St Nicholas was a Sailor

6 December 343, St Nicholas allegedly died in his bishopric Myra in Asia Minor, marking the saint’s feast day, celebrated with various traditions throughout the world.

“Ils étaient trois petits enfants / Qui s'en allaient glaner aux champs / S'en vinr'nt un soir chez un boucher: / "Boucher, voudrais-tu nous coucher?"/ Entrez, entrez, petits enfants, / Il y'a d'la place assurément! // Ils n'étaient pas sitôt entrés /Que le boucher les a tués, / Les a coupés en p'tits morceaux, / Mis au saloir comme pourceaux. // Saint Nicolas, au bout d'sept ans, /Vint à passer dedans ce champ, / Alla frapper chez le boucher: / "Boucher, voudrais-tu me loger?" // Entrez, entrez, saint Nicolas, / Il y'a d'la place, il n'en manq'pas." / Il n'était pas sitôt entré / Qu'il a demandé à souper. // "Du p'tit salé je veux avoir / Qu'il y a sept ans qu'est dans l'saloir." / Quand le boucher entendit ça, / Hors de la porte il s'enfuya. // "Boucher, boucher, ne t'enfuis pas; / Repens-toi, Dieu t'pardonnera." / Saint Nicolas alla s'asseoir / Dessus le bord de ce saloir. // "Petits enfants qui dormez là, / Je suis le grand saint Nicolas." / Et le saint étendit trois doigts. / Les p'tits se lèvent tous les trois.“ (Three little children sought the plain / Gleaners of the golden grain. / They lingered past the angel-song, / And dewy shadows swept along. / 'Mid the silence of the wood / The butcher's lonely cottage stood, / "Butcher! lodge us for the night, / Lodge us till the morning light." /"Enter in, ye children small, / I can find a place for all." / The butcher seized a knife straitway, / And did the little creatures slay. / He put them in a tub of brine, / In pieces small as they were swine. // St. Nicholas, at seven years end, / His way did to the forest wend. / He sought the butcher's cottage drear: / "Butcher! I would rest me here!" // "Enter! enter, St. Nicholas! /You are welcome, St. Nicholas! / Enter! enter, St. Nicholas! / There's place for you the night to pass." / Scarce had the Saint his entrance made, / He would the supper board was laid. / "Will you have of ham a slice?" / "I will not, for it is not nice!" / "Of this veal you'll take a bit?" / "No! I do not relish it." / "Give me of the little swine, For seven long years have laid in brine!" / The butcher caught the words he said, / And forthwith from the portal fled. / "Butcher! butcher! do not flee, / Repent and God will pardon thee!" // St. Nicholas the tub drew near, / And lo! he placed three fingers there. / The first one said, "I sweetly rest!" /The second said, "I too am blest!" / The third replied, "Tis well with me, / In Paradise I seem to be!", Saint NICOLAS (La Légende de Saint Nicolas), 16th century French song, English adaption by James Henry Dixon)

St Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, saves a man over board, from Gentile da Fabriano's "Quaratesi Polyptych" (1425)

St Nicholas always was a busy man. Legend has it that
 he was a bishop in the antique city of Myra the 4th century, close to the modern coastal town of Demre, a hundred miles southwest of Antalya. He is supposed to have participated in the Council of Nicea, slapped the heretical Bishop Arius there and then for his unspeakable heresies, performing a lot of other miracles, such as saving cities from starvation or sailors in distress at sea, resurrecting three children slaughtered by an evil butcher during a famine and placing money in the shoes of three girls who were in danger to go to the dogs. The first accounts of his live were given during the early 8th century in monasteries of the Eastern Roman Empire. When the Byzantine princess Theophanu married Emperor Otto II in 972, his veneration as a wonder-working saint spread from the Holy Roman Empire by and by to all other western countries during the 11th century, making St Nicholas soon one of the most revered saints in the Eastern as well as the Western Church. When, after the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert in 1071, the Seljuq Turks, pushed into Anatolia, sailors from Norman Bari in Southern Italy mounted an expedition to Myra to salvage his remains, brought them home and Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari.

The Slovenian painter Jurij Šubic's (1855 - 1890) imagination of St Nicholas ensuring Catholic orthodoxy on his feast day

And while St Nicholas became holy helper of such diverse groups as sailors, merchants, bakers, the Byzantine emperor’s Varangian Guard, lawyers, students and apothecaries, to name but a few, and the national saint of Russia, Serbia and Croatia, he is probably best known as patron saint of the children, the role that is the origin of the gift giving traditions throughout the world on his feast day. The customs started probably during the 15th century when little boats were filled with sweets on December 6th, echoing back his patronage of mariners as well. Shoes, stockings and plates slowly replaced the boats while Martin Luther tried to substitute the celebration of the saint with the artificial character of the Christkind or Christ Child that slowly led to a displacement of St Nicholas’ Day in favour of Christmas as the main gift giving event. enough is enough, though, and the benevolent saint fought back. From the 17th century onward, he is often accompanied by a shadowy figure that originally not only examined if children were naughty or nice but if they knew their catechism.

St Nicholas, flanked by two Perchten, variants of Krampus

The imagery of big bushy bearded St Nicholas accompanied by a tamed evil creature at the beginning of winter might well date back to pre-Christian traditions, when the Wild Hunt was on the loose, lead by Odin in his appearance as Jólnir and Langbarðr, the long-bearded Yule figure. The creatures accompanying St Nicholas bear very atavistic traits, the Krampus from the Alpine regions as well as similar figures in Eastern Europe, Knecht Ruprecht and Hans Muff in Germany, the Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands and Père Fouettard in France. Their punishing features became increasingly unpopular during the 20th century and even St Nicholas, once carrying a birch rod in some regions himself, usually doesn’t whip anybody anymore. The Krampus and his colourful variations live on in various pageants though.

The image of St Nicholas and the Perchten, represented by members of the Salzburger Nockstoa Perchten, a society for keeping the local folklore alive – depicted above found on their website:

and more on: