In a previous blog, I wrote about French traditions of St. Nicholas Day on the 6th December, some pleasant – leaving sweets in the shoes of children – and some that might not be well received. His travelling companion Père Fouettard has the anti-social habit of leaving birch twigs, on the grounds that all young people are prone to bad behaviour from time to time.
Nicholas was born to Greek parents in Patra circa 280 AD, and he became the Bishop of Myra (modern-day Demre). He died on the 6th December 343 AD, and the stories tell of how he saved three girls from a life of slavery by leaving three bags of gold in their house under the cover of darkness. Some accounts have him dropping bags of money down the chimney, where they landed in shoes drying before the fire. In reality, house did not feature a chimney before the 13th century, and the gifts were more likely to have been thrown through the window. Another tale describes how three wrongfully accused men were about to be executed when Nicholas arrived, pushing aside the swordsman and confronting a bribed juror. He also rid a Cypress tree of the demons that were hiding there, frightening them by wielding an axe, and saved three merchants from pirates.
Today, Nicholas is the Patron Saint of many sectors of society, including parish clerks, students, repentant thieves, sailors, orphans, apothecaries, brewers, archers, merchants, ribbon weavers, children and pawnbrokers. The reason for the well-known motif outside of the premises of the last-named derives from the bags of gold used by St. Nicholas to save the young ladies. The festivities of St. Nicholas Day are mainly associated with Alsace and Lorraine – the young in the former are given an orange and pain d’épices (gingerbread) but countless French citizens of all ages eagerly anticipate the 6th December.
And so, – wherever you are – a bonne fête de Saint-Nicolas.