St. Nicholas – His Legend and His Role in the Christmas Celebration and Other Popular Customs (By George H. McKnight, 1917) – Chapter 6


It will have been noted that St. Nicholas is not only the patron saint of youths, but is himself a youthful saint. His most distinctive deeds, at least the deeds about the memory of which have most been interwoven popular customs, are deeds performed by him as a young man. The distinctive feature about his election as bishop was that he was elected when a mere youth. But before his election as bishop he had already distinguished himself by his act of generosity in saving the three daughters of the impoverished nobleman. Also, according to the account of his life in the Roman Breviary, the act upon which is based his reputation as protector of seamen was accomplished by him as a young man when on a pious pilgrimage, on the return from which he was miraculously directed to Myra, there to be chosen bishop. In a way, then, the election as bishop forms a kind of climax to a series of youthful accomplishments.

But the life story of St. Nicholas differs from the typical saint’s legend in that it is not the record of one single achievement that absorbed all the energies of the story’s hero and whose accomplishment formed a dramatic close. On the contrary, as already remarked, his legend is made up of a series of beneficent acts, in part accomplished by the living saint, in part accomplished by him after death serving as a protecting spirit. Besides the youthful deeds already discussed, there remain to be recorded a number of others, some of them hardly less well known than the ones already considered, others not so widely known but of interest, not only in themselves, but as revealing the varied aspects of the kindness of St. Nicholas and showing the enduring character of his fame.

A. Lorenzetti. St. Nicholas Saving a City in Time of Famine.

It was so on a time that all the province of S. Nicolas suffered great famine, in such wise that victual failed. And then this holy man heard say that certain ships laden with wheat were arrived in the haven. And anon he went thither and prayed the mariners that they would succor the perished at least with an hundred muyes of wheat of every ship. And they said: Father, we dare not, for it is meted and measured, and we must give reckoning thereof in the garners of the emperor in Alexandria. And the holy man said to them: Do this that I have said to you, and I promise, in the truth of God, that it shall not be lessened or minished when ye shall come to the garners. And when they had delivered so much out of every ship, they came into Alexandria and delivered the measure that they had received. And then they recounted the miracle to the ministers of the emperor, and worshiped and praised strongly God and his servant Nicholas. Then the holy man distributed the wheat to every man after that he had need, in such wise that it sufficed for two years, not only for to sell, but also to sow.

The art of the early Italian painters in handling narrative subjects is once more admirably illustrated in the animated presentation of this story in the paintings by Lorenzetti and by Fra Angelico.

In another of the stories included in the Golden Legend, St. Nicholas twice appears in his favorite rôle as the protector of human life. The story, with double catastrophe, goes as follows:

And in this time certain men rebelled against the emperor; and the emperor sent against them three princes, Nepotian, Ursyn, and Apollyn. And they came into the port Adriatic for the wind, which was contrary to them; and the blessed Nicholas commanded them to dine with him, for he would keep his people from the ravin that they made. And whilst they were at dinner, the consul, corrupt by money, had commanded three innocent knights to be beheaded. And when the blessed Nicholas knew this, he prayed these three princes that they would much hastily go with him. And when they were come where they should be beheaded, he found them on their knees, and blindfold, and the righter brandished his sword over their heads. Then S. Nicholas, embraced with the love of God, set him hardily against the righter, and took the sword out of his hand, and threw it from him, and unbound the innocents, and led them with him all safe. And anon he went to the judgment to the consul, and found the gates closed, which anon he opened by force. And the consul came anon and saluted him: and this holy man having this salutation in despite, said to him: Thou enemy of God, corrupter of the law, wherefore hast thou consented to so great evil and felony, how darest thou look on us? And when he had sore chidden and reproved him, he repented, and at the prayer of the three princes he received him to penance. After, when the messengers of the emperor had received his benediction, they made their gear ready and departed, and subdued their enemies to the empire without shedding blood, and sith returned to the emperor, and were worshipfully received. And after this it happed that some other in the emperor’s house had envy on the weal of these three princes, and accused them to the emperor of high treason, and did so much by prayer and by gifts that they caused the emperor to be so full of ire that he commanded them to prison, and without other demand, he commanded that they should be slain that same night. And when they knew it by their keeper, they rent their clothes and wept bitterly; and then Nepotian remembered him how S. Nicholas had delivered the three innocents, and admonested the others that they should require his aid and help. And thus as they prayed S. Nicholas appeared to them and after appeared to Constantine, the emperor, and said to him: Wherefore hast thou taken these three princes with so great wrong, and hast judged them to death without trespass? Arise up hastily, and command that they be not executed, or I shall pray to God that he move battle against thee, in which thou shalt be overthrown, and shalt be made meat to beasts. And the emperor demanded: What art thou that art entered by night into my palace and durst say to me such words? And he said to him: I am Nicholas, bishop of Mirea. And in like wise he appeared to the provost, and feared him, saying with a fearful voice: Thou that hast lost mind and wit, wherefore hast thou consented to the death of innocents? Go forth anon and do thy part to deliver them, or else thy body shall rot, and be eaten with worms, and thy meiny shall be destroyed. And he asked him: Who art thou that so menacest me? And he answered: Know thou that I am Nicholas, the bishop of the city of Mirea. Then that one awoke that other, and each told to other their dreams, and anon sent for them that were in prison, to whom the emperor said: What art magic or sorcery can ye, that ye have this night by illusion caused us to have such dreams? And they said that they were none enchanters ne knew no witchcraft, and also that they had not deserved the sentence of death. Then the emperor said to them: Know ye well a man named Nicholas? And when they heard speak of the name of the holy saint, they held up their hands toward heaven, and prayed our Lord that by the merits of S. Nicholas they might be delivered of this present peril. And when the emperor had heard of them the life and miracles of S. Nicholas, he said to them: Go ye forth, and yield ye thankings to God, which hath delivered you by the prayer of this holy man, and worship ye him; and bear ye to him of your jewels, and pray ye him that he threaten me no more, but that he pray for me and for my realm unto our Lord. And a while after, the said princes went unto the holy man, and fell down on their knees humbly at his feet, saying: Verily thou art the sergeant of God, and the very worshipper and lover of Jesu Christ. And when they had all told this said thing by order, he lift up his hands to heaven and gave thankings and praisings to God, and sent again the princes, well informed, into their countries.

