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Four Seasons
St. Nicholas
December 6, St Nicholas’ Day

St Nicholas in winter sends the horses to the stable
St Nicholas in spring (9 May) makes them fat.
(Russian proverb)

How this 4th century Bishop of Myra became Santa Claus is somewhat of a mystery. Because he provided a dowry of golden balls for three girls who were planning to become prostitutes because they were too poor to marry, he is the patron of girls hoping to marry, bankers and pawnbrokers. The three balls became his emblem.

It may be possible depictions of this miracle gave rise to another story about how St Nicholas revived three boys who had been cut up and put in a vat (the balls being mistaken for heads, as Juno Lucina's cakes were mistaken for St. Lucy's eyes (see Dec 13)). At any rate, he is also the patron of children, butchers and vat-makers.

He is also the patron of thieves, because his bones were ripped off (in 1087 by Italian merchants who took his body to Bari, Italy).

Another legend tells how he begged some grain from a ship passing through Myra during a famine. He kept some and baked the rest as bread, in his shape. Thus he is the patron of sailors and bakers. And perhaps the creator of gingerbread men.

His legends spread throughout the world rapidly during the Middle Ages. During the ninth century, the Russians, who heard his stories in Constantinople, adopted him as a patron of Russia; his name became popular for nobles and czars. During the eleventh century, the Normans of Italy took his story to Normandy and England. He is also the patron of Greece. The French say the Virgin gave him the province of Lorraine as a reward.

Helen Farias notes that he has many of the characteristics of ocean deities like Poseidon, whose month this is (see Dec 1). It's possible that his figure was merged in the northern countries with that of Woden. Old Nick is another name for Woden, who like the Celtic Holly King, is the lord of the dead. St Nick is often pictured riding a white horse like Odin's Sleipnir. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Womans Press 1937

In Austria, St Nicholas makes his rounds in glittering bishop's robes. He has a long white beard and carries a pastoral staff. While St. Nicholas rewards good children with nuts and sweets, naughty youngsters are taunted with a switch from his black-faced servant. In some parts of Austria, St Nicholas is accompanied by the Laubauf, a horned monster. In Styria, the dark companion is called Bartlel, in lower Austria, Krampus or Grampus. In Czechoslovakia, St Nicholas is accompanied by an Angel and a Devil. In the Netherlands, he is accompanied by Zwartse Piet or Black Peter, the Moor. (A similar figure appears in Mummers’ plays, a convenient enemy from the historical time when the Crusaders were fighting the heathens.) In France, even the goods kids get little bunches of birch twigs, tied with ribbon.

In Italy and Greece, it is the sailors more than the children who celebrate the saint’s day. Greek sailors light a candle before the icon of St Nicholas found on every ship and say prayers for safe passage. In Bari, Italy, the image of St Nicholas is placed in a boat decorated with flowers and banners which is taken far out to sea, then returned to its shrine at night.

St. Nicholas has his own special cookie: the Speculatius, a gingerbread figure of a bishop. The name means “image,” referring to the mirror image of St Nicholas which has been pressed into a wooden mold and then turned out on a sheet to bake in the oven (like other traditional Christmas cookies made in molds: springerle and cavalucci).

In the Netherlands, St Nicholas brings treats like taai-taai, crisp ginger cakes baked in traditional patterns, sweet chocolate letters, pink and white candy hearts, hard spiced cakes and the initials of the child’s name baked in pastry, letterbanket, filled with rich almond paste. Roast goose is the traditional food for the evening feast, along with marvelous cakes baked in the shape of St Nicholas, birds, fish and fantastic animals. In Bulgaria, sharan, a special kind of fish is served with rice and a ceremonial bread.

Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Womans Press 1937

St Nicholas

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