George Harley McKnight.

St. Nicholas; his legend and his rôle in the Christmas celebration and other popular customs online

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iathe Oiristmas Celebration
and oliher Popular O^^^toms

eor^e H.McKnight



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St. Nicholas

His Legend and His Role in the Christmas

Celebration and Other Popular



George H. McKnight


G. P. Putnam's Sons

New York and London
^be Ijnicfterbocfter press



R 1918

Copyright, 191 7


GEORGE H. Mcknight


A FEW years ago, while trying to trace the
"** history of certain Christmas customs, I was
unavoidably brought into contact with St. Nicholas.
A closer acquaintance with that amiable person-
ality was the result, and acquaintance gradually
deepened into veneration and affection. In the
same year in which began my closer acquaintance
with St. Nicholas, I was so fortunate as to be
brought face to face with some of the quaint
pictures in which Italian painters, with so much
charm, have represented the various episodes in
the life of the saint. I was led to believe that
others would enjoy the pictures, not all of them
readily accessible, and that a wider knowledge of
St. Nicholas would greatly enlarge the circle of
his friends. The present book was the result.

My aim has been, not to offer an exhaustive
study of all the difficult questions that are con-
nected with the name of St. Nicholas, but to
bring together, from somewhat scattered sources,
the elements in his life story. The kindly acts

iv Preface

recorded of him have lived in popular memory
and have flowered into some of the most generally
cherished of popular customs. In St. Nicholas
the reader will come in contact with a personality
of unique amiability, whose influence has per-
meated popular customs for many centuries and
has contributed much of sweetness to human life.
My original contribution to the subject has
been slight. In the notes I have attempted to
indicate my indebtedness to other writers, al-
though the amount of this debt I have not been
able adequately to show. To the artists who
have represented with feeling and with charm
the scenes in the life of St. Nicholas, this book is
most indebted, and for them I wish to bespeak
a major part of the reader's attention.

G. H. McK

Columbus, O.,
July i6, 19 1 7.




I. — St. Nicholas, Santa Glaus, and
Kris Kringle

II. — Biography and Legend .

III. — The Boy St. Nicholas and St
Nicholas the Patron Saint of
Schoolboys ....

IV. — St. Nicholas and the Dowerless
Maidens ....

V. — The Boy Bishop, or Nicholas Bishop

VI. — Varied Beneficent Activity .

VII. — St. Nicholas Plays.

VIII.— St. Nicholas as Patron Saint

IX. — Pagan Heritage of St. Nicholas

X. — St. Nicholas, Defender of the

XI. — Conclusion














St. Nicholas and Other Saints


Gentile da Fabriano. (Florence.)


St. Nicholas in East Frisl^ . . . .12

Reproduced from Reinsberg-Duringsfeld, Das
festliche Jahr.

Christkindchen (Kris Kringle) and Hans

Trapp IN Alsace . . . . .18

Reproduced from Reinsberg-Duringsfeld.

St. Nicholas Scenes in the Stained Glass

OF BouRGES Cathedral .... 34
From P. Lacroix, Science and Art in the Middle Ages.

Three Scenes from the Early Life of St.

Nicholas 38

BeatoAngelico. (Rome.)

The Young Clerk Strangled by the Devil . 42

A. Lorenzetti. (Florence.)

St. Nicholas Restoring a Boy to his Father 46

Fresco at S. Croce, Florence.

viii Illustrations


St. Nicholas and the Murdered Schoolboys 48
L. di Bicci. (Metropolitan Museum, New York.)

Another Picture of the Same Scene . . 50

F. Pesellino. (Florence.)

St. Nicholas and the Three Maidens . . 52

A. Lorenzetti. (Florence.)

Another Picture of the Same Scene . . 54

Florentine School. (Louvre, Paris.)

Another Picture of the Same Scene . . 56

L. di Bicci (?). (Metropolitan Museum, New York.)

Madonna and Child and Various Saints . 60

L. di Bicci. (Florence.)

St. Nicholas and the Money Lender . . 64

Fresco at S. Croce, Florence.

The Boy Nicholas Elected Bishop . . 68

A. Lorenzetti. (Florence.)

St. Nicholas Saving the City in Time of

Famine. ...... 80

A. Lorenzetti. (Florence.)

Norman Baptismal Pont at Winchester . 84

St. Nicholas Saves the Knights about to be
, Beheaded 86

F. Pesellino. (Florence.)

Triumphal Car of St. Lucy at Syracuse in

Sicily 112

Illustrations ix


Images of Breton Saints . . . .116
St. Nicholas Saves the City from Famine . 118

Beato Angelico. (Rome.)

