The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Seynt Nicholas Was Of Gret Posté

For the Festival of St. Nicholas, Dec. 6

Words: English Traditional

Music: Unknown

Source: Thomas Wright, Songs and Carols from a Manuscript in the British Museum of the Fifteenth Century (London: Printed by Richards for The Warton Club, 1856), Song Number III, pp. 4-5.

Note: Because Middle English contains letters not found in modern English, I've used a special font, "Junius Modern," created by Professor Peter S. Baker, Professor of English, University of Virginia, on this page.  You can obtain a copy of this font from his website Old English at the University of Virginia (or right click here, and then select "Save File As" to save a copy of the zipped file to your computer).  This font must be downloaded and installed before this page will display accurately.

Alle maydenis, for Godes grace,
Worcheps õe seynt Nicolas.

Seynt Nicholas was of gret posté,
For he worchepid maydenia thre,
That wer sent in fer cuntré
     Common wommen for to be.

Here fader was man in powre aray,
Onto his dowteres he gan say,
“Dowteros, õe must away,
     Non lenger kepe õou I may.

Dowteres, myn blyssing I õou õeve,
For catal wil not with me thryve,
õe must with õowre body leve,
     õour wordeõe must dryve.”

The eldest dowter swor, be bred of qwete,
“I have levere beggyn myn mete,
And getyn me good qwer I may gete,
     Than ledyn myn lyf in lecherie.”

The medil dowter seyde, so mote che the,
“I hadde levere hangyd and drawyd be
With wylde hors to or thre,
     Than ledin myn lyf in lecherie.”

The õongere lechery gan to spyse,
And preyid saynt Nicholas, as che was wise,
“Saynt Nicholas, as he was wyse,
     Help us fro lecherie.”

Saynt Nicholas, at the townys ende,
Consoylid tho maydenis hom to wynde,
And throw Godes grace he xulde hem synde
     Husbondes thre good and kind.

Editor's Note:

This carol celebrates one of the many miracles attributed to the historic Saint Nicholas. Details of his life are sketchy, at best, and any “facts” should be taken with a grain of salt.

In the note to this song, Wright provided translations of many of the words in the song (e.g., worchpe, worship, etc)., followed by an explanation of the subject as quoted in Caxton's edition of the Liber Festivalis (1484).

Than fyl it so that there was a ryche man that had doughters fayre and yonge wymmen, but by myschyef he was fallen vnto pouerte, so for grete nede he ordeyned hem to be comen women for to geten her lyuyng and hys bothe, and whan nycholas herde thereof he had grete compassyon of hem, and on a nyght pryuelye at a wyndowe he caste a bagge wyth a somme of gold in to the mannes chaumbre, than on the morowe tyde that man aroos and founde thys golde, than was he glad therwith that no man coude telle hit, and anon with that golde he maried his elder doughter, than another nyght nycholas caste another somme of golde in to the mannes chaumbre as he dyd before, and so the iij nyght whan this man herde the golde falle, anone he went out and ouertoke nycholas, and knew that it was he that had holpen hym soo in his myschyef, and knelid doun and wold haue kissed his fete, but he wold not suffre hym, but prayed hym to kepe counceyl whyle he lyued.”

Here are a few additional notes concerning Nicholas and the miracle that this song celebrates:

It is believed that Nicholas, a citizen of Myra, lived during the first half of the fourth century, and was the child of rich and devout parents. Myra was in Lycia, a province of modern Turkey; its modern name is Kale. He was the only child of his father, Epiphanes, and his mother, Johanna.

The Three Daughters

After his parents died he began to wonder how he might use his great riches, not to win any praise for himself, but rather for the glory of God. Now it happened that one of his neighbors, a nobleman who had fallen on hard times, was about to prostitute his three young daughters, hoping by this shameful business to raise enough money to support his family. When the saint learned of this he was appalled at the thought of such a crime: he wrapped a sum of gold in a piece of cloth and threw it into the nobleman's house one night through a window, then stole away again. When the nobleman got up next morning, he found the gold and, thanking God, he arranged the marriage of his eldest daughter. Not long afterwards the servant of God did the same thing again. The nobleman, again discovering the gold and loudly singing the praises of his unknown benefactor, decided to sit up and keep watch, in order to discover who it was who had rescued him from his poverty. After a few days Nicholas threw double the amount of gold into his house; but the noise woke the nobleman and he gave chase as Nicholas ran off, shouting after him: 'Stop! Don't sneak away! I want to see you!' And, as he redoubled his efforts to catch him, he saw that it was Nicholas. Immediately he fell to the ground and tried to kiss his feet, but Nicholas stopped him, and made him promise never to reveal his secret until after his death.

For more about the historic St. Nicholas, please see: St Nicholas and Santa Claus

An excellent book has been written by Charles W. Jones, Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1978; paperback edition 1988).

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