Thursday, December 06, 2007

St Nicholas Day

The picture shows the Church of St Nicholas of Myra in Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland. And that's because today is the feast of St Nicholas of Myra (or "of Bari" since his relics were removed there some thousand years ago.) No, he wasn't Irish; Myra is in modern day Turkey. But he is honoured the world over. He is the patron saint of children, scholars, boatmen, fishermen, dock workmen and sailors, coopers and brewers, travelers and pilgrims, and those who have unjustly lost a lawsuit. He is also invoked for defence against robbers. Supposedly he was once also the patron of robbers themselves; but that was highly unofficial.

Wikipedia has an extensive essay on St Nicholas and his various legends here.

In the Middle Ages the feast of St Nicholas also began the reign of the Boy Bishop in those areas that observed the custom. The good old Catholic Encyclopædia has this to say about the boy bishop:

The custom of electing a boy-bishop on the feast of St. Nicholas dates from very early times, and was in vogue in most Catholic countries, but chiefly in England, where it prevailed certainly in all the larger monastic and scholastic establishments, and also in many country parishes besides, with the full approbation of authority, ecclesiastical and civil. The boy-bishop was chosen from among the children of the monastery school, the cathedral choir, or pupils of the grammar-school. Elected on St. Nicholas's day (6 December), he was dressed in pontifical vestments and, followed by his companions in priest's robes, went in procession round the parish, blessing the people. He then took possession of the church, where he presided at all the ceremonies and offices until Holy Innocents' day (28 December). At Salisbury he is said to have had the power of disposing of any benefices that fell vacant during his reign, and if he died in office the funeral honours of a bishop were granted to him. A monument to such a boy-prelate still exists there, though its genuineness has been questioned, and at Lulworth Castle another is preserved, which came from Bindon Abbey. The custom was abolished by Henry VIII in 1512, restored by Queen Mary and again abolished by Elizabeth, though here and there it lingered on for some time longer. On the Continent it was suppressed by the Council of Basle in 1431, but was revived in some places from time to time, even as late as the eighteenth century.

The Saint Nicholas Center has more to say about the boy bishop (and girl bishops, too, alas, since it seems to be an Anglican phenomenon these days.) You can find the page here.