Friday, December 5, 2008

Dec. 6th St. Nicholas Day

St. Nicholas, the 4th century Orthodox Bishop of Myra in Turkey, is venerated by all Christians. As a boy, he lost his wealthy parents to an epidemic. St. Nicholas used his inheritance to help the poor and is best known for his secret gift-giving. He often placed coins in shoes left out overnight on doorsteps.

According to legend, St. Nicholas encountered a man so poor he had no dowries for his three daughters. This meant they would never marry. So St. Nick threw three bags of gold coins through their cottage window over three consecutive nights.

Determined to discover the identity of his benefactor, the poor man stayed up the third night to catch St. Nicholas when he delivered the final bag. But the good bishop dropped it down the chimney instead. It fell into one of the daughters’ freshly-washed stockings hanging from the fireplace to dry.

The Dutch term for St. Nicholas is Sinter Klaas. As the patron saint of sailors, he was hugely popular in Amsterdam during the 16th century. When the Dutch came to the New World, they brought Sinter Klaas with them. In 1809, the New York Historical Society named him patron saint of New York City (New Amsterdam).

The Boy Bishop
An interesting British custom with regard to St. Nicholas Day dates from the 13th century. On Dec. 6th, a mock bishop was chosen from among a church’s altar and choir boys. The “boy bishop” dressed in the robes of a real bishop—mitre on his head and the crozier in his right hand. Other boys were elected deans and canons and dressed in the robes of those offices. The youngsters could perform all ecclesiastical duties except mass.
On Dec 6th the boy bishop conducted a service after which he and the other youngsters formed a procession and paraded through the town streets. They knocked on doors and demanded donations to the “bishop’s subsidy” which was a kind of pocket change allotment for clergymen.

The boy bishop maintained his office until Holy Innocent’s Day, December 28th. If the youngster died before then, he was buried with all the honors of that office. Salisbury Cathedral contains the tomb of one such boy bishop.

The custom of appointing a boy bishop is believed to have derived from the Magnificat (Song of Mary) which in one verse says:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

Appointing a boy bishop, therefore, was viewed by the church as a lesson in humility and recognition of the wisdom of youthful innocence.

Henry VIII banned the practice of appointing boy bishops in 1526, but Queen Mary reinstated it when she took the throne. Elizabeth I finally abolished it during her reign, but the tradition continued on the Continent. It has since enjoyed a limited revival at Hereford, Salisbury and Westminster Cathedrals.

The practice also was common in schools and colleges. Eton conducted a Montem every three years until 1847. In 1758, it changed from the last week of January to Whitsun Tuesday. Eton’s version was more akin to flag day, or a school spirit day with marching bands and distinguished visitors.

1 comment:

Vic said...

Fascinating post. Thanks for sharing this information.