Sunday, 6 December 2009

St. Nicholas in England

From A Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000):

St Nicholas (4th century).
Little is known of the real life of this Bishop of Myra in Turkey, but he was very popular in the Middle Ages. Legend says he once resuscitated three little boys whom an innkeeper had murdered and salted down to make into pies, and on another occasion secretly threw three bags of gold through the window of a poor man’s house, as dowries for his three daughters, who would otherwise have been sold into prostitution. He is therefore regarded as a patron saint of children, who, in many Catholic countries, get presents during the night of his feast (6 December).

His feast was once linked to children in England too; merrymaking and unruliness were allowed in some schools. Aubrey wrote in the 1680s:

And the Schoole-boies in the west still religiously observe St Nicholas day (Decemb. 6th), he was the Patron of the Schoole-boies. At Currey-Yeoville in Somersetshire, where there is a Howschole (or schole) in the Church, they have annually at that time a Barrell of good Ale brought into the church; and that night they have the priviledge to breake open their Masters Cellar-dore.

[John Aubrey, Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme (1686–7), ed. James Britten (London: The Folklore Society, 1880), 40-1]

It was the date for choosing boy bishops, who were actually called ‘St Nicholas’; the church historian John Strype noted that in 1554, in London, ‘the Nicholases’ were going about the streets as usual, though this had been forbidden, since the citizens liked the show so much (Annals of the Reformation (1709–31) ). So they did two years later, according to Henry Machyn’s Diary, ‘and had mych good cheer as ever they had, in mony places’. These customs died out in England but their continental equivalents are important in the development of Santa Claus. St Nicholas and his gifts reached America through German and Dutch settlers, and became famous there in a poem by Clement Clark Moore, ‘The Visit of Saint Nicholas’ (1822). In Moore’s account he is no longer a bishop but a chubby, pipesmoking, cheerful old man ‘dressed all in fur from his head to his foot’, driving a reindeer sledge and carrying a sack of toys—details that have North European parallels. Forty years later, in the 1860s, illustrations to this poem by Thomas Nast were captioned as Santa Claus, no longer as St Nicholas.

Also from the Dictionary of English Folklore:

boy bishops.
In medieval times, most English cathedrals and abbeys, collegiate churches, and schools, used to reverse the structures of hierarchy at midwinter by selecting a young choirboy to act as ‘bishop’ or ‘abbot’. Wearing appropriate robes, he would preside at services, preach a sermon, and lead a procession through the streets blessing the people -- during which money would be collected for the upkeep of the institution he represented.

His term of office began on St Nicholas’s Day (6 December) and ended on Holy Innocents Day (28 December); in London and some other towns, he was actually referred to as ‘St Nicholas’. The last known example in England was at Gloucester Cathedral in 1558.


MLJ said...

Hi Fellist,
Really strange. I was reading about Boy Bishops this morning. I think from the dictionary you quote. I've got several books on English Traditions and Customs. The BB thing is a bit like Lord of Misrule.Really interesting.

fellist said...

Yup, it's a funny one...