Nostalgia: St Nicholas - guardian and protector

Have you ever wondered why one of Scarborough's sea cliffs and the town street leading to it are named after a bishop who once lived in what is now Turkey about 1,700 years ago?

Thursday, 5th January 2017, 8:00 am
Updated Monday, 9th January 2017, 11:50 am
Early picture of St Nicholas Cliff, on the extreme left, where the Grand Hotel stands today, Scarboroughs own hospital of St Nicholas once stood

Scarborough old town still has a number of medieval streets or gates which are called after the patron saints of adjacent churches, all but one of them long since demolished. St Mary’s, the parish church, gave its name to a street and a walk; St Thomas the Martyr of Canterbury once had a substantial church dedicated to his memory; and St Sepulchre once had a church named after the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem built on the site of the tomb of Jesus.

Though much reduced since the Civil War to a remnant of its medieval splendour, St Mary’s survives but the church of St Thomas, another casualty of the same war and that of the Holy Sepulchre are now only the curiosities of archaeologists.

But where was the church or chapel of St Nicholas that gave its dedication to the cliff where it once stood and the street that still leads directly to it and what does the bishop have to do with us?

There are many weird, no-doubt apocryphal, stories about St Nicholas of Myra, now in south-west Turkey. He was a bishop there early in the fourth century AD who was said to have performed many miraculous good deeds for the deserving. So popular did his reputation become that a church in Constantinople was dedicated to him in the sixth century and by the eleventh century he was one of the most revered saints in all Christendom. Everyone claimed him as their guardian: sailors, children, merchants, apothecaries, bankers, clerks and even pawnbrokers. He became the patron saint of countries, provinces, dioceses, churches and cities which all sought his special protection. Pawnbrokers even took the three golden balls which was his emblem.

Scarborough’s own hospital of St Nicholas, built on the site now occupied by the Grand Hotel, probably had merchants or mariners in mind. However, whatever its exact origins c.1200, in time it became a refuge for lepers which explains why it was located outside the medieval town ditch. Founded by William, abbot of Citeaux (1199-1203), as a charity chapel where prayers for the soul of Richard Lionheart would be said, eventually it passed to the Crown and was dissolved at the Reformation. Nevertheless, except for about a century when it went by the name of Long Room Street, during the 1840s St Nicholas won back his street.

Principally, Nicholas was and is the patron saint of children. Most of the miracles he was thought to have performed concerned boys and girls. Perhaps best known was the one about his visit to an inn which, in a time of famine, offered him plenty of good meat and drink. Suspicious of the conduct of the innkeeper, Nicholas insisted on a kitchen inspection where he found the dismembered bodies of three boys preserved in a barrel of brine! Thereupon Nicholas brought the three boys back to life.

The number three usually figures in the miracles of St Nicholas. For example, a very poor family with three young girls decided that one of them would have to become a prostitute to pay for the dowries of her sisters. Hearing of this outrage, on three successive nights, Nicholas threw a bag of gold through the house window to save all three.

Other instances of his legendary generosity included saving three unjustly condemned men from execution, rescuing seamen from drowning, and, pertinently, dropping gold coins down the chimney of a poor household which happened to land on drying stockings or shoes. However far-fetched and incredible, this last anecdote is thought to be the origin of Father Christmas, the annual gift provider for children.

The British Father Christmas is an amalgam of several different and conflicting identities. His starting point might well be the Saxon god Woden (Viking, Odin) who rode through the sky drawn by his eight-legged horse showering presents on deserving mortals below. His largess came down the smoke-holes of houses which have evolved into chimneys.

For centuries, pagan Odin and Christian St Nicholas seem to have operated in parallel in different regions of Christendom. The British Father Christmas, who was a central player in the season’s mummery plays, eventually merged with the continental Santa Claus, the Dutch dialect form of “Sinte Klaas”, who had taken root in North America. The reindeers, which displaced Odin’s horse, first came in a poem of 1822.

In Victorian illustrations, Father Christmas wears a long red robe with attached hood, whereas Santa Claus is kitted in a tight, red, buttoned jacket, wide black belt and boots. Until the 20th century, Father Christmas brought only simple gifts such as oranges and nuts to children, but the custom has been commercialised beyond recognition.

A traditional Christmas ritual also derived from St Nicholas was that of the Boy Bishop. Before the Reformation, most English cathedrals, abbeys, colleges and schools and even some parish churches, such as St Oswald’s at Filey, chose a choir boy on St Nicholas’ day, December 6, and dressed him in episcopal clothing. At York Minster, he was known as “the Bairn Bishop” and at King’s College, Cambridge, he wore a scarlet gown and a hood furred with white ermine.

Another Christmas custom, which like the Boy Bishop was meant “to turn the world on its head”, or act out role-reversal, was that of the Lord of Misrule. Richard III employed one at Middleham and so did the earl of Northumberland at his houses at Wressle and Leconfield. In simple terms, the purpose was to allow the lowly to misbehave, if only for a few days.

Finally, each community had its own customary way of celebrating Christmas. Seasonal carolling had its origins in town waits, hired singers and musicians employed to entertain gatherings at key dates in the calendar. In some places, carollers went the rounds wassailing, that is carrying bowls of drink from house to house toasting and collecting alms. Scarborough’s own waits were performing indoors at the Common Hall on special occasions and in the town’s streets as late as the 1700s.