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( Originally Published 1909 )
If you go to England you will find many people there who have never heard of Santa Claus. Only the other day a leading London paper confessed that it could not understand why a magazine for children should be called St. Nicholas.
Now if you were asked the question which heads this chapter do you think you could answer,it so as to make an Englishman understand who Santa Claus is? Could you also explain what connection Saint Nicholas has with children?
Of course you might glibly reply:
"Santa Claus is the Dutch diminutive (or pet name) for Saint Nicholas, and Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of boys and girls."
But the Englishman might want to know more than this. Perhaps you yourself would be glad to know more. It is for the purpose of supplying you with information that I have prepared this little book. Let us begin with the legends which concern this holy man and see what help they will give us. I say let us begin with the legends, because history itself tells us little or nothing about the saint beyond the fact that he was Bishop of a town called Myra in Asia Minor and that he died about the year 342. Legend fills out these meagre details with many a pretty story which throws a kindly light upon the character of good Saint Nicholas.
You know what a legend is? It means a story which was not put into writing by historians at the time when the thing is said to have happened, but which has been handed down from father to son for hundreds and sometimes for thousands of years. It may or may not have had some basis of truth at the beginning. But after passing from mouth to mouth in this fashion it is very likely to lose what truth it once possessed. Still, even if the facts are not given in just the manner in which they happened there is nearly always some useful moral wrapped up in the fiction that has grown around the facts. That is why wise and learned men are glad to collect these legends from the lips of the peasants and other simple minded folk who have learned them at their mothers' knee, and who believe that they are all true. These legends are called by the general name of folklore.
Two brothers of the name of Grimm once collected into a book the folk-lore of their native country, Germany. This book is known to you as Grimm's Fairy Tales. Hans Christian Andersen also found among the legends of Denmark some of the prettiest and most fanciful of his tales.
Now stories concerning Saint Nicholas abound in almost every country of Europe, for almost every country except Great Britain is interested in his name and fame. He may, indeed, be called the busiest of all the saints. In the first place legend makes him the patron saint of children all over the world, no matter of what sex or color or station in life. Ever childlike and humble, so we are told by a quaint old author, "he keepeth the name of a child, for he chose to keep the virtues of meekness and simpleness. Thus he lived all his life in virtues with this child's name, and therefore children do him worship before all other saints."
One might think that to be a patron of the world's children would keep one saint pretty busy, even if it did not exhaust his energies. Not so with Saint Nich olas. He occupies his spare moments as the protector of the weak against the strong, of the poor against the rich, of the servant and the slave against the master. Because he once calmed a storm he is the patron of travellers and sailors and of many seaport towns. Because he once converted a gang of robbers and made them restore their booty to the men they had robbed he is still thought to retain a kindly interest in thieves. Moreover he is the patron of the largest of all European countries, the empire of Russia.
Now we will make our promised examination of the legends which have gathered around this saint and given him a fame so widespread.
Saint Nicholas is said to have been born in a town called Potara in Asia Minor. To the great wonder of his nurses he stood up in a tub on the day of his birth with his hands clasped together and his eyes raised to heaven and gave thanks to God for having brought him into the world. It is added that on Wednesday and Fridays, (both fast days in the early Church) he would refuse to take milk until the going down of the sun.
His parents died when he was very young. As they were wealthy they left him well provided with the world's goods. But he would not accept them for himself. Instead he used them for the good of the poor and of the Church.
When he was old enough he studied for the priesthood in the town of Myra and was ordained as soon as he had reached man's estate. He at once set sail on a voyage to the Holy Land to visit the tomb of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem. On the way a dreadful storm arose. The winds howled and whistled, the great waves shook the vessel from stem to stern.
The captain and the sailors who had been used to bad weather pretty much all their lives declared that this was the worst storm they had ever known. Indeed they had given up all hope when the young Nicholas bade them be of good cheer.
His prayers soon calmed the wind and the waves, so that the ship reached Alexandria safe and sound. There the saint landed and made the greater part of the journey from Alexandria to Jerusalem on foot.
Returning by sea, he wished to go straight back to Myra. The captain, however, would not obey his orders and tried to make the port of Alexandria. Then Saint Nicholas prayed again and another great storm arose. And the captain was so frightened by this evidence of the saint's powers that he gladly listened to his request and headed the ship towards Myra.
In the year 325 Nicholas, then still a young man, was elected Bishop of Myra. On the day of his consecration to that office a woman brought into the church a child which had fallen into the fire and been badly burned. Nicholas made the sign of the cross over the child and straightway restored it to health. That is the first of his miracles which showed the interest that he took in children.
