« PreviousContinue »
praising of the world, but to the honor and glory of God. And it was so that one, his neighbor, had then three daughters, virgins, and he was a nobleman; but for the poverty of them together, they were constrained, and in very purpose to abandon them to the sin of lechery, so that by that gain and winning of their infamy they might be sustained. And when the holy man Nicolas knew hereof he had great horror of this villainy, and threw by night secretly into the house of the man a mass of gold wrapped in a cloth. And when the man arose in the morning, he found this mass of gold, and rendered to God therefor great thankings, and therewith he married his oldest daughter. And a little while after, this holy servant of God threw another mass of gold, which the man found, and thanked God, and purposed to wake for to know him that so aided him in his poverty. And after a few days Nicholas doubled the mass of gold, and cast it into the house of this man. He awoke by the sound of the gold, and followed Nicholas, who fled from him and he said to him: 'Sir, flee not away that I may see and know thee.' Then he ran after him more hastily, and he knew that it was Nicholas; and anon he kneeled down, and would have kissed his feet, but the holy man would not, but required him. not to tell nor discover this thing as long as he lived."
There are endless anecdotes of Nicholas rescuing people from poverty and distress, sickness and death; but, as said before, this one appealed to the people particularly, and as those benefited by the saint's charitable dispositions were girls in the age of being married, Nicholas soon came to be considered a special benefactor to that class of young people. In Normandy, the girls of twenty are still pray ing:
Patron des filles, Saint-Nicolas,
But while St. Nicholas may have, according to countries, some different and special attributions, being, for instance, in Russia and Switzerland the chief patron of sailors and fishermen, in Turkey and other Oriental countries, of merchants, in South Italy of young mothers, in Austria of domestic animals, he is the world over the saint-patron of children. None of his companions in Paradise can for one moment think of rivalizing with him in that capacity, not even the Virgin Mary.
This also can be traced to one of the stories which belong to the cycle of St. Nicholas legends.
In one of his sermans, Bonaventura tells how one day two young boys were going to Athens in order to study philosophy. They carried a large sum of money to pay their expenses. On their way, they decided to visit the famous bishop Nicholas and ask for his prayers. But the keeper of the inn where they had taken their lodgings, at Myra, yielding to the inspiration of the evil spirit, killed the two boys in order to rob their money from them. Then he cut their bodies into pieces and kept them in a tub like salted pork. Informed in a dream by an angel of what had happened, Nicholas at once betook himself to the house of the murderer, told him that he knew all that he had done, reprimanded him severely, and then went to the salting tub and called the two boys back to life.
This story being told over and over again, gradually assumed a somewhat different form, and a much more attractive one. It is a good example of the working out of a legend by the genius of the people. Whenever the story happened to reach some good teller, he would send it further somewhat modified and probably im(By the way, the story of the three proved. Gerard de Nerval revived it at
From that position, he was promoted to another of still more responsibility and again following in the steps of Mary -namely that of the saint-patron of young mothers. As such he was worshipped especially in Italy.
There were three little boys, very poor, They went to the fields agleaning.
The poor little boys would naturally arouse much more sympathy than students carrying a large sum of money, and who wanted to study philosophy. As to the number of three murdered children instead of two, it is due to the desire to use as often as possible the sacred figure of the Holy Trinity, no doubt. The first story we mentioned, about the three lumps of gold, has been altered slightly in later times with the same end in view. In the French version of the thirteenth century, the poet, Maitre Wace, explains that Nicholas gave the first lump to relieve the family from poverty, the second to provide three dowries for the girls, and the third "in the name of the Holy Trinity?" This was all the more natural with Saint Nicholas, because in the Council of Nicea he had been one of the foremost advocates of the dogma of the Trinity against the Unitarians, offering even a miraculous proof of the possibility of one being three and three being one; namely, loosening a brick from the floor in the hall where the bishops were discussing, he held it up above his head; then a little flame sprang out at the top of the brick, a few drops of water dipped to the floor, while the remainder of the brick dissolved into sand. In several other legends of St. Nicholas this fondness for the number three is manifested; the legend of the three children found dead on a road and resuscitated by him; that of the three officials of the court saved from the unjust wrath of the king; that of the three men condemned unjustly to death by the judge: that of the three little children in Flanders saved from drowning, and so forth.
and in order to keep the water warm enough, the tub was kept on the fire. She was so overcome with surprise and joy, that forgetting everything else, she went directly to the church in order to attend the service of inauguration. When the ceremony was over, the idea of the child suddenly came back to her mind, and she ran over to her house in great anxiety. The water was boiling hard, but the little one was unhurt; she found him smiling and happy, splashing with his hands and playing with the bubbles. The delighted mother at once returned to the church, told the people all about the miracle wrought by God in honor of the new bishop. The reputation of holiness of Nicholas was greatly increased by this incident.
