly saint, in this case, was not in position
to provide husbands, he at least provided agreeable

The conception of St. Nicholas as the protector
of maidens and the provider of husbands and the
association of this idea with the story of his gener-
ous act toward the three maidens in distress, is by
no means extinct in our own times, as is shown by
the following account of English customs recorded
in a recent newspaper : 8

In the mining districts of the North of England
























The Dowerless Maidens 61

they still maintain the pleasant custom of collecting
"maidens' purses" on Christmas eve.

These purses, in most cases subscribed for by the
mining folk themselves, are intended as marriage
portions for girls undowered with worldly wealth, who
are expecting to be led to the altar. On Christmas
eve the full purse is stealthily thrown in at the girl's
window to avoid any possibility of wounding her

In one parish four purses are provided every
Christmas eve by a woman now rich, who makes no
secret of the fact that her own wedding day was bright-
ened by the gift thrown in at the window when she
was a miner's lass.

Among the images of saints in France and other
northern countries of Europe, as has already been
remarked, the tub with the three saved youths is
the conventional sign of St. Nicholas. Italian
artists, on the other hand, represent St. Nicholas
in bishop's garb and with three golden balls, com-
monly on a book which he holds in his hand, but
sometimes in his cap or at his feet. 9 This con-
ventional symbol of the three balls is sometimes
explained as alluding to the Trinity, or to the
loaves of bread used by the saint in feeding the
poor in a famine, but is more usually associated
with the three gifts to the three maidens, the
balls of gold corresponding in appearance to the
handfuls of gold tied up in a handkerchief thrown

62 St. Nicholas

in at the window by St. Nicholas, in the repre-
sentations of the scene.

Remote as at first thought may appear the con-
nection between St. Nicholas and pawnbrokers,
it seems possible also to connect the three balls,
the conventional sign for St. Nicholas, with the
more modern use of the three balls as the sign
of the professional money-lender. The pawn-
broker's three balls have been sometimes explained
as derived from the arms of the Medici. A more
generally received explanation is that the three
balls were used as a sign before their houses by the
Lombard bankers. "The three blue balls," says
Brand, 10 "prefixed to the doors and windows of
pawnbrokers' shops (by the vulgar humorously
enough said to indicate that it is two to one that
the things are ever redeemed) were in reality the
arms of a set of merchants from Lombardy, who
were the first that publicly lent money on pledges.
They dwelt together on a street from them called
Lombard Street, in London." It has been said
that "the golden balls were originally three flat
yellow effigies of byzants, or gold coins, laid
heraldically upon a sable field, but that they
were presently converted into balls the better to
attract attention. " 1 r

A plausible explanation, which, however, remains

The Dowerless Maidens 63

to be proved, would be found in the association of
the three balls of the pawnbroker with the three
golden balls, the symbol of St. Nicholas, whom the
Lombard bankers might well have chosen as their
patron saint. If one were disposed to be unchari-
table, one might call attention to the fact that
St. Nicholas was the patron saint not only of
schoolboys and unwedded maids, and as remains
to be shown, of mariners, but also of pirates and
thieves, between whom and the kindly saint the
connection is not, at first thought, obvious, and
one might try to show a relationship between the
pawnbroker who lends money on pledges, and the
pirate or thief who borrows money without a
pledge. The suggestion is not intended seriously,
but it is seriously believed that the association
with St. Nicholas is not more unlikely in one
case than in the other. Confirmatory evidence
is afforded by the legend of the saint, in which is
included an episode that seems to establish St.
Nicholas as the protector of the money-lender as
firmly as the stories already discussed associate
him with the protection of boys and of maidens.
In the Golden Legend the story is told as follows:

There was a man that had borrowed of a Jew a
sum of money, and sware upon the altar of St. Nicho-
las that he would render and pay it again as soon as

64 St. Nicholas

he might, and gave none other pledge. And this
man held this money so long, that the Jew demanded
and asked his money, and he said that he had paid
him. Then the Jew made him to come before the
law in judgment, and the oath was given to the debtor.
And he brought with him an hollow staff, in which
he had put the money in gold, and he leant upon the
staff. And when he should make his oath and swear,
he delivered his staff to the Jew to keep and hold
whilst he should swear, and then sware that he had
delivered more than he ought to him. And when
he had made the oath, he demanded his staff again
of the Jew, and he nothing knowing of his malice,
delivered it to him. Then this deceiver went his way,
and anon after, him list sore to sleep, and laid him
in the way, and a cart with four wheels came with
great force and slew him, and broke the staff with
gold that it spread abroad. And when the Jew heard
this, he came thither sore moved, and saw the fraud,
and many said to him that he should take to him
the gold; and he refused it, saying, But if he that
was dead were not raised again to life by the merits
of St. Nicholas, he would not receive it, and if he came
again to life, he would receive baptism and become
Christian. Then he that was dead arose, and the
Jew was christened.

