Knowledge for the People – Saint Nicholas

[Saint Nicholas of Myra]Why is Saint Nicholas the chosen patron of schoolboys?

Because of the following circumstance, related in a story in an Italian Life of Nicholas, 1645.

“The fame of Nicholas’s virtues was so great, that an Asiatic gentleman, on sending his two sons to Athens for education, ordered them to call on the Bishop for his benediction; but they, getting to Mira late in the day, thought proper to defer their visit till the morrow, and took up their lodgings at an inn; where the landlord, to secure their baggage and effects to himself, murdered them in their sleep, and then cut them into pieces, salting them, and putting them into a pickling tub with some pork, which was there already, meaning to sell the whole as such. The Bishop, however, having had a vision of this impious transaction, immediately resorted to the inn, and calling the host to him, reproached him for his horrid villainy. The man, perceiving that he was discovered, confessed the crime, and entreated the Bishop to intercede on his behalf to the Almighty for his pardon; who, being moved with compassion at his contrite behaviour, confession, and thorough repentance, besought Almighty God not only to pardon the murtherer, but also, for the glory of his name, to restore life to the poor innocents who had been so inhumanly put to death. The Saint had hardly finished his prayer, when the mangled and detached pieces of the two youths were by divine power reunited; and perceiving themselves alive, threw themselves at the feet of the holy man, to kiss and embrace them. But the Bishop, not suffering their humiliation, raised them up, and exhorted them to return thanks to God alone for this mark of his mercy, and gave them good advice for the future conduct of their lives; and then, giving them his blessing, he sent them with great joy to prosecute their studies at Athens. This, I suppose, sufficiently explains the naked children and tub, the well-known emblems of Saint Nicholas.”

The election of the Boy-Bishop on Saint Nicholas’s Day, in almost every parish in England, has been traced to the thirteenth century. He wore the episcopal vestments, with mitre and crosier, and, strange as it may appear, he took possession of the church, and, except mass, performed all the ceremonies and offices.

The Boy-Bishop walked about in procession with his fellows; in 1542 this show was abrogated. The practice of electing a Boy-Bishop appears also to have subsisted in common grammar-schools. Mr. Warton thinks that the Montem at Eton “originated from the ancient and popular practice of theatrical processions in collegiate bodies;” but Mr. Brand shows that it is only a corruption of the ceremony of the Boy-Bishop and his companions; who being, by Henry the Eighth’s edict, prevented from mimicking any longer their religious superiors, gave a new face to the festivity, and began their present play at soldiers. This shows how early our youth began to imitate the martial manners of their elders m these sports, for it appears from the Close Rolls of Edward I that a precept was issued to the Sheriff of Oxford, in 1305, from the king, “to prohibit tournaments being intermixed with the sports of the scholars, on Saint Nicholas’ Day.”

Why is Saint Nicholas the patron of parish clerks?

Because scholars were anciently denominated clerks. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, robbers are called Saint Nicholas’s clerks. They were also called Saint Nicholas’s knights. Saint Nicholas being the patron of scholars, and Nicholas, or Old Nick, a cant name for the devil, this equivocal patronage may possibly be solved; or perhaps it may be much better accounted for by the story of Saint Nicholas and some thieves, whom he compelled to restore some stolen goods, and brought “to the way of trouth;” for which the curious reader is referred to the Golden Legend.

Sir Walter Scott, it may be added, attributes the origin of Old Nick, as a cant name for Satan, to Nixas, or Nicksa, a river or ocean god, worshipped on the shores of the Baltic. Hence, the British sailor, who fears nothing else, confesses his terror for this terrible being, and believes him the author of almost all the various calamities to which the precarious life of a seaman is so constantly exposed.

Why was Saint Nicholas considered the patron of sailors?

Because of the two boys in a tub (part of the saint’s emblems) being mistaken for their sailing in a ship. Armstrong, speaking of Ciudadella, says: “Near the entrance of the harbour stands a chapel, dedicated to Saint Nicholas, to which the sailors resort that have suffered shipwreck, to return thanks for their preservation and to hang up votive pictures, representing the dangers they have escaped, in gratitude to the saint for the protection he vouchsafed them, and in accomplishment of the vows they made during the height of the storm. This custom originated with the Greeks and Romans. Bion, the philosopher, was shown several of these votive pictures, hung up in a temple of Neptune, near the sea-side; Horace also alludes to them.

- from Knowledge for the People, or, the Plain Why and Because, by John Timbs, 1832