This story, although, so far as known, it does not form the subject of any of the St. Nicholas plays presented by medieval schoolboys, certainly possesses dramatic quality. The first intervention by the protecting saint provides suspense like that before the arrival of a reprieve on the stroke of twelve in a modern melodrama. The scene is strikingly presented in one of the Santa Croce frescoes. One of the young men is represented kneeling blindfolded awaiting the death stroke. The executioner holds his sword lifted, while St. Nicholas from behind grasps it by the point.

Also both this scene and the second scene in the story are represented in the celebrated Giottesque frescoes at Assisi. In the second scene there is represented a hall with straight ceiling supported by slender columns. In this hall the Emperor Constantine is lying asleep. Nicholas with uplifted hands approaches and commands him to free the three imprisoned princes. The latter, one sees below, behind a barred window, before which stands a great wooden cage.

Norman Baptismal Font at Winchester Cathedral, with Sculptured Scenes from the Life of St. Nicholas.

The twelfth-century life of St. Nicholas by Wace, written, as the reader is told in the opening lines, for the sake of the unlettered, to explain to them the purpose of the St. Nicholas festival newly instituted in the West, contains a number of episodes not included in the more or less official account in the Golden Legend. There is one story which seems like a variant version of that of the three murdered schoolboys, which itself is also included by Wace. A merchant is on his way to visit the saint. On the journey he takes lodgings at an inn and in the night is murdered by the treacherous landlord. His body is cut to pieces and packed in a cask and salted like edible flesh. In the night St. Nicholas restores the merchant to life with his body entirely sound. In the morning the merchant appears, naturally to the astonishment of the landlord, who confesses and worships St. Nicholas.

Wace also includes a short story of how St. Nicholas freed a child possessed by the devil, and still another incident, one more than usually filled with human interest, recorded in connection with the election of St. Nicholas as bishop. The story goes that the hostess at an inn where the youthful bishop-elect had stayed, was so overjoyed at the election, that she left her baby in a bath pan by the fire. In her absence the water boiled. The mother returned in fright but found her child safe and happy.

F. Pesellino. St. Nicholas Saves the Knights about to be Beheaded.

St. Nicholas in origin was an Oriental saint. In the Eastern Church at the present day his worship is more active than in western Europe. In countries like Greece of to-day there survive the conditions amid which St. Nicholas worship had its origin and amid which legendary stories of him were propagated. His ability to work miracles is still believed in by many a Greek peasant. The following remarkably circumstantial account of an incident supposed to have taken place on May 25, 1909, will illustrate the faith in the goodness and power of St. Nicholas still alive in certain parts of Greece.

In a romantic situation, one quarter of an hour from the village of Sparta in Elis, stands a fine monastery dedicated to St. Nicholas. Every year on the 10th of May—the anniversary of the finding of the saint’s ikon—there come to the monastery thousands of worshipers from all parts of the Peloponnese, who bring various offerings to the saint and remain several days in the romantic monastery, worshiping the wonder-working ikon and celebrating the annual festival.

Amongst this year’s worshipers’ was a peasant, John Doulos, from the village of Bezaïté, who invoked the help of the saint on behalf of Kyriakula, his young daughter, who was blind. He brought her to worship at the shrine. The unfortunate girl had lost her sight on Easter day, when she thought she saw a great fire before her eyes and fell to the ground. From that moment she could see nothing. All medical skill was of no avail, and the despairing Doulos determined to take his daughter to the saint. They arrived at the monastery on the Wednesday before the festival. Thursday and Friday, days and nights, they spent inside the church kneeling before the ikon in prayer and supplication. Suddenly about dawn on the Saturday, when the worshipers in the church were numerous, Kyriakula arose, and crossing herself, cried:

“Father, father, I see! There are the saint’s candles! There is the ikon!”

A thrill of emotion ran through those present, and all joined with the girl, whose sight had been restored, in worshiping the ikon of the wonder-working saint. After remaining many hours to bless the name of the saint, the healed girl left the church with her father and joined in the festival. Then she returned to her village, and her restored eyesight told better than words the saint’s miracle.

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THE BOY BISHOP, OR NICHOLAS BISHOP In all the representations…
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