History of Saint Nicholas

St Nicholas

– Alexander Wilder

The sixth of December has long been set apart by the holy church as the anniversary of the jolly Saint Nicholas, dear alike to school boy and maiden, and equally so of later days to the wee lad and lass of the nursery. He seems to have wandered far and wide,

“Through many a clime,
O’er many a land and sea;”

and everywhere he wins a joyous welcome. In western lands he has wrested from Christmas its peculiar rites; and so far as we know, the simpler ones imagine that his vehicle, and not the choir of angels, made the joyous announcement of Bethlehem; and the eager little ones drown the carol of Yule morning with their glad refrain: “Santa Claus has come!”

But in the long-ago, among our British ancestors, an ill repute long attached to the name of this saint of tankards and flagons. The tears of the Recording Angel, long wept, would not suffice to wash away the entries made in his book of the evil deeds of the knights and chiefs who worshiped at his shrine. The halo of canonization which distinguishes saints from men of commoner clay, served to give to light the records in which were inscribed the scandalous mischiefs wrought by his votaries. Doubtless, canonizing was the charity which the apostle declared “shall cover the multitude of sins.”

In the undated periods of antiquity, great and good men were delivered by apotheosis from the ordinary conditions of entombment, and given a wider sphere of activity. Afterward, when religions changed, many a divinity, archangel and patriarch was taken from his former shrine, and by solemn canonization was placed in the category of “lang-syne saunts.” Abraham and David, Michael and Gabriel, Bacchus, Mithra, Satur, even Seithin himself, and the Nik or ocean-god of Norse mythology are all duly enrolled in the Christian calendar.

Of those who have received the new adoption, St. Nicholas has, perhaps, the most equivocal record. Even his associate, George, the brigand of Cappadocia, hardly comes up to his measure. The first mention of the name is in the Acts of the Apostles – “Nikolaos a proselyte of Antioch.” He is there chronicled as “of honest report.” Unfortunately, that praise has not, in English-speaking countries, been since attached to his name. “Keep thy neck for the hangman,” cries Chamberlain to Gadshill,(1) “for I know thou worshipest St. Nicholas as truly as any man of falsehood may.”

This kind of worship will readily be comprehended by anyone conversant with our English classics. There is a quaint old volume entitled Plaine Percival, the Peacemaker of England, the author of which gives us this passage: “He was a tender-hearted fellow, though his luck was but bad, which hasting to make up a quarrell by the highway side, between a brace of St. Nicholas’s clargiemen, was so courteously imbraced on both parties that he tendered his purse for their truce.” Without a doubt our hero was content to let that interview pass for a last shrift.

The Golden Legend has recorded very properly that robbers were under the protection of St. Nicholas; and other writers style them his knights. The more usual designation, however, appears to have been his clerks or priests. “If they meet not with St. Nicholas’ clerks,” says Gadshill,(2) “I’ll give thee this neck.”

Sir Walter Scott also treats of them. He depicts Jim Ratcliffe, the keeper of the Tolbooth of Edinburgh, endeavoring to protect Jeanie Deans from highwaymen, when making her journey to London to implore his sister’s life.(3)
“He hastily scrawled a line or two on a dirty piece of paper, and said to her, as she drew back when he offered it: ‘Hey! what the de’il? it winna bite you, my lass; if it does nae gude, it can do nae ill. But I wish you to show it, if you have any fasherie wi’ ony o’ St. Nicholas’s clerks.’

“‘Alas!’ said she; ‘I do not understand what you mean.’

“‘I mean, if ye fall among thieves, my precious; that is a Scripture phrase, if ye will hae ane – the bauldest of them will ken a scart o’ my guse feather.'”

When Jeanie afterward showed this paper to Mrs. Bickerton, the hostess of The Seven Stars at York, that personage consulted her serving-man, Dick Ostler, who gave the assurance: “Only gentleman, as keeps the road o’ this side Stamford will respect Jim’s pass.” True enough, the heroine fell into the hands of highwaymen, …. resenting it, one ruffian exclaimed:

“‘Do you look at it, for d–n me, if I could read it, if it were for the benefit of my clergy.’

“‘This is a jark from Jim Ratcliffe,’ said the toller, having looked at the bit of paper. ‘The wench must pass by our cutter’s law.'”

Every reader of Ivanhoe remembers the sacking of the Castle of Torquilstone, and doubtless he sympathized with the deadly fright of Isaac the Jew, when passing the night with Friar Tuck, “the Holy Clerk of Copmanhurst.” The hedge-priest tarried to solace himself with Front-de-Boeuf’s Gascoigne wine. He was missed in the morning by his merry penitents, the outlaws of Sherwood Forest, who had met to divide the plunder, and required his presence to receive the tithe for the Church. He was found in the ruins, with Isaac as his prisoner, in the predicament explained by his finder thus graphically; “the runlet of sack half empty, the Jew half dead, and the Friar more than half-exhausted.” Locksley addresses his chaplain:

“‘Curtal priest,’ said the Captain, ‘thou has been at wet mass this morning, as early as it is. In the name of St. Nicholas, who has thou got here?’