The two following children stories are ascribed to the time when St. Nicholas had already left this valley of tears. They are taken from the English text of the Golden Legend.
"A man, for the love of his son that went to school for to learn, hallowed every year the feast of S. Nicholas much solemnly. On a time it happened that the father had to make ready the dinner, and called many clerks to this And the devil came to the gate in the habit of a pilgrim for to demand alms; and the father anon commanded his son that he should give alms to the pilgrim. He followed him as he went for to give him alms, and when he came to the quarfox, the devil caught the child and strangled him. And when the father heard this he sorrowed much strongly and wept, and bare the body into his chamber, and began to cry for sorrow and say: Bright, sweet son, how is it with thee? S. Nicholas, is this the guerdon that you have done to me because I have so long served you? And as he said these words, and other semblable, the child opened his eyes and awoke like as he had been asleep, and arose up tofore all, and was raised from death to life."
***There was a rich man that by the merits of S. Nicholas had a son and called him Deus dedit (God gave.) And this rich man did do make a chapel of S. Nicholas in his dwelling-place; and this manor was set by the land of the Agrari
The child was taken prisoner, and
deputed to serve the king. The year following, and the day that his father held devoutly the feast of S. Nicholas, the child held a precious cup tofore the king, and remembered his prise, the sorrow of his friends, and the joy that was made that day in the house of his father, and began for to sigh sore high. And the king demanded him what ailed him, and the cause of his sighing; and he told him every word wholly. And when the king knew it he said to him: Whatsomever thy Nicholas do or do not, thou shalt abide here with us. And suddenly there blew a much strong wind that made all the house to tremble, and the child was ravished with the cup, and was set tofore the gate where his father held the solemnity of S. Nicholas, in such wise that they all demeaned great joy."
Another feature which contributed to make St. Nicholas so universally beloved, is that he was not, as some others, so very "saintly" that one should be afraid of him, or so dignified that one dared not approach him. There is something informal about the good bishop of Myra that appeals to the people; he even tolerates to be treated in a very democratic fashion at times. He appears, for instance, in a story of the thirteenth century in France, in which he proves willing to forgive a practical joke on rather easy terms; in fact, answers one joke by another. Two loafing ruffians were deceiving goodhearted people, asking for charity and using the money for very worldly purposes. One of the two would stretch himself out in the middle of the road as if he were dead; while the other pretending to be carried away with grief, lamented with cries and tears the fate of his dear brother and thus aroused deep sympathy in the heart of his victims. One day St. Nicholas was journeying along that road and did not fail to offer his alms to the poor fellow, who, throwing his mask, hurried away: "Come on, man, now let us have a drink!" But the man this time did not move; he was found to be really dead. Trembling with fear and remorse, the first villain ran after St. Nicholas, confessed his guilt, and entreated the saint to have pity on him. The good bishop consented to turn around, went to the corpse,
resurrected the dead man and only warned the two companions that they should not try again to get alms in using such tricks.
Several other St. Nicholas stories are of a rather entertaining character. One more may be given here. The version of the Golden Legend is selected for fear another should be offensive to the reader. "A Jew saw the virtuous miracles of S. Nicholas, and did so make an image of the saint, and set it in his house and commanded him that he should keep well his house when he went out, and that he should keep well all his goods, saying to him: "Nicholas, lo! here be all my goods, I charge thee to keep them, and if thou keep them not well I shall avenge me on thee in beating and tormenting thee. And on a time, when the Jew was out, thieves came and robbed all his goods, and left unborne away only the image. And when the Jew came home, he found himself robbed of all his goods. He areasoned the image, saying these words: 'Sir Nicholas, I had set you in my house for to keep my goods from thieves; wherefor have ye not kept them? Ye shall receive sorrow and torments, and shall have pain for the thieves. I shall avenge my loss, and refrain my woodness in beating thee.' And then took the Jew the image and beat it, and tormented it cruelly. Then happed a great marvel, for when the thieves departed the goods, the holy saint, like as he had been in his array, appeared to the thieves and said to them: Wherefore have I been beaten so cruelly for you and have so many torments? See how my body is hewed and broken; see how that red blood runneth down by my body; go ye fast and restore it again, or else the ire of God Almighty shall make you as to be one out of his wit, and that all men shall know your felony, and that each of you shall be hanged. And they said: Who art thou that sayest to us such things? And he said to them: I am Nicholas the servant of Jesus-Christ, whom the Jew has so cruelly beaten for his goods that ye bare away. Then they were afeared, and came to the Jew, and heard what he had done to the image, and they told him the miracle, and delivered to him again all his goods. And thus came the thieves to the way of truth, and the Jew to the way of Jesus-Christ."
