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Harmonia Time Capsule: Saint Nicholas

Let’s take a quick look at the history of an icon of the Christmas season: jolly old Saint Nicholas.

Madonna and child with Saint Nicholas on the left and Catherine of Alexandria on the right

Photo: The Yorck Project

Madonna and child with Saint Nicholas on the left and Catherine of Alexandria on the right by Gentile da Fabriano.

Legend says that Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus, was a bishop in the Turkish city of Myra sometime in the 4th century. He was the only son of wealthy Christian parents, although accounts vary on what their names actually were. We don’t really know much more about the historical person of Nicholas other than he was a bishop of Myra, and he was imprisoned during the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian.

Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend
Julie Stiegemeyer/Chris Ellison
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The Legend of Saint Nicholas
Demi
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Saint Nicholas
Ann Tompert / Michael Garland
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Saint Nicholas is mostly known for his generosity and gift-giving in the form of coins or gold thrown through windows, dropped down chimneys, or left in shoes.

The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope from around the World
Louise Carus
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Different cultures all over the world celebrate Saint Nicholas with their own traditions. The Italian city of Bari celebrates the feast of Saint Nicholas by parading relics of the saint through the city. Although Nicholas wanted to be buried in his home city of Myra, his remains were unknowingly transported out of Myra by Italian merchants in the 11th century. Other parts of Italy have Nicholas giving gifts to children on December 6.

The Magic Of Christmas - Customs & Traditions from Around the World
Linda Alchin
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album cover

Holidays Around The World: Celebrate Christmas: With Carols, Presents, and Peace
Deborah Heiligman
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In German lands, the tradition began for children to leave their shoes sitting out so that Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, could leave them gifts – but only for the children who have been good. Naughty children may receive a tree branch in their shoes, and very badly behaved children were threatened to be put in a sack and taken away into the forest or beaten. These threats, of course, were part of legend and not literal. To this day, December 6 remains a more important holiday in these countries than December 25.

In Greece, it is not Saint Nicholas but St. Basil the Great who gives gifts to children. Greek children know Saint Nicholas as the patron saint of the Navy and celebrations of his feast days take place aboard ships both out to sea and in port. St. Basil is also thought to be from the 4th century and is known for his stories of giving gifts. Greek children celebrate the feast of St. Basil on January 1.

Music heard in Time Capsule

Anonymous: Intonent hodie/Salve cleri speculum/Salve iubar presulum
Anonymous 4 — Legends of Saint Nicholas (Harmonia Mundi, 1999)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover

Anonymous: Intonent hodie/Salve cleri speculum/Salve iubar presulum
Anonymous 4 — Legends of Saint Nicholas (Harmonia Mundi, 1999)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend
Julie Stiegemeyer/Chris Ellison
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
The Legend of Saint Nicholas
Demi
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Saint Nicholas
Ann Tompert / Michael Garland
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope from around the World
Louise Carus
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
The Magic Of Christmas - Customs & Traditions from Around the World
Linda Alchin
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Holidays Around The World: Celebrate Christmas: With Carols, Presents, and Peace
Deborah Heiligman
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Harmonia Early Music

Harmonia Early Music is a nationally syndicated weekly early music radio program, podcast and blog produced by WFIU Public Radio.

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