06 December 2010

6 December - Saint Nicholas

Today is the feast of Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bishop.  Children will be checking their shoes to see what the good saint has left them.

The Golden Legend gives the life and miracles of Saint Nicholas, including the well-known story of how he saved three poor young women from lives of degradation, by tossing bags of gold in through their window at night.  This is thought to have given rise to the custom of giving gifts on his day, in imitation of his generosity.

There is also his miracle of aiding mariners in a stormy sea, which led him to be considered the patron of sailors.

The story which made him a patron of children is that where he restored to life the murdered children.
Saint Bonaventure related the story of two young boys who, while traveling to a school in Athens, stopped at an inn.  The wicked innkeeper, tempted by the large amount of money they carried, killed them both, cut up their bodies, and hid the pieces in a salting barrel.  Saint Nicholas discovered this, reprimanded the murderer severely, and called the two boys back to life.

Bonaventure told this story, as no doubt he had heard it, in the 13th century; by the 16th century, the number of children changed to three, and the murderous innkeeper became a butcher, who slew the children for meat he could sell during a famine.  Hence, most representations of the story will show three children in a tub, as does the one above.

A former custom, and one that is still found in some churches, is the election of a Boy-Bishop today.

From All the Year Round: a weekly journal, Volume 61 (1887)

"One of the most curious customs anciently observed in connection with the anniversary of a saint's death was that which on St. Nicholas's Day, December the sixth, was formerly observed at Salisbury Cathedral, or Old Sarum, as it is called.  This consisted of the choice of a boy Bishop from among the choristers, whose term of office lasted from this date until Innocents' Day, twenty-two days later.  The boy was invested with the full authority of a genuine prelate, dressed in Episcopal robes and mitre, and carried also the pastoral crozier.  His fellow choristers, for the time named, acted as prebendaries, and were obliged to render due homage and respect as such.  

The evening before Innocents' Day, there was a special service, attended by the juvenile prelate and his equally juvenile clergy in solemn process, chanting hymns as they marched solemnly up the aisle to the choir.  There the little Bishop took his seat upon the Episcopal throne, surrounded by his youthful clergy, when a service was rendered in remembrance of the massacre, by Herod, of "all the male children that were in Bethlehem".  Multitudes used to assemble to witness the spectacle, and so great was the crush that special enactments were passed to prevent any undue crowding of the little fellows."

This young person and his 'priests' would preach sermons and go about the limits of their 'diocese', collecting money and generally being feted by their neighbors.  Unfortunately, there were abuses; the money collection took on the hue of extortion, and play-acting as prelates seemed to be "rather to the derysyon than to anie true glory of God, or honour of his saints." Forbidden in England by Henry VIII in 1541, but revived for a time by his daughter Mary I, it then slowly died out. 

"I shall only remark, that there might this at least be said in favour of this old custom, that it gave a spirit to the children; and the hopes that they might one time or other attain to the real mitre made them mind their books."  John Strype, Eccleciastical Memorials.