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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Saint Nicholas' Day


Today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas:  archbishop of the metropolitan church of Myra in Asia Minor, patron of those who sail upon the sea, and the source and inspiration for Santa Claus.

Legends are many, but one stands out: that of two or three  brothers on their way to study at Athens, who were to travel through Myra to pay their respects to Nicholas. The three were killed for their wealth and belongings, and Nicholas discovered the crime and miraculously restored the boys to life.

This either establishes or re-emphasizes the connection of Nicholas with the young. (Unfortunately in the present day, if you Google "bishop and boys" to find variants of the story, you are presented with numerous lurid accounts of a nature quite unedifying.)

However, the connection of Nicholas with the young was established, and it was upon this same day that the Boys' Bishop - episcopus puerorum - was elected in various places, certainly in England, where transcripts survive of the services at Salisbury cathedral of the solemn farce in which all took part.
The reign of the Boys' Bishop endured until Childermas on December 28th, or the Feast of the Holy Innocents, at which time the services remembered the children slain by Herod's orders.

There also were traditions of boys dressed in a bishop's regalia going about singing or caroling on the eve of Saint Nicholas Day in London, and they were well received and treated in many houses. None of these traditions survived the establishment of Protestantism, although there was a celebration at Eton, referred to as the Eton ad montem festival - ad montem means "to the mountain" and it consisted of a march from the school to a hill nearby. There was a boy scholar dressed as a parson in the business, and this continued as a tradition into the times of George III, who also taxed the tea in the American colonies.

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