The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

St. Nicholas's Day

Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 2, pp. 437-38

St. Nicholas was born in Patara, in Lycia, and, from a layman, was made Bishop of Myra. He died on the 8th of the ides of December, 343. In the "Festyvall," 1511, there is the following: "It is sayed of his fader, hyght Epiphanius, and his moder Joanna, &c. and when he was born, &c. they made him Christin, and called him Nycholas, that was a mannes name; but he kepeth the name of the child, for he chose to kepe vertues, meknes, and simpleness; he fasted Wednesday and Friday these days he would souke but ones of the day, and therwyth held him plesed. ‘Thus he lyved all his lyf in vertues with this childes name, and therefore children doe him worship before all other Saints, &c" In a MS. of the "Lives of the Saints," which Mr. Brand had, there was the following couplet upon St. Nicholas:

"Ye furst day yt was ybore, he gan to be good and clene,
For he ne wolde Wednesday ne Friday never more souke but ene."

So the "Golden Legend:" "He wolde not take the brest ne the pappe, but ones on the Wednesday and ones on the Frydaye." The Roman Calendar has the following observations on St. Nicholas’s Day "Nicholas Bishop; School Holidays; the Kings go to church, with presents and great shew: the antient custom of poets in schools related to the boys; the kings feasts in schools."

Douce observes: "The true reason why this saint was chosen to be the patron of scholars, may be gathered from the following story in his life, composed in French verse by Maistre Wace, chaplain to Henry the Second: ‘Three scholars were on their way to school (I shall not make a long story of it), their host murdered them in the night, and hid their bodies; their . . . . he preserved. Saint Nicholas was informed of it by God Almighty, and according to his pleasure went to the place. He demanded the scholars of the host, who was not able to conceal them, and therefore showed them to him. Saint Nicholas by his prayers restored the souls to their bodies. Because he conferred such honours on scholars, they at this day celebrate a festival." The Rev. W. Cole says: "This I suppose, sufficiently explains the naked children and tub, the well-known emblems of St. Nicholas."

It appears that the master of Wye School, founded by Archbishop Kempe in 1447, was to teach all the scholars, both rich and poor, the art of grammar gratis, unless a present was voluntarily made, and except "consuetam Gallorum et denariorum Sancti Nicolai gratuitam oblationem," the usual offering of cocks and pence at the Feast of St. Nicholas. It is said that at schools, the boys, when at play, if they wish to escape from their pursuers (as at Touch He), exclaim Nic’las, which at once disarms the youngster who, for the moment, is giving chase, or as the case may be. But the more usual formula is Fain Play.

As early as 1233 the Parish Clerks of London were incorporated under the style of the Fraternity of St. Nicholas, and certain property at Bishopsgate, mentioned in 27 Henry VI., is described as having formerly belonged to this brotherhood. Why such a body identified itself with the saint, seems really uncertain. Hazlitt’s Livery Companies, 1892, p. 123.

There is a short series of miracles, ascribed to this personage in Mr. Wright’s volume of Early Mysteries, 1838. The affiliation of marvels and prodigies cost the mediæval romancist even less than it does his successors in this class of literary invention.

In the "Mornyng Remembrance, or Moneths Mind of Margaret Countess of Richmond and Derby," by Bishop Fisher, 1509, it is said that " she praied to S. Nicholas the patron and helper of all true maydens," when nine years old, about the choice of a husband, and that the saint appeared in a vision and announced the Earl of Richmond. Comp. St. Catherine. Of the two London Fraternities of Haberdashers one was under the protection of St. Nicholas. Hazlitt’s Livery Companies, 1892, p. 115.

There is a festival or ceremony observed in Italy (called Zopata, from a Spanish word signifying a shoe) in the courts of certain princes on St. Nicholas’ Day, wherein persons hide presents in the shoes and slippers of those they do honour to, in such a manner as may surprise them on the morrow when they come to dress. This, it is repeated, is done in imitation of the practice of St. Nicholas, who used in the night time to throw purses in at the windows of poor maids, to be marriage portions for them. Brady notices a custom prevalent (ho says) in Italy and parts of France among the nuns of placing a silk stocking with a piece of silver in it at the door of the abbess’s chamber. In the paper the girls commend themselves to Great St. Nicholas of her chamber; and when, the next day, each stocking was filled with sweetmeats and other trifles, it was the saint who had put them there!

There is no end of St. Nicholas’s patronship. He was also the mariners’ saint. In the "Vitæ Sanctorum," by Lippoloo and Gras, 1603, we read, that St. Nicholas preserved from a storm the ship in which he sailed to the Holy Land; and also certain mariners, who in a storm invoked his aid; to whom, though at a distance and still living, he appeared in person and saved them. In an ancient fabliau occurs the passage :—

"Esb ala fut tut li plus sages.
Si plaissa la tourmonte toz,
Ne valoit gueres li plus proz.
Rompent cordes, dospesceat tref,
Fruissent cheveil, desclot la nef,
Donc comencent tuit a crier,
Deu e ses sainz a reclamier.
Mult se cleiment cheitif e las,
Sovent crient: Saint Nicholas,
Socour nus, Saint Nicholas, sire,
Se tiels es cum oomes dire!
A taut uns hom lor aparut
Qui en la nief od els estut,
Et itant at a els parlié:
Je sui que m’avez appelé
Isnel le pas l’orez cessa,
E saint Nicholas s’en ala,"

Maistre Wares St. Nicholas, von N. Delius, 1850, pp. 9-10.

Hospinian says, the invocation of St. Nicholas by sailors took its rise from the legendary accounts of Vincentius and Mantuanus. St. Nicholas is the present patron of those who lead a sea-faring life (as Neptune was of old), and his churches generally stand within sight of the sea, and are plentifully stocked with pious moveables. (Hospinian, "De Orig. Fest. Christ." p. 153). St. Nicholas’s Church at Liverpool was close to the water, and was the earliest one built there. Armstrong, in his "History of Minorca," speaking of Ciudadella, says, "Near the entrance of the harbour stands a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas, to which the sailors resort that have suffered shipwreck, to return thanks for their preservation, and to hang up votive pictures (representing the danger they have escaped) in gratitude to the saint for the protection he vouchsafed them, and in accomplishment of the vows they made in the height of the storm. This custom, which is in use at present throughout the Roman Catholic world, is taken from the old Romans, who had it, among a great number of other superstitions, from the Greeks; for we are told that Bion the philosopher was shown several of these votive pictures hung up in a temple of Neptune near the seaside."

This personage, in connection with his maritime influence and celebrity, became the patron Saint of Great Yarmouth, and he appears on the corporate seal, ascribed to the 13th century, seated on a throne, holding a pastoral staff in his hand, and supported on either side by angels: there is the inscription: O Pastor Vere Tibi Subjectis Miserere" and on the reverse side is a ship with the legend: Sig: Comunit: De: Gernemutha. Walford’s Pleasant days in Pleasant Places, 1878, p. 165.

Editor's Note: I regret that I am unable to provide a translation of any Latin or French passages. I'm none too good with Old or Middle English, either.

Also see William Hone's The Every Day Book: Feast of St. Nicholas

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