St. Nicholas Rescues Seamen . . .122

L. Monaco. (Florence.)

St. Nicholas in the Mosaics of St. Mark's

IN Venice 142




T^HE good St. Nicholas, the bishop-saint, is
^ strangely little known in America. He has
lent his name to a church here and there and to
a popular magazine for children, his proteges.
But how many people are familiar with the story
of his life? How many even know the date of his
own special festival ? There are countries in which
his memory is not thus neglected, in which the
festival of St. Nicholas is one of the important
events of the year. An English newspaper of
the first year of the war has this to report concern-
ing the Belgian custom :

The feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th, was cele-
brated at the Belgian refugee camp at Earle's Court,
England, with presents for the children, stockings
hung up, a Christmas tree, and all the rest of the

2 St. Nicholas

children's festivities which we associate with Christ-
mas eve and Christmas morning. This was not a
mere anticipation of Christmas. St. Nicholas' day,
and not Christmas, is the children's festival in Hol-
land, Belgium, and parts of Germany, and we have
borrowed the hanging up of stockings from them and
turned it into a Christmas custom. ^

Letters from Belgian children, exiled in France
for more that two years, offer further evidence
of the intimate and friendly relationship existing
between St. Nicholas and his Belgian children.
Here is a touching passage from a letter written
by a little eight-year-old Belgian girl from Varen-
geville-sur-Mer, in France, to an American "god-
mother"; the adult English used in translation
fails to reproduce the naive charm of the original.

We have just had a grand visit from St. Nicholas.
He came in person to bring us some nice things as he
used to do when we were home. We were playing
when, all at once, we heard singing at one side and
saw a bishop, ringing a bell. What joy, it is St. Nicho-
las! We kneeled down to receive his blessing, and
then sang a song and went into the house. St.
Nicholas talked to us and, best of all, he gave us some
presents. He gave us an orange, a barley sweet, a
cake, and some games. My, how happy we were!

Germaine Barbez.

Le i6 dec, 1916.

Santa Claus and Kris Kringle 3

Another little girl, a little older, writes from the
same place of 'how the "grand Saint Nicholas"
has gone out of his way to come to see the Belgian
children on December sixth, and how he delivered
admonitions to various boys and girls but did
not fail to distribute among them dainties much
appreciated by all, big and little.'

The importance of St. Nicholas in Belgian life
is evident. His festival day too, the celebration
of which is so deeply rooted as not to lose its life
in an atmosphere of exile and painful memory,
has continued to hold an important place in the
year's life not only of Belgium but, as remains to
be seen, of Holland. At one time the celebration
of St. Nicholas' day seems to have been general
in most of western Europe. There is plentiful
record of the earlier popularity of this celebration
in all the southern and western parts of the coun-
tries occupied by the peoples speaking the Teu-
tonic languages. It can be traced from Holland
and Belgium, through eastern France, the Rhine
provinces, Luxembourg, Alsace and Lorraine,
through Switzerland, both French and German,
as far east as the Tyrol and Salzburg, including
on the way Baden, Wurttemberg, and Bavaria*,
in Germany. "^ In northern Germany, Protes-
tantism, with its aversion to saint worship, was

4 ■ St. Nicholas

hostile to the St. Nicholas celebration. Also the
growing concentration on Christmas day of the
different winter popular celebrations, and espe-
cially the rapid rise in importance, during the
last two centuries, of the Christmas tree, have
caused the St. Nicholas customs, in many places,
to be absorbed into the Christmas celebration,
in other places, to go quite out of use. But popular
customs seem to be to some extent affected by
political boundaries, and in two of the smaller
countries of western Europe, Belgium and Hol-
land, the St. Nicholas customs still retain much
of their earlier vigor. •

In Belgium, St. Nicholas has long been among
the most venerated of saints, hardly second to
St. Martin. In the whole country there are one
hundred and six churches in his honor. ^ Besides
he is the patron saint of many trades and crafts,
for example, of the boatmen in cities on the Meuse,
of sawyers, dyers, turners, and haberdashers at
Bruges, of seedmen, packers, and coopers at
Liege, of haberdashers and mercers at Malines.
But above all he is the protector and the corrector
of children.

