December 6th is St Nicholas’ Day. Nicholas is an interesting figure, or perhaps collection of figures, as the case may be. The official Nick was a bishop of Myra. His legends claim that he was born in about 270CE to wealthy parents in Greek Lycia. While still a child, he was orphaned by a plague and, upon receiving his substantial inheritance, gave it all to charity. He travelled extensively and worked wonders all around the Mediterranean. His miracles were especially associated with sailors and children. He was made a bishop very young and is supposed to have been one of the members of the Council of Nicaea in 325, though no contemporary records place him there. In fact, no contemporary records talk much about him at all. Nevertheless, he was so revered and his cult so popular that the first of many cathedrals raised in his honor was built by Emperor Theodosius II a scant 200 years after his death. Originally buried where he served as bishop, in 1087 his remains were removed from Myra when the Seljuk Turks claimed the surrounding lands — in what can only be described as a black ops grave robbery — and taken to Bari to be reinterred. Hence, Nicholas is known both as Bishop of Myra and St Nicholas of Bari.
This all may or may not be true. And it gets even more interesting.
Nicholas is the patron saint of dozens of cities, regions and countries as well as many large groups of people — sailors and children, merchants and fishermen, thieves and coopers and apparently broadcasters, among others. There are churches all over the world dedicated to Nicholas. He has at least two days of remembrance — 6 December, the day of his death, and 22 May, the day of the reburial of his relics. And for each of these, since he is honored in the Orthodox calendar also, there are two more days that correspond to the Julian calendar. He has more saint days than any other saint. He also managed to hold on to followers in the Protestant countries, unlike nearly every other saint save the original twelve apostles. Nicholas, himself, is seen as a sort of apostle, as he spent so much time on missions around the Mediterranean, enough so that he is usually pictured holding a gospel book. He is one of the most honored saints… and yet his saint day has been more or less decommissioned by the Vatican. Nick himself is still a saint, but Catholics are not required to celebrate any of his days.
The reason for this demotion is officially that we have so little information on Nicholas as a living person that it is uncertain that he was a living person. This might be a bit of prevaricating. We don’t know that most of the early saints were actual living persons. For that matter, there is scant contemporaneous evidence for Jesus. But Jesus kept better company, so to speak. Nicholas has some very interesting connections that might explain why the Catholic Church is uneasy with his cult.
Nicholas the bishop very likely was a person, though his miracles are rather more miraculous than average. He is credited with bringing murdered and dismembered boys back to life. He calmed the seas and changed the weather by power of his command. During his life, he was able to appear to people in dreams, and he returned from the dead to save the lives of children and others. Several times. He was apparently able to be in several places at once and could travel vast distances in seconds. Moreover, he heard and answered prayers, even while living. So there may be a bit of a credibility problem. Though, once again, that does not seem to matter for other saints. Just Nick. Very likely this is because Nicholas the bishop — if he ever was a human — has been conflated with some very different Others, and it’s as this magical composite that he is adored. Few people could say where he was a bishop or that he was a bishop. But everyone knows Santa Claus.
Well, we think we do anyway. But Nick has quite a few surprises in that sack. For one thing, it’s not always filled with gifts. Sometimes it’s bulging with ill-mannered children who are being borne away from their homes.
The transformation of Bishop Nicholas to St Nick of the reindeer and North Pole is a complicated tale. His cult traveled from the Mediterranean up to the cold north where he was conflated with various local legends, human and otherwise. The Dutch then carried him off to Pennsylvania where he underwent more alterations over the centuries. Then in the 19th century someone (most commonly ascribed to Clement Moore) wrote a children’s story about a soot-covered elf who visits on Christmas Eve in a flying sleigh pulled by tiny reindeer. And finally, 20th century marketing got ahold of this bizarre creature and turned him into a fat old man in an eye-watering red fur coat. (Animal unspecified.)
Along the way, Nicholas gathered a rather unusual group of companions. Some of these were blended into the Nicholas figure. An example is Belsnickle, a grumpy old man dressed from head to foot in furs, who wanders the countryside carrying birch boughs and a bulky sack that can variously hold apples and sweets or coal and sticks. The birch was used to beat naughty children. Sometimes the worst little demons went into the sack never to be seen again.
Belsnickle is almost always solitary and is identifiably human. His name is also easily derived from Nicholas. (The “bels” portion is from “peltz” which means “fur”.) But Belsnickle is tame compared to some of the others in Nick’s entourage. St Nicholas travels from home to home on the eve of his day along with, well, actual demons. There is Krampus, who has horns, cloven feet and a tongue that really ought to be suffocating. And Knecht Ruprecht, whose name means farmhand Rupert or servant Rupert. (By the way, “knecht” is also where English gets the word “knight”, which makes for a very different view of that role, no?) Rupert is the helper of Nicholas. He gets to do all the dirty work. Where Nick delivers gifts and sweets, Rupert delivers punishment — and seems to enjoy it. Then there is the painfully racist Black Peter who still manages to inspire Dutch folks to don black face for the Midwinter revels. There are even a few female characters — the Latin Befana, which means “hag”, leaving no question of her character, and the Germanic Bertha or Perchta, who has the delightful epithet “the belly-slitter” for her trademark punishment. In short, you don’t want to encounter Nick’s crew down dark alleys.
Nick also has a few angels in his train, and there are troupes of adorable boy bishops in tiny mitre caps who go door to door singing carols in exchange for treats. So Nick is not entirely devilish, but he’s also not entirely a “jolly old elf” (not that many of the old elves of Nordic folklore are all that jolly anyway…). And he is certainly no saint. In fact, we might have to concede that the Church has a point — he may not even be human, historic or otherwise. St Nicholas has come a long way from Myra!
In any case, St Nick still travels abroad on the night before the saint’s day. Children the world over leave out apples and straw for Nick’s horse or hang stockings by the fire in hopes of finding them magically filled with oranges and balls of gold in the morning. And then as Sinter Klaus, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, and Grandfather Frost he continues delivering gifts to good children and inspiring good cheer for all right through Epiphany. If there are sticks to his persona, there are even more wonderful carrots. And I truly like to think that maybe, evidence be damned, there is a Santa Claus.
Happy St. Nick’s Day!
©Elizabeth Anker 2021