Saint Nicholas (or also known as San Nicola of Bari, San Nicola of Myra, San Nicolò) is venerated by the Christian Church (both Orthodox and Catholic). He was born in the 3rd century in the town ofPatara (in today’s Turkey). His family was wealthy and his parents brought him up as a true Christian. After his parents’ death in epidemic, young Nicolas gave out all he had to the poor. Later he became a Greek bishop of Myra, which is today’s town of Demre (present Turkey), in the Byzantine Empire, in the fourth century. The Saint of the Ancient Hellenic town in Lycia is known to have been a secret gift-giver as well as a protector and patron of sailors, fishermen and merchants, kids and students, even brewers and repentant thieves. His relics were bought to Bari (they have still been kept there and that’s why he is also known as San Nicola of Bari) and some of them to Venice (in 1100). A part of his remains are also in Rimini, Saint-Nicolas-de-Port, Bucharest, Volos and Bulgaria (in the town of Chernomoretz).
His image of a gift-giver, actually, gives the origins of the American Santa Claus and the British Father Christmas. In fact, the cult of the 4th century Saint was brought to New Amsterdam (New York nowadays) by Dutch colonizers. As a matter of fact, the Saint is the protector of Amsterdam and his name is Sinterklaas in Dutch from which the North-American Santa Claus derived later. Unfortunately, the gift-giving tradition is associated with Christmas rather than the 6th of December (St Nicolas’ Feast Day) in the New World nowadays.
And how is Saint Nicolas’ Day celebrated on the Old Continent?
As a patron of the city of Bari, San Nicolas has two feast days a year. La Festa a mare is commemorated on May 8 with a regatta of boats that follows the boat on which the relics of the Saint are placed. Then, on December 6, there is another tradition, this time dedicated to unmarried women (Il Rito delle nubili). Young single ladies attend an early-morning mass during which they should go around a column seven times and thus they will get married soon. The same ritual exists also in Sassari.
Saint Nicolas is known as San Nicolò in other parts of Italy like Trieste, Friuli, Udine, Bolzano, Belluno and he brings gifts to children on the sixth day of December. During the whole first week of the month there is a joyful fair (Fiera di San Nicolò). Sometimes this feast is much more important than Christmas itself and San Nicolò is more loved by children than the Italian Santa Claus (i.e. il Babbo Natale) but all this depends greatly on the family culture and background.
Yes, Saint Nicolas is the protector of kids. There is one particular French story related to the feast (for me a little bit cruel, honestly) about two kids who wandered here and there and got lost. Being frozen and hungry, they were lured by a butcher into his shop and then killed by him, put in a tub and then salted. Fortunately, Saint Nicolas managed to revive them and then they were returned to their families. The evil butcher called Père Fouettard (or Father Whipper) was punished and sentenced to follow the Saint in his rounds during the feast and to bring coal to naughty and mischievous kids. Apart from this, nowadays the French celebrate Saint Nicolas’ Day mainly in Alsace, Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Lorraine. Children expect a donkey with baskets on, full of gingerbread biscuits, sweets, mannaia (a saint-shaped brioche) and of course, gifts for them. Kids learn and sing songs and draw pictures dedicated to the Saint while families gather around the fireplace and their grandfathers tell them stories.
The gift-giving tradition occurs in the Netherlands and Belgium on the 5th of December and on the next morning, respectively. Sinterklaas arrives in a steamboat in the mid of November and starts giving gifts to children a little bit later. On the feast day kids hang their shoes on the the fireplace and put a carrot and some hay for the Saint’s horse whose name is Amerigo in Holland and Slechtweervandaag – in Flanders. Next day they will find their presents, instead. Principally, only good children receive gifts but nowadays all of them without distinction get something from Sinterklaas who wears a bishop’s robes, a red cape and mitre. He is also helped by Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) who is, actually, the equivalent of Père Fouettard (as it was mentioned above, he is a helper in France and also in French-speaking Belgium). But why is Zwarte Pieten “black”? Because this helper is with a black face and is dressed in colourful Moorish clothes. As the myth goes, Zwarte Pieten took naughty kids, put them into a sack and Sinterklaas brought them to Spain.
Although the Dutch Santa Claus is believed to come from Spain and then he returns there after the feast, December 6 is a celebration of the Spanish high-school students. San Nicolàs is the main patron of the medieval University of Valladolid. São Nicolau has the same role in the city of Guimarães in Portugal. The so-called Nicolinas are festive days that start from the 29th of November and last till the 7th of December. Strangely or not, they are not observed in the rest parts of Portugal.
Last but not least, Saint Nicolas is the Saint of sailors, mariners and fishermen. He protects whenever and wherever ships in trouble by making the winds rage and cease. He walks on the sea and the entire submarine realm (fish, sea creatures, sea demons and winds) obeys him. That’s why both Greek and Bulgarian sailors and their families always have and keep an icon of Saint Nicolas on board. Thus sailors and mariners feel safe and protected from storms during their voyages and have a hope to come back alive on shore.
The Saint protects fishermen as well. The fall fishing season finishes on December 6 and that’s why the day’s catch is dedicated to him. According to the tradition, on Nikulden (the Day of Saint Nicolas in Bulgaria) fishermen eat the very first caught fish on the shore before bringing the rest to their families. Then their wives prepare the so-called “ribnik” that consists of a carp filled with vegetables. (By the way, a carp is known to be as Saint Nicolas’ servant). Two special loaves of bread preliminarily blessed at church are served. The host (usually the oldest in the family) raises them high and breaks them into two halves. The first half is left on the table while the other one is split among all family members and relatives, neighbours and members.
This is also the name day of all those who bear Saint Nicolas’ name in Bulgaria. So, happy name day and many happy returns of the day to Nikola, Nikolay, Kolyo, Nikolina, Neno, Nenka, Nikolina or Nina. May your Saint be with us 🙂 Stay blessed. 🙂