Two other miracles which are still more famous are thought to foreshadow the fame he has won since his death as the patron of children and the bearer of gifts to them at the holy Christmas season.
Among the members of his flock (so runs the first story) there was a certain nobleman who had three young daughters. From being rich he became poor,-so poor that he could not afford to support his daughters nor supply the dowry which would enable him to marry them off. For in those days, as even now in many countries in Europe, young men expected that a bride should bring with her a sum of money from her parents with which the young couple could start housekeeping. This is called the dowry. Over and over the thought came into the nobleman's mind to tell his daughters that they must go away from home and seek their own living as servants or in even meaner ways. Shame and sorrow alone held him dumb. Meanwhile the maidens wept continually, not knowing what to do, and having no bread to eat. So their father grew more and more desperate.
At last the matter came to the ears of Saint Nicholas. That kindly soul thought it a shame that such things should happen in a Christian country. So one night when the maidens were asleep and their father sat alone, watching and weeping, Saint Nicholas took a handful of gold and tying it up in a handkerchief, or as some say placing it in a purse, set out for the nobleman's house.
He considered how he might best bestow the money without making himself known. While he stood hesitating the moon came up from behind a cloud, and showed him an open window. He threw the purse containing the gold in through the window and it fell at the feet of the father.
Greatly rejoiced was the old gentleman when the money plumped down beside him. Picking up the purse he gave thanks to God and presented it to his eldest daughter as her dowry. Thus she was enabled to marry the young man whom she loved.
Not long afterwards Saint Nicholas collected together another purse of money and threw it into the nobleman's house just as he had done before. Thus a dowry was provided for the second daughter.
And now the curiosity of the nobleman was excited. He greatly desired to know who it was that had come so generously to his aid. So he determined to watch. When the good saint came for a third time and made ready to throw in the third purse, he was discovered, for the nobleman seized him by the skirt of his robe and flung himself at his feet, crying:
"Oh, Nicholas, servant of God, why seek to hide thyself ?"
And he kissed the holy man's feet and hands. But Saint Nicholas made him promise that he would tell no one what had occurred.
The second legend is much more wonderful. It tells how Saint Nicholas was once travelling through his diocese at a time when the people had been driven to the verge of starvation. One night he put up at an inn kept by a very cruel and very wicked man, though nobody in the neighborhood yet suspected his guilt.
This monster, finding that the famine had made beef and mutton extremely scarce and greatly raised their price, had conceived the idea of filling his pantry with the fat juicy corpses of children whom he kidnapped, killed and served up to his guests in all varieties of nicely cooked dishes and under all sorts of fancy names.
Nobody could guess how he alone of all the innkeepers in that neighborhood could maintain a table so well supplied with meats, boiled and roasted, and stews and hashes and nice tasty soups.
But no sooner had a dish of this human flesh been served up to the saint than he discovered the horrible truth.
Leaping to his feet he poured out his anger in bitter but righteous words. Vainly the landlord fawned and cringed and protested that he was innocent. Saint Nicholas simply walked over to the tub where the bodies of the children had been salted down. All he had to do was to make the sign of the cross over the tub, and lo! three little boys, who had been missing for days, arose alive and well, and, coming out of the tub, knelt at the feet of the saint.
All the other guests of the inn were struck dumb the miracle. The children were restored to their mother, who was a widow. As to the landlord, he was taken out and stoned to death, as he richly deserved to be.
Another of St. Nicholas' miracles shows that he had a kind heart for grown-ups as well, as for the young folk. A revolt having broken out in Phrygia, Emperor Constantine sent a number of his tribunes to quell it. When they had reached Myra, the bishop invited them to his table so that they would not quarter themselves on poorer citizens, who might be ill able to afford their keep.
A grand banquet was served up to them. As host and guests were preparing to sit down, news was brought into the hall that the prefect of the city had condemned three men to death, on a false accusation that they were rebels. They had just been led to execution and the whole city was in a ferment of excitement over this terrible act of injustice.
Nicholas rose at once from the table. Followed by his guests he ran to the place of execution. There he found the three men kneeling on the ground, their eyes bound with bandages, and the executioner standing over them waving his bared sword in the air. Nicholas snatched the sword out of his hand. Then he ordered the men to be unbound. No one dared to disobey him. Even the prefect fell upon his knees and humbly craved forgiveness, which was granted with some reluctance.