• The children's festival at Christmas time does
not exist in Belgium* The grand reveillon, the
great Christmas feast of southern France, which

Santa Claus and Kris Kringle 5

leads children to call Christmas the ''day when one
eats so much," the English Christmas, with its
life and gayety and open hospitality, have nothing
corresponding at Christmas time in Belgiimi,^
where the celebration of Christmas is confined
almost entirely to services in the church. In
place of the Christmas gayeties of other countries,
Belgium has its St. Nicholas festival .• St. Nicholas'
day throughout the whole country is a day of joy,
especially for the young. Even the German
Christmas tree, which has been gradually finding
its way into Belgium, is introduced not on Christ-
mas day, but on December 6th, the day devoted
to the honor of the popular saint. •

A writer of about fifty years back thus describes
the joyous celebration of St. Nicholas' day by
• Belgian children of that time.* "Weeks before-
hand, children full of impatience, before going
to sleep ask : * How many times must I go to sleep
before he comes?' They sing to him as soon
as it is dark, and they see him in their dreams,
giving them gifts or punishment, according as they
have been good or naughty. * Occasionally they
are made happy by a little gift that comes down
the chimney into a pinafore hung up to receive
it, or is found accidentally in the comer of the
room.* A joyful 'Thank you. Saint Nicholas'

6 St. Nicholas

greets each such gift. Each evening every comer
of the room is searched, and the children sing
with fervor their petition, one Flemish version
of which begins :

*Sint Niklaes, Gods heilge man,
Doe uwen besten tabbaerd aen,
En rydt er mee naer spanje
Omappelen van Oranje
Om peeren van -den boom.' "

In one of the versions of this children's song
the supplication is addressed to "Sinte Niklaes
van Tolentyn, " a saint quite distinct from Saint
Nicholas of Bari, the recognized patron of chil-
dren, but the heavenly postal arrangements seem
to be effectively organized, for, so far as known,
the wrong address used, in no way prevents the
desired response from their special protector and

On the eve of his festival day, St. Nicholas
makes his totu*, visiting palace and cottage. Fre-
quently in the early evening he makes a prelimi-
nary visit in bishop's robes, with pastoral staff
and miter, at each house making inquiries con-
cerning the conduct of the children, giving appro-
priate praise or warning, and promising on the
following morning to give more substantial reward.

Santa Claus and Kris Kringle 7

When he is gone, the children place receptacles
for the gifts which St. Nicholas is expected to let
fall down the chimney. The receptacle varies
in different places. Sometimes shoes are neatly
polished for the purpose, ^ at other times plates
or baskets or stockings or specially made shoes of
porcelain are set on the bed, in the open chimney,
before the door of a room, or merely in the corner
of a room. St. Nicholas' steed, variously con-
ceived of as gray horse or white ass, is not for-
gotten. For him the children put water and hay
or carrot or potato peeling or piece of bread, in
the shoe or basket or stocking. In the morning,
from the tipped-over chairs and general disarray
in the room, it is evident that St. Nicholas has
been present. Replacing the oats or hay or carrot
are found sweets and playthings for children that
have been good, obedient, and studious during
the year. ^ In the case of bad children, rods are
left, and the fodder is untouched.

A recent writer has given a highly interesting
account 7 of the similar celebration at the pres-
ent day in Holland, where St. Nicholas' day has
the same importance as in Belgium.

St. Nicholas' eve is a time of great importance to
children because at that time they receive a visit from

8 St. Nicholas

the saint, and his arrival is looked forward to with
trembling. A large white sheet is placed on the
floor in the middle of the room, and the children
stand about anxiously watching the slow movement
of the hands of the clock. In the meantime some of
the elder members of the family dress up so as to
represent St. Nicholas and his black servant. At
five minutes before the expected time, for St. Nicholas
generally announces at what time he may be expected,
they sing songs asking him to give liberally as is his
wont, and praising his greatness and goodness in elo-
quent terms. The first intimation of his arrival is a
shower of sweets on the sheet spread on the floor.
Then, amid the ensuing scramble, St. Nicholas ap-
pears in full bishop's vestments, laden with presents,
while in the rear comes his black servant with an open
sack in one hand, for naughty boys and girls, and in
the other a rod which he shakes vigorously from time
to time. St. Nicholas usually knows the shortcom-
ings of individual children, and on his departure gives
each an appropriate lecture, promising to return
later. Sometimes he makes the children repeat a
verse to him or asks about their lessons.

