Tomorrow December 5, the feast of Saint Nicolas will be celebrated here in the Netherlands and part of Flanders. As a child I was a firm believer in this holy man and was convinced that it was he who brought presents himself in my shoe placed near the heating, riding with his white horse over the roofs.
This historical Nicolas (15 March 270 – 6 December 343) was bishop of Myra. He must have been an impressive figure and some of his miracles – e.g. the saving of the three innocent men and the rescue of three sisters form prostitution – might indeed go back on historical events, as often the church was the only institution helping the poor. This bishop has become one of the major saints in both the Eastern and the Western tradition and the only saint known and loved by protestant Dutch children. The following story is taken from Jacobus de Voragine’s (1229-1298) Legenda Aurea. Cutting down sacred trees was a topos in the life of many saints and so Saint Nicolas did too, though I think that more such trees were cut down in vitae than in real life.
Iacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, Historia Sancti Nicolai, pars V.
Cum autem regio illa idolis deservisset, prae ceteris nefandae Dianae simulacrum populus coluerat adeo, ut usque ad tempus viri Dei nonnulli rustici praedictae religioni exsecrabili deservirent ac sub quadam arbore consecrata Dianae quosdam ritus gentilium exercerent. Ac vir Dei praedictum ritum de omnibus finibus expulit ipsamque arborem praecidi mandavit. Iratus ex hoc contra eum hostis antiquus oleum Mydyatum, quod in naturam in aqua et lapidibus ardet, confecit seque in formam religiosae feminae transfigurans quibusdam ad virum Dei navigantibus in quadam saginula obviavit sicque affata est eos: "Mallem ad Sanctum Dei venire vobiscum, sed nequeo. Rogo ergo vos, ut hoc oleum ad eius ecclesiam offeratis et ob mei memoriam exinde aulae eius parietes liniatis." Et statim evanuit.
Et ecce aliam cernunt naviculam cum honestis personis, inter quos erat simillimus sancto Nicolao, qui sic ait illis: "Heu quid mulier illa locuta est vobis vel quid attulit!" Illi autem cuncta per ordinem narraverunt. Quibus ille: "Haec est impudica Diana, et ut me verum dicere comprobetis, oleum illud in mare proicite." Quibus proicientibus ingens ignis in mari succenditur et contra naturam diutius in mari ardens conspicitur. Venientes igitur ad servum Dei aiebant: "Vere tu es ille, qui nobis in mari apparuisti et a diaboli insidiis liberasti;"
deservio (+ dat.): to serve, honour
nefandus: heinous, awful
Diana: Artemis had taken over traits from the pre-Greek great goddesses worshipped in Asia Minor.
colo colui cultum: to worship
adeo, ut usque ad tempus: to such an extent that (even) till that time
viri Dei: Christians
rusticus: from the country-side (It was not unusal that people were Christians, but also performed heathen rituals at special occasions.)
praedictus: mentioned afore
vir Dei: Saint Nicolas
expello expulsi expulsum: to drive away, expel
praecidi –cidi –cisum: to cut down
ex hoc: because of that
hostis antiquus: the Devil
oleum Mydyatum: oil from Midyat (a place in Turkey). I have been unable to find out which kind of oil this is, but it might be a kind of Greek fire.
in naturam: contrary to nature
ardeo arsi arsum: to burn
obvio (+ dat.): to meet (quibusdam…obviavit)
affor affatus: to address
nequeo nequivi (-ire): not to be able to
exinde: then, after that
linio: to oint, smear
paries parietis (m.): wall
evanesco evanui: to vanish, disappear
cerno crevi cretum: to perceive
cuncta per ordinem: everything in succession
comprobo (-are): to prove
succendo –cendi -censum: to burn
diutius: for a very long time
servum Dei: Saint Nicolas
aio: to say, confirm
insidiae insidiarum: trap
Translation by William Craxton (1483, but with modernized spelling)
And in this country the people served idols and worshipped the false image of the cursed Diana. And to the time of this holy man, many of them had some customs of the paynims, for to sacrifice to Diana under a sacred tree; but this good man made them of all the country to cease then these customs, and commanded to cut off the tree. Then the devil was angry and wroth against him, and made an oil that burned, against nature, in water, and burned stones also. And then he transformed him in the guise of a religious woman, and put him in a little boat, and encountered pilgrims that sailed in the sea towards this holy saint, and areasoned them thus, and said: “I would fain go to this holy man, but I may not, wherefore I pray you to bear this oil into his church, and for the remembrance of me, that ye anoint the walls of the hall”; and anon he vanished away. Then they saw anon after another ship with honest persons, among whom there was one like to Nicholas, which spake to them softly: “What hath this woman said to you, and what hath she brought?” And they told to him all by order. And he said to them: “This is the evil and foul Diana; and to the end that ye know that I say truth, cast that oil into the sea.” And when they had cast it, a great fire caught it in the sea, and they saw it long burn against nature. Then they came to this holy man and said to him: “Verily thou art he that appeared to us in the sea and deliveredst us from the sea and awaits of the devil.”