Saint Nicolas: Christmas comes early in eastern France

In eastern France on and around December 6 you may come across a figure in festive parades or school visits who looks at first glance much like Santa Claus – in fact it is the man who inspired his legend, Saint Nicolas, whose saint's day is today.

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Saint Nicolas is mainly remembered in France in Flanders, Alsace, Lorraine, Champagne and Franche-Comté and is depicted as in red bishop's robes with a white beard, bringing treats to children.

He is often accompanied by a donkey and sometimes by le Père Fouttard, a scruffy-looking figure in a brown robe who traditionally carries a whip and threatens to punish children who have been naughty during the year.

The celebration of Saint Nicolas in eastern France is said to originate from the Battle of Nancy in 1477.

René II, the Duke of Lorraine, was fighting against Charles the Bold in order to keep control of the area. René placed his army under the protection of Saint Nicolas, and so after winning the battle he made him the patron saint of Lorraine.

He has been celebrated in the area ever since.

Saint Nicolas (Nicholas in English) was a historic figure, born in what is today Turkey in the 3rd century, though little is known for sure about his life.

He is said to have been a Christian bishop and to have been famed for his generosity and charity, giving the inheritance left to him by his wealthy parents to the poor.

Since his death, traditionally on December 6, 343, many legends have been told of his deeds including such tall tales as him resurrecting three children who had been murdered and pickled in brine as petit salé by a butcher.

The image left, shows a re-enactment of this story as part of festivities in Lorraine.

Saint Nicolas’ Day on December 6 is celebrated to honour him and keep the stories of his goodness alive.

On the night of December 5 he is said to visit the houses of children by sliding down the chimney to bring them gifts.

Children place their shoes on their doorstep for Saint Nicolas to fill with treats, as well as something for him to drink and a carrot for his donkey.

Typical treats include dried fruit, chocolates and gingerbread baked into the shape of Saint Nicolas.

Bakeries in some areas also prepare brioche-style treats called mannele, which made in a bishop shape and flavoured with raisins or chocolate chips.

The story of how Saint Nicolas inspired Santa Claus starts in Holland, where celebrations of the saint lived on despite the fact that veneration of saints was discouraged in much of northern Europe in the 1500s after the Protestant Reformation. Then when Dutch settlers began to populate North America in the 1700s the tradition flourished there.

He was known to the Dutch as Sinter Klaas and this became today’s 'Santa Claus'.

The Father Christmas tradition we know in most of France and in the UK really took hold when the poem A Visit from St. Nicolas by Clement Clarke Moore was published in the New York newspaper Sentinel in 1823.

More commonly known by its first line, ‘Twas the night before Christmas’, it describes the arrival of Santa Claus on a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer on the night of Christmas Eve.

After landing on the roof of a house, he goes down the chimney and fills the stockings hanging on the fireplace with toys.

The father of the house sees him and they exchange glances before he climbs back up the chimney and flies away with a cheery cry of: “Happy Christmas to all”.

This popularised the legend of Santa’s reindeer and sleigh, and the author is said to have been inspired to write the poem after he had been out shopping in the snow on his sleigh.

However the rest of his inspiration came from legends of Saint Nicolas.

The idea of filling stockings comes from one of the most famous stories about the saint, in which it is said he helped a poor father with three unmarried girls by giving him a bag of gold for each of their dowries. The story goes that he approached the house at night and tossed a first bag through an open window, after which it landed in a stocking hanging on the fireplace to dry.

He returned twice to give the father two more bags so that all three daughters could be married, although on the third occasion he was caught by the girls’ father, who had been watching the window to find out who had been so kind to him.

Saint Nicolas begged the father not to reveal his identity and told him to thank God alone for providing the gifts of gold in answer to his prayers.

Meanwhile in England, a first mention of a Father Christmas dates from the 15th century, in a Christmas carol, but he was only used to personify Christmas and the pleasures of the season and was not based on Saint Nicholas.

By the 19th century England had adopted Father Christmas as their version of Santa Claus, having been influenced by the traditions that had developed in North America.

The custom in both countries had also become to give gifts on December 25, as due to changes brought by the industrial revolution people only had Christmas Day free from work.

The English and American traditions then spread across Western Europe – which is why France now has a mixture of the old Saint Nicolas traditions which continue in the north and east, and le Père Noël.

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