“‘A captive to my sword and my lance, noble captain,’ replied the Clerk of Copmanhurst; ‘to my bow and my halberd, I shall rather say; and yet I have redeemed him by my divinity from a worse captivity. Speak, Jew; have I not ransomed thee from Sathanas? Have I not taught thee thy credo, thy pater and thine ave Maria? Did I not spend the whole night in drinking to thee, and in expounding of mysteries?’

“‘For the love of God,’ ejaculated the poor Jew, ‘will no one …… I know not one word which the reverend prelate spake to me all this fearful night. Alas! I was so distraught with agony and fear, and grief, that had our holy father Abraham come to preach to me, he had found but a deaf listener.’

“‘Thou liest, Jew; O thou knowest thou dost,’ said the Friar; ‘I will remind thee of one word of our conference; thou didst promist to give all thy substance to our holy order.'”

The Friar was well worthy to be Vicar-General of the “Holy Order.”

St. Nicholas, we apprehend, gained much of his ill-repute from his early associations. The deeds and the doctrines of the Nocolaitans I hate,” is the declaration of the Apocalypse.(4) We are not told why. A legend says that he had a wife and would not leave her, as recommended in the Gospel.(5) The old anchorites of Essenean and Apostolic times envied and hated men that had good wives. In our later times of private interpretation, each one explains passages by the way things happen nowadays. Such exgesis would make the Nicolaitans, the children of Nikolaos the deacon; and everybody knows the peculiar naughtinesses of deacons’ children in classic New England.

Ecclesiastical legend, however, has set forth that the deacon, though “full of the spirit,” was not the Saint; but that a bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, who died in 326, was the august personage. In his cultus, he seems to have replaced Poseidon, or Neptune, and in that character received similar votive offerings from seamen escaped from peril.(6) The Scandinavians had also an ocean-god, the Nikke or Nek, who was greatly feared by mariners. “The British sailor,” says Scott, “who fears nothing else, confesses his terror for this terrible being, and believes him the author of almost all the various calamities to which the precarious life of the seaman is so continually exposed.” Hence the name, or rather Nick-name, which has been conferred on the arch-enemy, him of electro-sulphurous emananations, bovine horns and Bacchic foot. But the reputation of St. Nicholas is rather that of Mephisto, or Mercury, as god of thieves. We would have presumed this from his tutelary charge of merchants and shipping, which till very recently combined the practice of piracy with lawful trade. But English legend-writers offer another explanation.

St. Nicholas, having restored three murdered children to life, was thenceforth the patron of schoolboys, and aided them in their enterprises. Hence in the play,(7) when Speed endeavors to decipher the “catelog” which Launce had received of his sweetheart, the latter exclaims: “St. Nicholas, by thy speed.”

Accordingly, the sixth of December, the anniversary of the scholars’ patron, was anciently celebrated with peculiar rites and practices. It was usual to consecrate a boy-bishop, who continued in office till the twenty-eighth. An endeavor was made, in vain, as far back as the year 867, by the Synod of Constantinople, to break up the custom. The English had a prelate of this character in every parish, who seems to have exercised, during his brief episcopate, all the functions of the office. The Reformers made several efforts to abolish the Lilliputian diocese, and finally succeeded in 1542 in unfrocking the bishop, after which the pupils in Eton school adopted the montem festivities.

But presently the reputation of St. Nicholas became sadly clouded throughout England. Mr. Charles Knight suggests that this probably arose from the fact that the “poor scholars,” of whom there were many traveling about the country, and against whom, as vagrants, statutes were passed, may have occasionally “taken a purse” as well as begged “an almesse.” Be this as it may, both the saint and his pagan antecessor have been in turn, assigned to the patronship of robbers and outlaws.

But as the special tutelary of the children, Santa Klaus, as he is popularly designated, was widely known and esteemed. On the evening immediately preceding his anniversary, parents were accustomed, during many centuries, to indicate it by little presents and testimonials. The children were taught to believe that they owed these gifts to the kindness of St. Nicholas, his train, who came in at the window, even when closed, and made distribution. In Italy these presents were secreted in the shoes and slippers of the recipients, to surprise them when they came to dress in the morning. Young maidens were likewise under the protection of the bonny saint. He is recorded as having presented three destitute fiancees with marriage portions, by secretly leaving money at their windows. The pupils at convents used, on the evening of the fifth of December, to suspend their silk hose at the door of the abbess’s apartment, with a paper inclosed, recommending them to the great saint, and generally, the next morning, found the stocking filled with sweetmeats and other benefactions. In Flanders and Holland, all children put out their shoes or stockings in this way, in the confidence that Santa Klaus, or Knecht Klobes, as they call him, will put in a prize for good conduct before morning.

