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Winter
Customs and Traditions
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Engraved copies from etchings of the town's patron saint preserved in the 19th century volumes of Veli Losinj (Lussingrande) parish records; courtesy of William Giacofcich.

History of St. Nicholas of Myra
(Nicholas of Bari) 

The Real St. Nick

Bishop of Myra (now Kale) in Lycia near the coast of what is now Turkey. He died 6 December, 345 or 352. Though he is one of the most popular saints in the Greek as well as the Latin Church, there is scarcely anything historically certain about him except that he was Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. 
   
St. Nicholas in the Great Church of Christ, Constantinople.
 

Some of the main points in his legend are as follows: He was born at Parara, a city of Lycia in Asia Minor. In his youth he was influenced by his uncle, Nicholas, bishop of Patara, to choose the monastic life. Nicholas was first a monk in the monastery of Holy Zion near Myra. In his youth he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine. Eventually he was made Abbot by the Archbishop, its founder.When the See of Myra, the capital of Lycia, fell vacant, St. Nicholas was appointed its Archbishop (or Bishop?). As a young man he was imprisoned during the persecutions of the Emperors Diocletion and Maximilian. 

In time he became known for his piety and acts of charity. While the Arian heresy was rampaging throughout Christendom, he sided with the Catholic party. The arch-heretic, Arius, had taught that Christ is neither equal to nor of one substance with the Father, but merely an intermediary between God and man. To crush this heresy, Emperor Constantine summoned the bishops into solemn conclave in the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325. At this council the Catholic party prevailed over the heretics and Arius was condemned. The story goes that Nicholas was present at the council and was so incensed by the heretic's arrogance that he struck him, for which reason he was expelled by the council fathers. Nicholas is nowhere to be found on the lists of bishops who attended the council., and was present at the Council of Nicaea as an opponent of Arianism. His death occurred at Myra on December 6 or 7, but they year is uncertain - perhaps 342, 345 or 347 A.D. 

St. Nicholas was not left to rest in peace after his death, for in those days the bodies of holy men were of great value, not only spiritually but commercially. When Myrna fells into the hands of the Saracens, news leaked that the Venetians were coming to carry off the saint's body. The merchant seamen of the port of Bari in south-eastern Italy were determined to divert them. The Catholic Encyclopedia states: "There was great competition for the relics between Venice and Bari. The last-named won, the relics were carried off under the noses of the lawful Greek custodians and their Mohammedan masters, and on May 9, 1087 were safely landed at Bari, a not inappropriate home seeing that Apulia in those days still had large Greek colonies. A new church was built in Bari to shelter Nicholas's remains and the Pope Urban II was present at their enshrining." 

The beautiful [romanesque] Basilica of Saint Nicholas was built so that Crusaders could pray on their way to or from the Holy Land. St. Nicholas' remains are reputed to exude a fragrant myrrh-like substance known as myron. This phenomenon known as "manna of St. Nicholas" was present during the reinternment of his body in the 1950s. Through the centuries the shrine has been visited and sometimes experienced miracles.

The Legends of St. Nicholas

The traditional legends of St. Nicholas were first collected and written in Greek by Metaphrastes in the tenth century. They are printed in P.G. 116 sq.

Legends tell of his love for children, his kindness and the miracles he brought about. Perhaps the most famous story of all tells how he helped three unfortunate young sisters who all had suitors but had no dowries because their father, a poor nobleman, could not raise the money so they could not marry and the  father would have had to sell them into prostitution.

Now the bishop Nicholas was a shy man and did not like to give money directly, so he thought of a way to give it anonymously. When the first daughter was ready to marry, the good bishop tossed a bag of gold into the house at night. Later, when the second daughter prepared to marry, she too received a mysterious bag of gold. When the third daughter prepared to marry, the poor nobleman was determined to find out who had been so generous. So he kept watch and saw the bishop drop another bag of gold into the house. It has been said that Saint Nicholas climbed on the roof and dropped the third bag of gold down the chimney where it landed in a stocking hung to dry, giving us a reason to hang up Christmas stockings today. When the father saw what had happened, Nicholas begged him to keep the secret, but, of course, the news got out. From then on, whenever anyone received an unexpected gift, they thanked Nicholas.

