My post last year at this time discussed the life St Nicholas, legends associated with him and how the Dutch regard him.
St Nicholas’s feast day is December 6 and a French website, L’Internaute, had an excellent article about him. A summary follows.
St Nicholas became the patron saint of children thanks to the legends associated with him, which last year’s post explored. Most of them involved him rescuing young people: the poor man with three daughters, the three theological students or, as the French tell it, the three children who fell afoul of an evil butcher, and the boy from Myra kidnapped by pirates.
As the Dutch have Black Pete as a companion to Nicholas, the French have the Bogeyman (Père Fouettard — fouetter means ‘to whip’). The French article says that in both cases, these two are alter-egos of the great bishop. There is the benevolent Nicholas who is kind to good children and the companion who punishes bad youngsters. Together, they mete out justice.
The French legend of Nicholas and the Bogeyman visiting homes on the night of December 5 into the morning of December 6 started in the Middle Ages. Nicholas would ask if the children had been good or bad during the year. A song even grew around this construct, the lyrics of which go like this (translation mine and, yes, the words rhyme in French). Here’s the first verse:
O great St Nicholas
Patron of schoolchildren
Bring me apples
In my little basket
I will always be good
Like a little picture
I will learn my lessons
To earn some sweets.
It’s not hard to see how Nicholas made the transition into Father Christmas, or, as the Dutch say, Sinterklaas, giving rise to the American Santa Claus who arrives at the time of the Christ Child.
Like the Dutch, the Belgians and a number of countries in Northern Europe, some French towns and cities hold local festivals on or near the time of St Nicholas Day. This is particularly true in the region of Lorraine in northeastern France.
The celebrations have extra meaning there, because in the late Middle Ages, an imposing German nobleman by the name of Hans von Trotha ruled over the area. He had a nasty reputation as a robber baron and a defiler of young girls. Over time, his evil reputation was extended to frighten children in the region to be good or ‘Hans Trapp’ or ‘Hans Trott’ would give them a good beating. The threats worked, as Hans in real life was a tall, robust man.
This year’s celebrations in eastern France are going ahead, despite the security threats. That said, authorities have forbidden firework displays because of the 2015 Paris attacks and the July 14 attack in Nice.
In closing, St Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors (another legend), prisoners, lawyers, physiotherapists and single men.