But what has St. Nicholas, whose calendar day is on December the sixth, to do with Christmas, which comes on the twenty-fifth day of the same month?
In the early Church, Christmas had not the importance which it has at present. Of course, the commemoration of the birth of our Lord (Christ's mass) was bound to call for some solemn festivity in all times, only the fact that there were so many saints' services all round the year, made a celebration, no matter how important, appear as an almost every-day occurrence. But when Protestantism suddenly did away with all those saints, Christmas at once assumed a paramount importance. At the same time, something similar to that which had happened at the period of the great struggle between Paganism and Christianism took place. It will be remembered that the Church had agreed tacitly, in order to render the new creed more acceptable to the people, to adopt some of the most harmless among Pagan religious traditions, slightly transforming them and giving them Christian names. So, again, after the Reformation of the sixteenth century, many a Catholic festivity continued to be observed by the Protestants; and while some of them were dropped altogether in the long run, others remained up to the present times. Christmas absorbed several ceremonies and traditions which were before celebrated at special dates in December or January. We all know how, in our representations of the birth of Jesus, on Christmas eve, we like to see the star of Bethlehem and the three kings from the Orient. But there was formerly a day by itself that had been set apart for the celebration of the coming of the Magi, namely, the sixth of January. Again, it is an old-established custom in Protestant churches, to read, at least at one of the services on Christmas day, the story of the slaughter of the little children by Herodes; before, the Church celebrated this event on the 28th of December. This makes already three festivities in one, and now the appearance of St. Nicholas at Christmas time simply means a fourth one added to the others.
The Roman Catholic Church has always proved very keen in understanding the needs of the people and the demands of
human nature. Long ago, long before the twentieth century "invented" them, the Church had recognized the rights of the little ones. An article by itself would be necessary, if we were to deal with the different customs connected with St. Nicholas day in former times. Let us mention only one more, namely, the presentation of useful gifts to the poorest children in the community; as it was in winter time, the gifts were mostly shoes and stockings, in which occasionally some good souls would hide a few nuts and candies: this is the touching origin of the gorgeous Christmas stockings and shoes of later days.
Two days in the year were devoted to the children by the Church of the middleages; the one was the day of the Holy Innocents, which has just been alluded to: the 144,000 innocent slain by Herodes had been canonized as the first martyrs of Christianity, and the yearly commemoration of their martyrdom had been placed on the 28th day of December. The second was St. Nicholas day, on the 6th of December. On both occasions, children were allowed to be very merry. In fact, the similarity of the two festivities seems to have brought about some confusion, and it may be that only one of the two was regularly taken up by one community. In the eastern part of Europe, it seems that it was rather St. Nicholas day which was observed, in the western part rather the Innocents. From some customs still preserved in certain Catholic villages, we can infer that the rejoicings were very much alike, and that a very serious spirit was prevailing at the outset. The solemnities were started in cloister schools. One of the seminarists, or one of the choir boys, was elected bishop, the "Bishop of the Innocents," or "Bishop Colas;" this was a reward for faithful study and good behavior.
Wearing the insignia of a bishop, and sometimes mounted on a horse, the boy was escorted to church by a proces
sion formed by his companions in the school. There he partook of special honors in the celebration of the mass. Sometimes he delivered a sermon in Latin. He also received some gifts in money to help him along in his studies. Gradually, however, the boys succeeded in getting control of the ceremonies entirely, and they rendered them very jolly, indulging into all sorts of gay performances, and especially making of the religious service in the church a mock-ceremony. made fun also of their bishop of the Innocents, and instead of picking out the most deserving, they made it a point to select the most unworthy among themand the fun became greater and greater. Finally, strong measures had to be taken. In the fifteenth century, one of the Church Councils discussed the question, and among other things, it was decided that henceforth it would be forbidden to throw more than three buckets of water on the head of the Chorister. The Reformation had a beneficial influence even in the Catholic Church, and in the sixteenth century those turbulent and undesirable celebrations were given up altogether. the thought of having a children-day in the year was a good one; the Catholic Church reformed it and kept it; the Protestant Church adopted it. As both, the St. Nicholas day and the Innocents' day fell near Christmas time, it found easy to shift this children-celebration from where it had been before upon the day when men sing: "A child unto us is born!" All the good features of former times were adopted, especially that of making presents to poor and deserving children, and in general the custom of making all children happy. St. Nicholas, the good bishop, was not forgotten; and this is how. while adults nowadays celebrate the birth of the Savior, children, while calling it Christmas, celebrate as a matter of fact, St. Nicholas-day on the twenty-fifth of December of each year.