Nicholas, the young man, is credited with having studied at Alexandria, Egypt, then an important center of learning. On one of his voyages there he is said to have saved the life of a sailor who fell from the ship's rigging in a storm. He then became the patron saint of sailors. He raised to life three young boys who had been murdered and pickled in a barrel of brine to hide the crime. These stories led to his patronage of schoolboys and children in general, and of barrel-makers besides.

While visiting the Turkish town of Myra, he entered the local church to give thanks for a safe voyage. He did not know that the elders of the church had lost their leader and could not agree on a successor. According to the legend they had been counseled in a dream to choose the next person named Nicholas (which means "victory" in Greek) who visited the church. So it was that Nicholas became known as Bishop of Myra, worker of miracles and benefactor of the poor.

He destroyed pagan temples, forced a governor, Eustathius, to admit he had been bribed to condemn three innocent men to death (Nicholas saved them), and appeared to Emperor Constantine in a dream and thereby caused him to save three unjustly condemned imperial officers from death. Possibly another version says that the governor of Myra took a bribe to condemn to death three innocent men. The executioner was about to kill them when the bishop of the city, Nicholas, appeared on the scene. Turning to the governor, the saint upbraided him till he confessed his sin and begged to be forgiven. Constantine freed the men the next morning. 

While he was Bishop of Myra, a terrible famine afflicted the country. Full of compassion for his people, the Bishop not only obtained a miraculous supply of bread for the multitude, but visited every part of his vast diocese in order to acquaint himself with the condition of all his people. There is a charming custom of planting "wheat candles" on the first Sunday of Advent to light on the Feast of St. Nicholas. Wheat seeds are planted in a tub of soil along with a tall white taper candle. On St. Nicholas Feast Day, the candle is lit. The growth of the wheat towards the light of the candle also symbolizes our growth towards Jesus, the light of the world.

Six hundred years later, the Russian Emperor Vladimir visited Constantinople and heard all the wonderful stories about Bishop Nicholas and decided to make him the patron saint of Russia. The stories even spread to the Laplands - to the people of the reindeer sleds.

The three bags of gold Nicholas gave the sisters made him the focus of merchants in northern Italy. Statutes and pictures had shown him holding the three bags and when taken as the patron saint of the merchants, the bags became gold balls, representing money lenders and today, pawnbrokers. 

The anniversary of Nicholas' death is so close to Christmas that, in many countries, the two merged. But in Germany and the Netherlands, the two remain separate.

More Legends: 

Saint Nicholas the Legend

The characteristic virtue of St. Nicholas appears to have been his love and charity for the poor. Because of this and of the many legends of his works, St. Nicholas is regarded as the special patron of children. The numerous miracles St. Nicholas is said to have wrought, both before and after his death, are outgrowths of a long tradition. There is reason to doubt his presence at Nicaea, since his name is not mentioned in any of the old lists of bishops that attended this council. His cult in the Greek Church is old and especially popular in Russia. As early as the sixth century Emperor Justinian I built a church in his honour at Constantinople, in the suburb of Bacharnae, and his name occurs in the liturgy ascribed to St. Chrysostom. 

In Italy his cult seems to have begun with the translation of his relics to Bari, but in Germany it began already under Otto II, probably because his wife Theophano was a Grecian. Bishop Reginald of Eichstaedt (d. 991) is known to have written a metric, "Vita S. Nicholai." 

The course of centuries has not lessened his popularity. The following places honour him as patron: Greece, Russia, the Kingdom of Naples, Sicily, Lorraine, the Diocese of Liège; many cities in Italy, Germany, Austria, and Belgium; Campen in the Netherlands; Corfu in Greece; Freiburg in Switzerland; and Moscow in Russia. 

He is patron of mariners (seafarers), merchants, scholars, bankers, pawnbrokers, jurists, bakers, brewers, coopers, travelers, perfumers, unmarried girls, brides, robbers and especially - children.. His representations in art are as various as his alleged miracles. In Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, they have the custom of making him the secret purveyor of gifts to children on 6 December, the day on which the Church celebrates his feast; in the United States and some other countries St. Nicholas has become identified with Santa Claus who distributes gifts to children on Christmas eve. His remains are reputed to exude a fragrant and oily myrrh-like substance known as myron. This phenomenon known as "manna of St. Nicholas", which is highly valued for its medicinal powers, was present during the reinternment of his body in the 1950s. His symbol is three gold balls.

