December 6, 2021

Saint Nicholas

December 6th is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, traditionally a bringer of gifts to good children. Just like the best actors in today’s world, he has various doubles, the most famous of which is Father Christmas or Santa Claus, all with generous white beards and sleighs pulled by horses or reindeer.

The real Saint Nicholas was born in about 280AD in Patara which at the time was Greek but which now lies in Turkey: a very different climate and heritage to Lapland. Orphaned quite young when his parents died in an epidemic, he swiftly rose through the church to became Bishop of Myra and soon became well known for his generosity to those in need, his love for children and his concern for sailors and ships. Hence, he is the patron saint of children, sailors, students, teachers, and merchants. Credited with several miracles, his feast day gradually also took on some aspects of earlier gods such as the Roman Saturn and the Norse Odin, both of whom appeared as white-bearded men with magical powers such as flight.

Whichever century we live in, we look for miracles and good people and around such stories we weave our own myths. Saint Nicholas still remains part of many childhoods in Europe. In Germany and Poland for example on December 5th children may receive a gift under their pillow for when they wake on the 6th, whilst Dutch children still leave out some hay for Saint Nicholas’ horse to feed on.

Whilst St Nicholas is still dressed like a bishop when he appears each December in Germany or Austria, he also has a companion: an ominous looking, rough, frightening character called Krampus. In some ways, Krampus very much reflects the ancient Germanic folklore used by the Grimm Brothers in their fairy tales: half-goat, half-demon. Even the name is derived from the word “krampen meaning claw and has led to various appearances in Hollywood films. 

Over the centuries, there have been various attempts to banish both Krampus and St Nicholas. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, wished to diminish the Catholic elements of Christmas and the importance of saints and introduced instead “der Heilige Christ” (das Christkindl), an angel-like Christ Child, to bring Christmas giftsCenturies later, when the Soviet Union was formed, the communists abolished the celebration of Christmas and gift bringers

The Presbyterians in Scotland outlawed Christmas in 1640 and the English puritans followed soon after, banning all its celebratory aspects in 1644. When Charles II returned to the throne, Christmas and all its merriments were swiftly reinstated by the King famous for his partying.

Tales of good deeds and the excuse to make merry in dark times, in Europe quite literally as it is the middle of winter, matter,  as they give us hope and respite. As families and different cultures have spread and found new lands in which to settle, so traditions and stories have travelled with them; the familiar narratives helping them find anchors in times of change and chaos. What is amazing is that so many of the myths and traditions which hold us together with common values are entirely the product of human imagination. In order for them to continue, both utterance and repetition are necessary and, like Chinese whispers, they wander through time being endlessly respun for the next generation. 

Some of these retellings and evolutions can be traced quite easily, others are more gradual. One that I am particularly fond of, and which helped slip St Nicholas’s feast day towards our Christmas, is the 1822 poem Clement Clarke Moore wrote for his six children “A Visit from St Ncholas” better known today as “The Night Before Christmas” It has become a family tradition here and Geordie, just like his father before him, still sits down in the library on Christmas Eve to read it to my wide eyed nieces and their cousins.

We do not get involved with Krampus at all but interestingly there is a family story that the 4th Earl had to ask six bishops to banish a rather tiresome ghost through a Yew Tree back to the Red Sea. His name was Grampus which is not so very dissimilar..