As a Dutch festival, St. Nicholas day transcends every other observance. Only lawful initiates are allowed to participate in the sacred orgies of the Holland Bacchus. When the awful night has come, the St. Nicholas societies meet in their mystic chapel. Proclamation is duly made: “Procul ite, o profani! donner und blitzen.” No Yankee may then remain, for of such is the abhorrence of every Dutchman of blue blood; nor is a “blarsted Englishman” welcome at the hearth of St. Nicholas. Even the English-tongued posterity of Dutch ancestors may be out of place. They only are welcome who utter aright the mystic password, KNICKERBOCKER. Alacki! for him who facilely lets drop the syllables, nick-kur-bok-kur. He has mispronounced the Shibboleth. He has intruded, like Clodinus at the rites of the Bona Dea. Like the man at the king’s marriage-feast, who had not on a wedding garment, he is incontinently driven away into the outer darkness.

Philologists, profound in Sanskrit and Semitic three-lettered radicals, have asserted that the secret of the password consists solely in properly separating the jaw-cracking consonants with a short vowel-sound, and clucking the heavy aspirates. Mr. Ellis once penetrated the adytum of a Brahman Temple by masonic grips and passwords; and perhaps even a drawling, nasal-speaking Yankee by saying as a suspiration, KUN-nikh-er-bokh-er, may enter the inmost sanctuary of the Dutch mysteries.

Much may occur that will never transpire. The “enterprising reporter,” so skillful in describing interviews and events that never had existence, has here no rightful place. It is the time of convocation of Dutch patriarchs and their unperverted discendants, to do honor to the manes and memory of their tutelary saint. The presiding officer, crowned – not with oak, laurel, or even oleaster, but – with the symbolic cabbage, exhibits a spectacle perhaps like that of Hendrick Hudson’s ghost in the Kaatskills, as nightly witnessed during Joe Jefferson’s personations of Rip Van Winkle. Of the brotherhood of St. Nicholas, it may be well not to say too much; it may be advised, however, that they refrain, as the sacred orgy, from quaffing any beverage of uncertain composition, lest it prove as lulling as the fiery draught swallowed by the luckless visitor from the village of Falling Water.

But we will not lift the veil that conceals the Batavian arcana. A Puritan ancestry of many generations, unmingled with any commixture from the region of the Elbe or Zuyder Zee since the emigration of Hengist and Horsa, has placed a Chinese wall between us and the sacellum of a Dutch sanctuary. We have never been permitted to taste the ambrosial kraut or drink the nectarean Johannisberger. We may not chronicle aught concerning the awe-inspiring ceremonials, the solemn processions, the invocations, the sacred incantations and the joyous smposiacs. All these we leave to every reader’s glowing fancy. We have heard of the distribution of pipes, stem a Flemish ell in length, and the ensuing holocaust accompanied with profuse and numerous libations. The fragrant wreaths and rings of smoke that ascend prepare all for the agonistics that follow. The Olympic games, the Isthmian and Pythian wrestlings cannot be compared with the contests at the festival of St. Nicholas. Mumming, blindman’s buff, and puss in the corner are all suggestions from this occasion. The scuffling queer antics which take place are the theme of many a jolly rehersal in the aftertime. It is against the unwritten law of St. Nicholas to permit a pipe to be carried out of the hall entire. Every tall man would have a superior opportunity; but few Batavi are of this character. The merry contest is kept up till the last pipe is broken. Immediately the blow of the gavel from the king of the night declares the festivities ended. But how the orgiasts find the street and the right way home, is a theme for the novelist. We pass it over, like Herodotus, in silence.

But may neither bigotry or indifference induce the abandoning of Santa Claus and his jolly rites. His journeys with car and bells from house to house down the chimneys and back again, leaving everywhere his remembrances, are so many green spots in life. Even the obliterated hearth, the pestilence-exhaling register and the sulphurous flues, have been ineffectual to drive him from the drawing-rooms and the children’s stockings. May he survive another millennium!

(from my book “The Perfective Rights, and Other Writings of Alexander Wilder,” originally “Merrie Saint Nicholas,” in The Evolution, Dec., 1877. The book is available at Lulu and Amazon.)

1 Shakespeare: King Henry IV, part I, Act ii, Scene 1.
2 Shakespeare: King Henry IV, part I, Act ii.
3 Heart of Mid-Lothian, xxv, xxviii, xxix.
4 Revelation of Joannes Theologos, ii, 6, 15.
5 Gospel according to Matthew, xix, 12.
6 Jonah, i, 5, 16.
7 Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act iii, Scene 1.


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