During the Reformation all saints fell into disrepute in parts of Europe that took to the Protestant faith. Reformers did everything they could to erase the popular Saint Nicholas. But despite their efforts, they were never completely successful. Even though he was removed from the church, Saint Nicholas continued his popularity in the streets and homes. In Germany he put nuts and apples in the shoes of Protestant children under the guise of the Christchild. In 1545 Martin Luther's children received gifts from the "Holychild," after previous receiving them from Saint Nicholas. The Christchild and Saint Nicholas were described as wanderers, traveling afoot or by chariot or by horseback, examining the deeds of mankind, children especially, for good behavior and rewarding them with the apples, nuts, and sweets.

Parents quickly began using these "visits" to encourage good behavior from their offspring. It was also known that bad children received switches from Saint Nicholas. More often than not , Saint Nicholas had an assistant to hand out any discipline and particularly in Germanic Europe, the visit was an occasion of a solemn, sometimes terrifying experience for children before being given goodies. 

Dutch children were told that Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, sailed from Spain with a Moorish helper. They filled their shoes with hay and sugar for his horse and woke up to find the shoes filled with nuts and candies. When he was actually seen, dressed in his bishop's robes and carrying presents and a birch rod, he knew a great deal about the children's behavior and resembled father or older brother. 

Black Peter walks along with Sinterklaas. He wears animal skins or sometimes the colorful clothing of the medieval Moor and gives a switch to parents of bad boys and girls. Some say the bad children are taken away in the sack that Black Peter carries on his back.

Some of St. Nicholas' names and his alternates include:

  • Austria - Christkind
  • Belgium and the Netherlands - Noel, Saint Nicholas, Christkind and Black Pete
  • Brazil - Papa Noel
  • Denmark - Julinisse
  • England - Father Christmas
  • Finland - Old Man Christmas
  • France - Pere Noel or le Petit
  • Germany - Kriss Kringle, Christkind or Saint Nicholas
  • Italy - San Nicolò di Bari; Gesù Bambino, la Befana
  • Japan - Santa Kurohsu
  • Mexico - Three Kings
  • Poland - Star Man or Wise Men
  • Spain - Three Kings
  • Russia - Basbouschka 

In 1969, the Roman Catholic church dropped St. Nicholas' Feast Day from its calendar because his life is so unreliably documented.

Santa Around the World

Santa is indeed a very popular figure around the world. To Christians in the African Republic of Ghana, Father Christmas comes from the jungle. In Hawaii he comes by boat. On the Nerang River in Australia he rides water skis, wears a white beard and red bathing trunks. In Brazil Grandpapa Indian, Vovo Indo, brings gifts. In China, Santa Claus is called Dun Che Lao Ren, which means Christmas Old Man. He brings presents to good children. Being a culturally diverse and worldly fellow, Santa has many interpretations:

Austria, Northern Italy, Southern Germany and Switzerland
In Austria and Switzerland the Christkindl bears gifts. In some towns Christkindl is a beautiful girl-angel sent down from heaven to give gifts. December 5th, Saint Nicholas Eve is known as Krampus Day in some parts of Austria. Krampus is an evil fertility demon that has a long tail, fur, rattling chain, birch branch, and big black bag. Children and adults go to the village square and throw snowballs to scare him off. Some people dress up as Krampus. A speculatius cookie is baked for the day. Bread baked in the shape of Saint Nicholas or Krampus is for sale. On Saint Nicholas Eve children place their shoes on the window sill or outside their bedroom door to be filled with fruits, nuts, and sweets.

The run of the Krampuses (fertility diables) is preserved both in the Tarvisio area, in Italy near the Austrian border, and in Südtirol/Alto Adige. [note by Fabio Amodeo].

Alps
"Ghosts of the field" cleared the way for Saint Nicholas in parts of the Alps. Behind them came a man wearing a goat's head, and a masked demon with a birch switch.

Germany
In Germany's Berchtesgaden district, twelve young men dressed in straw and wearing animal masks danced along after Saint Nicholas , ringing cowbells. After gifts were given as each home, the masked men drove the young people out and beat them, or pretended to do so. This was symbolic punishment for having misbehaved. It had also been a part of a pagan ritual that was thought to ensure crops the following year.