Meanwhile the tribunes, looking on at the scene, were filled with wonder and admiration. They, too, cast themselves at the feet of the holy man and be sought his blessing. Then, having feasted their fill on the banquet that had been provided for them, the tribunes continued their journey to Phrygia.
They, too, it was decreed were to fall under the ban of a false accusation. During their absence from Constantinople, Constantine's mind had been poisoned against them by their enemies. Immediately on their return he cast them into prison. They were tried and condemned to death as traitors. From the dungeon into which they had been cast to await the carrying out of this sentence they sent out a piteous prayer to 5t. Nicholas for assistance. Though he was hundreds of miles away, he heard them.
And that same night he appeared to Constantine in a dream, commanding him to release these men and to declare them innocent, threatening him at the same time with the wrath of God if he refused. Constantine did not refuse. He took the saint's word for their innocence, pardoned them, and set them free. Next morning he despatched them to Myra to thank Saint Nicholas in person for their happy deliverance. As a thank offering they bore him a copy of the gospels, written in letters of gold, and bound in a cover embossed with pearls and precious stones. Nor did the saint's miracles end with his life. Even after death he listened from his high place in heaven to the prayers of the humblest and gladly hastened to their assistance when they asked for help in the right spirit and at the right time.
Here are three legends which have been especially popular in literature and art.
A Jew of Calabria, hearing of the wonderful miracles which had been performed by Saint Nicholas, stole his image out of the parish church and bore it away to his home. There he placed it in his parlor. And when, next day, he had made ready to go out for the morning he commended all his treasures to the care of the saint, impudently threatening that his image would be soundly thrashed if he failed in his trust. No sooner was the Jew's back turned, however, than robbers broke into the house and carried off all its treasures. Great was the Jew's wrath when he returned. Bitter were the reproaches he hurled at the saint. Many and fierce were the whacks he bestowed upon the image.
That very night Saint Nicholas, all bruised and bleeding, appeared to the robbers, and commanded them immediately to restore what they had taken. Terrified at the vision they leaped to their feet, collected the plunder, and brought it back to the Jew's house. The Jew was so astonished at the miracle that he was easily converted to Christianity and baptized. There was a wealthy man who, though married, had no son to inherit his estate. This man vowed that if Saint Nicholas would provide him with an heir he would present a cup of gold to the saint's altar at Myra. Saint Nicholas heard the prayer and, through his intercession, God sent the childless man a son. At once the father ordered the cup of gold to be prepared. When it was finished, however, it seemed so beautiful in his eyes that he decided to keep it for himself and offer the saint a meaner one made of silver. When this, too, was finished, the merchant with his son set out to make the presentation. On the journey he stopped by a river to quench his thirst. Taking out the golden cup he bade the son fetch him some water. In obeying the child fell into the river and was drowned.
Weeping bitter tears of repentance the merchant appeared in the church of Saint Nicholas and there made his offering of the silver cup. But the cup would not stay where it was put. Once, twice, thrice, it fell off the altar.
While all the people stared with astonishment, behold the drowned boy appeared before them, standing on the steps of the altar with the golden cup in his hand. Full of joy and gratitude, the father offered both the cups to the saint and bore his son home with thanksgivings to God and to His saint.
A certain rich merchant, himself a Christian, dwelt on the borders of a heathen country. He cultivated a special devotion to Saint Nicholas. One day his only son was taken captive by some of the wicked neighbors across the boundary line and sold into slavery. The lad finally became the property of the pagan king, and served him as his cup-bearer.
One day, while filling the royal cup at dinner he suddenly remembered that it was December 6, and the feast of Saint Nicholas. He burst into tears at the thought that his family were even then gathered around the dinner table in honor of their patron.
"Why weepest thou?" testily asked the king. "Seest thou not that thy tears fall into my cup and spoil my wine?"
And the boy answered through his sobs:
"This is the day when my parents and my, kindred are met together in great joy to honor our good Saint Nicholas; and I, alas! am far away from them."
Then the pagan blasphemer swore a good round oath and said:
"Great as is thy Saint Nicholas, he cannot save thee from my hand!"
Hardly were the words out of his mouth when a whirlwind shook the palace. A flash of lightning was followed by a loud peal of thunder and lo! Saint Nicholas himself stood in the midst of the affrighted feasters. He caught the youth up by the hair of his head so suddenly that he had no time to drop the royal cup, and whirled him through the air at a prodigious speed until, a few moments later, he landed him in his home. The family were gathered in the dining room when saint and boy made their appearance,-the father being even then engaged in distributing the banquet to the poor, beseeching in return that they would offer up their prayers in behalf of his captive son.