Once upon a time a butcher slaughtered three children and pickled them in a jar.
This is probably not the typical, family friendly introduction that one expects when delving into the hagiography of a famous Christian bishop, the tradition of whom is now secularised. He goes by several names but the one we most typically use is Father Christmas (Santa if we are being lazy). The underlying Christian tradition is based upon St. Nicholas, and pickling. Pickling is not a subject I had have ever thought of introducing my seven year old to, unless it was related to onions, but I now know pickling draws strong reactions from unexpected quarters: enraged mothers, seven year olds and Texans (although that is another story, ironically one which involved a Secret Santa in my office and a sublime stage exit by the said Texan – with the equivalent gait and effect of a cloak swoosh. If only there had been one).
My son should probably claim credit for introducing me to the hardcore educated Anglican version of St. Nicholas’ hagiography. But the legend goes something like this…
Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas’ life and these accounts help us in our attempt to understand how the tradition of the gift giver has developed over the centuries.
The true story of Father Christmas begins with Nicholas. Nicholas was born during the third century in Turkey, to wealthy Christian parents. They died during an epidemic, whilst he was still young, leaving him a wealthy inheritance which he in turn gave that it may assist the needy. Around this time Nicholas dedicated his life to serving God, and later became Bishop of Myra. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian though, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, and, like many Christians of the day, he was exiled and imprisoned because of it.
One significant tradition of St. Nicholas tells of a poor man with three daughters. He could not afford sufficient dowries and the daughters were therefore destined for slavery, or, more likely, prostitution. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home and ‘saved’ the girls from their inevitable doom. There is a bit of the Augustus Egg about this inevitability, this threat of prostituition, although in Egg painting there is no reprieve. The bags of gold which were thrown through an open window by St. Nicholas are said to have landed in stockings (or shoes) which had been drying before a fire (odd considering Turkey is not renowned for rain). This legend understandably explains how the custom of hanging out stockings for the arrival of St. Nicholas began. (Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold, and this is perhaps part of the Christingle tradition, although I will have to verify that massive declaration!)
ADDENDUM: Well that declaration was massively incorrect, apparently the three gold balls are to do with St. Nicholas’ association with giving gold to the needy. The three gold balls have since been taken up as a motif for pawn brokers (this itself gets complicated as seems to have traces of Lombardy / Medici Renaissance families). Who would have guessed????
One of the oldest stories which assigns St. Nicholas to the role of protector of children takes place long after his death. On the feast day of St. Nicholas, the people of Myra were invaded by Arab pirates who ravaged the town, stealing many religious treasures amongst other violent acts. One of which was the kidnap of a young boy who was intended for slavery. However, the boy, Basilios became the Emir’s cupbearer. For over a year this continues, and the boy’s family are devastated and full of grief for the loss of their son.
The story has a happy end though, for St. Nicholas rescues Basilios and returns him home to his family. This is the first tale of St. Nicholas enacting a protective role toward children, and it is this act which he became synonymous with (at least in the West).
The tradition of St. Nicholas’ generosity is one of the many reasons we continue to provide magic and gifts to children. It is a tradition I whole heartedly applaud and tomorrow night I will be hanging up the stockings.
Let there be magic and innocence for as long as there can be.