The Feast of St Nicolas, Jan Steen, 1683-85
Hero to generations of Dutch children, St Nicolas has his day on Dec 6, the reported date of his death. Epitomized by coins secretly left in shoes, his abundant gift-giving is the saint’s most well-known reputation. Of course it is.
As well as the patron saint of thieves and pawnbrokers, this Turkish bishop became patron saint of children according to two legendary actions.
In one he revived three boys murdered by an innkeeper and in another surreptitiously paid a poor man not to prostitute his daughters. The boys had been salted to be sold as hams and unwittingly preserved for rescue. For the three daughters, St Nick just threw bags of gold at their house probably scaring their father straight as well as buying off his conscience.
In a different story of the three daughters, Nick throws the gold down the chimney where freshly washed stockings were hung with care to dry. In fell the gold. The bags are sometimes golden balls. Easier to throw they also resemble oranges allowing parents to explain to their deserving children why they can’t get gold every year.
Some bad behaviour was allowed on the day. One record from 1686 has school boys given the ‘priviledge to breake open their Masters Cellar-dore’. (John Aubrey, Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme) Boy bishops were also elected on Dec 6 and served until Dec 28 with all the rights of a real bishop including the awesome power of preaching a sermon. I assume a real bishop was nearby with a birch rod so his fresh counterpart would not be spared if he spoiled the moment. Some English towns named them St Nicolas for the duration of their office. Londoners liked the show so much, the parade of various Nicolases was banned in 1554 for unruliness as most 16th century Christmas celebrations were.
Clement Clarke Moore’s poem changes the bishop to a ‘right jolly old elf’. Fellow New Yorker Washington Irving brought St Nick to America first in A History of New York. Oloffe Van Kortlandt, one of the founders of the first Dutch colony in America, fell asleep under a tree. He saw St Nick riding in a wagon through the sky on his year’s charity. Nicolas, never one to desert a fellow Netherlander, parked nearby and lit his pipe at Oloffe’s fire.
In the smoke, Oloffe saw a city rise. Then, “laying his finger beside his nose”, St Nicolas winked and flew off. On waking, Oloffe founded the city of New Amsterdam where he had slept. He was a good citizen in everyone’s mind, as Irving writes, when he was asleep. If only he’d taken off his shoes. He might be rich too.