The mysterious events of the ensuing night
closely parallel those recorded for Belgium. St.
Nicholas' robe, his "beste tabbaerd, " enables him
to pass from place to place instantaneously. But
in his nightly journey over the roofs of houses,
he uses a horse which the children of Holland,
like those of Belgium, remember by leaving a

Santa Claus and Kris Kringle 9

wisp of hay for his use. ^ If, for some reason, on
account of lack of time or of money, the parents
have neglected to buy gifts, the children say,
"St. Nicholas' horse has glass legs; he has slipped
down and broken his foot."^

But the joys of St. Nicholas' eve in Holland are
not confined to children. It is a time, like the
Christmas season in England, for family reunions
and the renewal of old memories, also for the
giving of presents. But the manner of the Dutch
gift-giving has its distinctive features, for:

St. Nicholas' presents must be hidden and disguised
as much as possible and be accompanied by rhymes
explaining what the gift is, and for whom St. Nicholas
intended it. Sometimes a parcel addressed to one
person will finally turn out to be for quite a different
member of the family from the one who first received
it. For the address on each wrapper in various stages
of wrapping, makes it necessary for the parcel to
change hands as many times as there are papers to
undo. Tiniest things are sent in immense packing
cases. Sometimes the gifts are baked in a loaf of
bread or hidden in a turf. The longer it takes to
find the present, the greater the surprise.

Great delight is taken in concealing the identity
of the giver as long as possible. Even if the gift
comes from a member of the same household, before
the parcel is brought in, the doorbell is rung by a
servant in order to create the impression that the par-

10 St. Nicholas

eel has come from an outsider. For the same purpose
a parcel for a friend's house is often entrusted to a

On the evening of the celebration, after St. Nicholas
has said his adieux, promising to come again, the
children are packed away to bed, and the older people
have their special amusement. They sit about a table
in the middle of the room and partake of tea and
"speculaas," a spice cake bearing a great picture of
St. Nicholas, until their own surprises begin to arrive.
When this part of the program is over, about ten
o'clock, the room is cleared; the dust sheet laid down
for the children's scramble, is removed, the papers,
boxes, baskets, and the like, used in packing the
presents, are cleared away. The table is spread with
a white tablecloth, and when all have taken seats,
a dish of boiled chestnuts, steaming hot, is brought
in and eaten with butter and salt.'*^

Belgium and Holland have their special forms
of cakes and sweetmeats for the St. Nicholas
season. In Holland these are the fiat hard cakes
called *'Klaasjes"" once made exclusively in the
form of a bishop in honor of the bishop St. Nicho-
las, but now made in forms of every conceivable
kind of beast, bird, or fish. In certain places on
the Rhine the figure of the saint himself, the ' ' Klas-
mann," is baked in dough with currant eyes,
or an especially palatable little horse is formed of
honey cake dough and the ' ' KHas ' ' is inlaid on the

Santa Claus and Kris Kringle ' ii

horse. Then there is the ' ' Letterbanket " made
in the form of letters so that one may order his
name in cake, and the " Marsepein, " now made in
a great variety of forms, but formerly made only
in heart-shaped sweets ornamented with little
turtle doves made of pink sugar or with a flaming
heart on a little altar. The ''Marsepein" was
formerly used as a device in wooing. The young
man sent ' ' Marsepein " ^ "^ with a ''Vryer" of cake
to the young lady of his heart, and if she accepted,
he knew his cause was won.

There are also various accounts of the way the
cakes are made. In Vorarlberg if, on the morning
of St. Nicholas' day, mist is seen to rise, one tells
the children that St. Nicholas is baking his cakes,
''Zelten" or ''Klosse." All the different figures
found on the ''Zelten" have been made by St.
Nicholas' ass stepping on them with his shoes.
Another explanation of the origin of the cakes
has more direct relation with the life story of the
saint. • The story is told that the three maidens
rescued from shame by St. Nicholas — whose
story remains to be told in a later chapter — at
their marriage, out of gratitude, baked triple
kneaded rolls and distributed them among poor
children. ^3 •

Outside the homes, the time about St. Nicholas'

12 St. Nicholas

day in Belgium and Holland is one of unusual
life and gayety.