This story forms the subject of three spirited
scenes in the frescoes at Santa Croce, which repre-
sent the borrowing of the money, the oath on the
book before the altar of St. Nicholas, a place
detail neglected in the Golden Legend version,











u, 01
J3 O









The Dowerless Maidens 65

and the street scene where the sharper is run

The singular reversal of the role usually assigned
to the Jew in medieval story is striking. The
main purpose of the story seems to be not so much
to show the lack of appreciation on the part of
St. Nicholas of the sharp trick played, the kind
of trick that medieval story loved to record, espe-
cially when a Jew was the sufferer by the chicanery,
as to show the justice of St. Nicholas and perhaps,
if we are disposed to be skeptical about the truth
of the story, owes its origin to the desire to estab-
lish a relation of protectorship between St. Nicho-
las and the money-lending class, as other stories
established him as the protector of schoolboys,
of maidens, and of mariners.

Another of the best known stories of St. Nicholas,
which tells of the protection afforded a Jew on
another occasion, remains to be recorded in an-
other connection. 12 In any event there seems to
be good evidence in the story of St. Nicholas for
associating the three balls, his conventional sign,
with the three balls of the pawnbroker, and thus
establishing a connection, at first thought so far-
fetched, between the pawnbroker class and the
story of the dowerless maids.



TN all the representations of St. Nicholas, paint-
ing or image, except those pictures dealing
with his childhood, he appears with the robes and
insignia of a bishop. St. Nicholas is preeminently
the bishop-saint. Concerning his boyhood eleva-
tion to the episcopal rank, legend has an interest-
ing story to relate. Once more let us turn to the
Golden Legend, which relates the story as follows :

After this the bishop of Mirea died and other bishops
assembled for to purvey to this church a bishop. And
there was, among the others, a bishop of great author-
ity, and all the election was in him. And when he had
warned all for to be in fastings and in prayers, this
bishop heard that night a voice which said to him that,
at the hour of matins, he should take heed to the doors
of the church, and him that should come first to the
church, and have the name of Nicholas they should
sacre him bishop. And he showed this to the other
bishops and admonished them for to be all in prayers;
and he kept the doors. And this was a marvelous
thing, for at the hour of matins, like as he had been


The Boy Bishop, or Nicholas Bishop 67

sent from God, Nicholas arose tofore all other. And
the bishop took him when he was come and demanded
of him his name. And he, which was simple as a dove,
inclined his head, and said: I have to name Nicholas.
Then the bishop said to him: Nicholas, Servant and
friend of God, for your holiness ye shall be bishop of
this place. And sith they brought him to the church,
howbeit that he refused it strongly, yet they set him
in the chair. And he followed, as he did tofore in all
things, in humility and honesty of manners. He
woke in prayer and made his body lean, he eschewed
company of women, he was humble in receiving all
things, profitable in speaking, joyous in admonishing,
and cruel in correcting.

This episode is the most celebrated in the life of
St. Nicholas. It is represented in a number of
Italian paintings. The early morning appearance
of the boy Nicholas at the church and his surprise
as he learns of his election are presented in parti-
cularly lively manner in one of the scenes from his
life by Lorenzetti preserved at Florence. 1

Interesting in itself, the story of the elevation
of the boy Nicholas to the rank of bishop also
possesses interest because associated with some of
the most interesting of early church customs, those
centering about the personage of the Boy Bishop,
or Nicholas Bishop as he was sometimes called.
The explanation of this interesting personage and
the customs associated with him, like that of

68 St. Nicholas

Santa Claus, is a complex one. In the case of the
Boy Bishop customs once more we have probably
to do with the survival of pre-Christian customs
with which the Church associated new names and
new meaning.

