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( Originally Published 1909 )
St. Nicholas is practically forgotten to-day in Protestant England. But in the merrie England of olden times, before the Catholic religion had given way to Protestantism, he was one of the most popular saints in the calendar.
This is shown not only by the number of churches dedicated in his honor, but also by the number of boys who received his name in baptism. Nicholases were once as common among the Englishmen of the past as Maries were among English women. A curious fact may be brough up in evidence. In English catechisms, whose forms date from a very early time, the question is put to the pupil:
"What is your name?"
And the answer is printed thus: "N. or M." Of course the pupil is expected to put his or her name in place of these initials. Now it is probable that N stands for Nicholas and M for Mary, and the choice of these initials was made not only because Nicholas was the patron of boys and Mary of girls, but because these were the commonest names in Old England.
The feast of St. Nicholas used to be celebrated by a ceremony known as the election of a Boy-bishop. This custom existed to some extent on the continent of Europe, but it nowhere flourished so vigorously as in England. It has been traced as far back as the thirteenth century.
To the choir boys and altar boys of English churches it was a particularly exciting time. On St. Nicholas' eve all the boys who sang in the choir or served at the altar met at their parish church, or in the great cathedral, if they belonged to a bishop's see, and elected one from among their number, who took the title of "the Boy-bishop." This title with its dignities he retained until December 28th, Holy Innocents' Day, so called because it is the anniversary of the slaughter of the children in Palestine by order of the wicked King Herod.
The Boy-bishop was dressed in the robes of a real bishop. On his head was placed a mitre, in his right hand a crozier. Another boy was elected dean, while the rest were styled canons, all being dressed in the robes of their office.
During the three weeks from December 5 to December 28, the Boy-bishop could perform all the duties of a real bishop, except that of saying mass. If a priest died during the period when he held office he could appoint another to take his place in the church left vacant. If he himself died before Holy Innocents' Day he was given a bishop's grand funeral in the cathedral.
"There is a little tomb of this kind," says Miss Abbie Farwell Brown, "not half the size of a fullgrown one, in a great: cathedral that I know. It is of white marble, grandly carved and decorated, and though it is worn and nicked by eight hundred years of change, one can plainly see that it is a child's face among the long curls beneath the bishop's mitre. No one knows his name, nor aught about him, save that he must be one of the Boy-bishops who died at Christmas time, or he would not be buried in the great cathedral tomb."
Doubtless Miss Brown has in mind the cathedral of Salisbury, England. In the nave of that great minster there is just such a tomb, with just such a likeness carved upon it. The boy's foot rests on the figure of a monster with a lion's head and a dragon's tail, in allusion to the words of the psalmist "Thou shalt tread on the lion and the dragon."
But to continue. On December 6th the newly elected Boy-bishop with his dean and canons held a grand service in the church to which they were attached, the prayers being chanted in the boy's sweet childish voice. A great crowd always thronged the church to gaze on so rare a sight, and the offerings that they made were all for the Boy-bishop.
After the services were over the bishop and his boyassistants would form themselves into a procession and parade through the streets of the town or the lanes of the countryside, asking some small money tributes from all they met and at every door where they knocked. This was known as the Bishop's Subsidy and though no one was likely to give a great deal, yet as the procession was continued every day during the three weeks, the amount collected sometimes rolled up into quite a pretty sum.
Faster and more furious grew the fun as the time of the bishop's rule neared its close. On the afternoon of December 27th little Nicholas and his companions sang vespers, while the real priests of the church acted as altar boys and choristers. Then the Boy-bishop gave a solemn -benediction to all present. Making the sign of the cross over the kneeling throngs, he dismissed them with the words:
Crucis signo vos consigno ; vestra sit tuitio, Quos nos emit et redemit suae carnis pretio.
These latin words being translated into English mean: "I bestow upon you the sign of the cross, yours be it to learn what is sent for our redemption through the price of his flesh."
Next day (the actual feast of the Holy Innocents), the Boy-bishop preached a sermon which usually was written for him by some famous prelate. On his dismissal of the congregation at the close of the sermon, the festival of the Boy-bishop was at an end.
When Henry VIII became a Protestant and brought over a great many of his subjects to the new faith one of his first acts was to abolish the Boybishop and his festival. Henry's daughter, Queen Mary, restored both for the few years of her own reign, but Queen Elizabeth, her sister and successor, put an end to the mummery forever.
We catch our last glimpse of the Boy-bishop in the pages of a historian called William Strype, who informs us that on the fifth day of December, 1556, (Queen Mary being then still alive) "a boy habited like a bishop in pontificalibus, went abroad in most parts of London, singing after the old fashion, and was received by many ignorant but well disposed people into their houses, and had as much good cheer as was ever wont to be had before, at least in many places."
Old customs die hard. We have come across many instances of the truth of this saying in the course of our study of the Christmas festivals. Just as Christianity had to retain and remodel many old heathen customs, so Protestantism (often without meaning it) retained and remodeled many an old Catholic custom. Just as Silenus, and Saturn, survived in a measure as Santa Claus, so the Boy-bishop, in a measure, survived as the hero of a ceremony which flourished at the school of Eton until nearly the middle of the nineteenth century.
This was known as Eton Montem. It was celebrated not in December but in June, though tradition tells us that the original date was St. Nicholas Day and that the ceremony was instituted in the year 1440, the very year when Eton was founded.
Later it took place every third year on the Tuesday after Whitsunday or Pentecost, which usually falls in June. On that day a procession of all the scholars went from the school buildings to a hill known as Salt Hill that rises just outside of the grounds. At their head marched the captain and his chaplain, the one being the head boy of the highest class in school, the other the head boy of the second class. The chaplain was dressed in a suit of priestly black with a bushy wig upon his head.
Two boys called "salt bearers" with "scouts" dressed like old-time footmen ran beside the procession begging from all passersby and they scattered through the roads to beg at the doors of houses for miles around.
The money thus collected was put into a great bag, already sprinkled with a small quantity of salt and at the end of the day this bag was handed over to the captain. It was used to pay his expenses when he left Eton for some one of the great universities. Not infrequently it mounted up to hundreds of dollars and sometimes even to a thousand or more.
Up to the middle of the eighteenth century it was customary for the chaplain to read prayers on Salt Hill. He was assisted by a clerk whom he kicked down hill at their conclusion. The irreverence of this part of the ceremony shocked Queen Caroline and at her request it was ever afterwards omitted. In 1847 the entire ceremony was abolished by act of Parliament, the last celebration having taken place on June 28th, 1844.
And thus the last vestige of Saint Nicholas passed out of the ceremonial life of England.