The German Saint Nicholas also comes with a helper. He has different names in different parts of Germany: Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus (see above) in southern German; Pelzebock in the northwestern part of the country; and Hans Muff in the Rhineland. Like Black Peter, he carries a sack on his back and a rod in his hand. The helper was a frightening being given to ogre-like growls, quite the opposite of Saint Nicholas' shining goodness.

Sweden
Swedish children wait eagerly for Jultomten, a gnome whose sleigh is drawn by the Julbocker, the goats of the Thor, the god of thunder. He dresses in red and carries a bulging sack on his back.

Denmark
In Denmark the gift bringer, Julemanden, also carries a sack and is drawn by reindeer. Elves called Juul Nisse are said to come from the attic, where they live, to help Julemanden. Children put a saucer of milk or rice pudding out for them in the attic and hope to find it empty in the morning.

Poland
In Poland the children's gifts are said to come from the stars and in Hungary angels bring them.

Various countries
In Syria children's gifts come from the youngest camel on January 6th, which is Three Kings Day. In Spanish speaking countries such as Mexico, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Brazil, the Philippines and Spain, the Three Kings, themselves, give the gifts to the children.

Italy
Italian children also receive gifts on Three Kings Day, but the gift bearer is La Befana. La Befana refused to go to Bethlehem with the wise men when they passed her door because she had not finished her sweeping. Now she goes from place to place hoping that some day she will find the Christ Child. Everywhere she goes, she leaves a little gift.

Russia
In Russia the same ageless wanderer is called Baboushka. She gave the wise men the wrong directions and on the eve of Three Kings Day she wanders from house to house, peering into the faces of children and leaving gifts. Russia also has Grandfather Frost.

England and France
English children wait for Father Christmas, known to their ancestors as Christmas itself. In France gifts are also brought by Father Christmas, Pre Noel, or the Christ Child himself.

Istria's Authentic Santa Claus

In the 13th century, the first chapel devoted to old St. Nicholas (San Nicolò di Bari) was erected at Velo Selo (later to be known as Veli Lošinj (Lussingrande) on the island of Lošinj (Lussino),. While he was long celebrated for his many miracles, particularly those that preserved children from disaster, cruelty and disaster, at Lussingrande, however, he was revered especially as the protector of those in navigation or traveling at sea.

In Istria, as in most of Catholic Europe, St. Nick traditionally did not visit children during the night of Christmas Eve - that's when Gesu' Bambino or Baby Jesus came. Rather, St. Nick visited them on the eve of his own feast day celebrated on December 6th. Children would leave their shoes on the window sills the night before, and St. Nick would come and reward those who were good little girls and boys with simple treats like nuts and candies, little cakes and cookies, perhaps a shiny coin or two, and what used to be rather exotix fruits: oranges and tangerines. Naughty children were warned that if they did not behave themselves, San Nicolo' would leave them only sticks and stones, or perhaps just a lump of coal or a piece of charcoal. Somehow, however, the good Saint only delighted each and every child with his wonderful little surprises. He loved them all!

Well, there is a well-known Istrian poem that harkens back to the less amiable St. Nick:

San Nicolò de Bari
Xe la festa dei scolari
Se i scolari no vol far festa
San Nicolò ghe taja la testa ...

Sources:

  • Catholic Encyclopedia - http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11063b.htm and http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10661a.htm
  • Christmas.com St. Nicholas - http://www.christmas.com/pe/1375; http://www.christmas.com/pe/1376; http://www.christmas.com/pe/1378; and http://www.christmas.com/pe/1381
  • 1940 Poster - http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/noel/angl/pereno.htm
  • http://www.domestic-church.com/CONTENT.DCC/19981101/SAINTS/nicholas.htm
  • http://users.erols.com/saintpat/ss/1206.htm
  • Constantinople image - http://www.geocities.com/Athens/7175/stnich-page.html (no longer online)
  • http://www.cnn.com/EVENTS/1996/christmas/history.html
  • Istria text and B&W images - courtesy of William Giacovcich
  • Istrian poem - courtesy of Etty Simicic and Pietro Valente
  • Krampus Day - http://www.tartanplace.com/saintnick/austrianick.html (no longer online)

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Created: Sunday, November 03, 2002; Last updated: Sunday, December 06, 2015
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