The spirit that dominated the Christian De-
cember celebration and many details of the exter-
nal form of celebration are to be found in the
Roman pagan customs of December and early
January. The early winter season in Roman times
was a period of general relaxation and merry mak-
ing. In the week beginning December iyth and
ending December 23d, the ancient god Saturn
resumed once more, for a limited period, the
benign rule of which he had been deprived by his
more strenuous, shall we say more efficient, son
Jove. The week of the rule of Saturn, the Satur-
nalia, was a time of revelry and riot. The serious
was barred. No business was allowed; drinking
and games and noise prevailed. All men were to
be equal, rich and poor, slave and free. There
was chosen a mock king who could impose for-
feits. The Roman New Year's feast had a similar
character. As at the Saturnalia, masters drank
and gambled with slaves. 2 In the words of the
Greek sophist, Libanius: "From the minds of
young people it (the New Year's feast) removes


A. Lorenzetti. The Boy Nicholas Indicated as the Divine Choice for Bishop.

The Boy Bishop, or Nicholas Bishop 69

two kinds of dread : the dread of the schoolmaster
and the dread of the stern pedagogue."

The attitude of the Christian church toward
pagan custom is well known. Since it could not
hope to extirpate old practice, it endeavored to
adapt it to Christian use, giving to it Christian
meaning and, as far as possible, Christian char-
acter. It aimed to make the birth of Christ, and
the associated events, the dominating idea in its
celebration at the beginning of winter. In spite
of this intention, in the popular customs of the
Christmas season, even in the ceremonies of the
Church, there is apparent a survival of many fea-
tures of pagan practice. Especially in the practice
of the week following Christmas, there is to be
observed the leveling or inversion of rank, the
election of a mock ruler, and the general relaxa-
tion of discipline that were features of the pagan
celebrations of the same season at Rome. Thus
in the three days immediately following Christmas,
church discipline was sufficiently relaxed to permit
of revels in turn, by the lower orders of clergy
and by the choir boys. December 26th, St.
Stephen's day, was the day for the deacons, since
St. Stephen was a deacon. For this day the
deacons supplanted the higher dignitaries and took
the preeminence in the divine services. On

70 St. Nicholas

Christmas night, the eve of St. Stephen's day,
after vespers, the deacons formed a pompous pro-
cession dressed in silk copes like priests. On St.
Stephen's day the deacons performed the parts
of the divine service. There was also a great
deal of mock ceremonial, and drinking and pro-
cessions in the streets, with visiting of houses and
levying of contributions. 3 On the following day,
the day of St. John the Evangelist, the priests had
their innings. Features of their celebration were
mock blessings and the proclamation of a ribald
form of indulgence. On the eve of Innocents'
day (Dec. 28th), the priests gave way to the choir
boys, "the children," for the celebration of Childer-
mas. On Circumcision Day (Jan. 1st), the sub-
deacons, the "rookies" among the priestly orders,
took their turn at occupying the places of the
higher clergy.

The day of the sub-deacons, possibly because
of its coincidence with the Roman Kalends, was
celebrated in a particularly mad fashion. In the
words " Deposuit potentes de sede: et exaltavit hu-
miles" sung in the Magnificat at Vespers, was found
the suggestion for a general inversion in rank. For
the time, the places of rank and honor were taken
by the lowly sub-deacons. The sacred services
were burlesqued in most shocking fashion varying

The Boy Bishop, or Nicholas Bishop 71

in different places. In Paris 4 in the fifteenth
century, "priests danced in the choir dressed as
women, panders, or minstrels. Wanton songs
were sung. Black puddings were eaten at the
horn of the altar while mass was being celebrated,
and the altar was censed with ashes or by the
smoke from the soles of old shoes." Performers
without the church were even more irreverent
and riotous in character.

The choir boy customs of Holy Innocents' day
were somewhat like those described, although
more restrained in character, since, as Mr. Cham-
bers has remarked, boys were more amenable
to discipline than the older clergy. There was a
similar inversion of rank and, within limit, a
similar burlesque of custom, on this day the choir
boys taking precedence in rank, presided over by
one of their number, usually elected on St. Nicho-
las' day, with the title of Boy Bishop, or Nicholas

A central feature of the celebration was a pom-
pous church procession following vespers on
Childermas eve. In this procession the inversion
of rank was a feature. The book, the censer, and
the candles, usually borne by boys, on this occa-
sion were borne by reverend canons, and when
at the end of the ceremony the procession re-

72 St. Nicholas

turned to the choir, the boys took the places of
dignity in the higher stalls, with the Boy Bishop
in the stall of the bishop or dean. Then followed

1 2 4 6 7 8 9

Online LibraryGeorge Harley McKnightSt. Nicholas : his legend a → online text (page 4 of 9)