The old-time St. Nicholas fairs are no longer held
in the streets, at any rate, not in the large towns of
Holland, but exchange of presents is as universal as
ever, and the shops are as festive in appearance as
American shops at Christmas time.^"* New attrac-
tions for children are offered each year. Life-sized
figiires of St. Nicholas are frequent in front of shop
windows, and some establishments have a man dressed
like the good saint, who goes about the streets mounted
on a white steed, while behind him follows a cart
laden with presents to be delivered. Crowds of
children, singing, shouting, and clapping their hands,
follow. ^5

An older authority records concerning Belgium
that often in country districts this or that peasant
makes up as a long-bearded man or bishop and
rides through the dark streets on a gray horse,
or an ass, or a wooden horse, with a great basket
at his side and a bimdle of whips in his hand. '^

In no countries besides Belgium and IfoUand
is the celebration of St. Nicholas' day so widely
prevalent to-day. But, as already remarked, in
earlier times the celebration of St. Nicholas' day
was popular in many parts of Teutonic Europe,
particularly in Austria, Switzerland, aild southern
Germany. In various parts of these countries

Santa Claus and Kris Kringle 13

the old St. Nicholas customs still maintain a
vigorous existence. In Wurttemberg and Baden,
children on St. Nicholas' day receive gifts from their
godparents. • In Switzerland the gifts are brought
by "Samiklaus," in the Tyrol by the ''Holy Man,'*
in lower Austrta by "Niglo," in Bohemia by
''Nikolo."^7 At Ehingen on the Danube, it is
the custom to keep tally on a stick of the number
of prayers the children have said. The child
that can show many tallies is favored by Santi-
klos. Before going to bed children place bowls
under the bed and say the prayer:

" St. Nikolaus, leg mir ein, ■

Was dein guter Will mag sein,
Aepfel, Bimen, Nuss und Kern
Essen die kleinen Kinder gern.

(St. Nicholas put in for me
What thy good will may be,
Apple, pear, and good sweetmeat.
Little children love to eat.)"

In the morning the bowls are found filled with the
good things desired.^

In various places in Germany, Switzerland, and
Austria, the saint, represented by some older
member of the family, appears, or used to appear,
in person, in bishop's guise with staff and miter,
and makes inquiry concerning the behavior of

14 St. Nicholas

the children, and hears the children say their
prayers. Before his coming the children have
placed shoes in the garden behind a bush, and
when after his departure they go ottt, they find
the shoes filled with apples, nuts, and the like,
if their conduct has been good. ♦But in the case
of ill-behaved children, the shoes are likely to be
occupied by a whip.«

In Italy a similar custom was formerly observed
among people of higher social station. In the
courts of princes, on St. Nicholas' day, it was a
custom to hide presents ''in the shoes and slippers
of persons whom it was desired to honor, in such
manner as to surprise them when they came to
dress. The custom was called Zopata from a
Spanish word signifying a shoe."'^
• The function of St. Nicholas, it will have been
observed, is a double one, to bring pleasing re-
wards to good children, but also to bring fear to
children whose conduct has been bad. A Swiss
dialect dictionary published in 1806, defines
"Samiklaus" as a ''gift suclj as parents make to
their children through a disguised person named
Samiklaus (corrupted from St. Nicholas) in order
to give them pleasure and encourage them to duty
and obedience or to frighten them through the
strangely frightful make-up of the bogey man who

Santa Claus and Kris Kringle 15

accompanies the Samiklaus. " ^^ • As a means of ex-
citing fear in the ill-behaved children, the friendly
bishop was often accompanied on his rounds
by a children's bugaboo, a frightful figure with
horns, black face, fiery eyes, and long red tongue,
variously called Klaubauf, Krampus, Rumpanz,
and the like.''*'

• Ftirther evidence of the earlier wider preval-
ence of St. Nicholas customs is afforded by the
objections'' ' of seventeenth-century Protestant
preachers, quoted in a later chapter, who opposed
the attribution to St. Nicholas of gifts which, they
asserted, came from the Christ Child alone.
In objections such as these, is to be found one
of the causes of the decay of distinctively St.
Nicholas customs. Or perhaps we may better
say, here is an explanation why customs that per-
sisted, lost their association with the name of St.
Nicholas. There is apparent Protestant objection
to saint worship. There is also in evidence the
rivalry of the celebration in honor of the birth of
Christ which had received the name Christmas.
The Christmas celebration was in its origin a
church affair. Up to the fourteenth century the
church had tried in vain to convert it into a popular
festival. It employed all kinds of methods to
attract the traditional customs and beliefs of the

i6 St. Nicholas

beginning of winter to the church festival. But
only after the beliefs and practices earher at-
tached to Martinmas, to St. Andrew's day, and

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Online LibraryGeorge Harley McKnightSt. Nicholas; his legend and his rôle in the Christmas celebration and other popular customs → online text (page 1 of 9)