December - Wenceslas and Nicholas


(Wenzel), born in 907 and died in 929

A favourite Christmas Carol is "Good King Wenceslas", written by J. M. Neale. The carol, based on a 13th century spring carol "Tempus adest floridum" popularised Christian and Victorian ideals of social benevolence and practical almsgiving. The good king has since become a household name, but the story is not based on any known incident in the saint’s life. But Saint he is.

He was Duke of Bohemia, and a martyr. The son of Duke Wratislaw, Wenceslas was educated mainly by his grandmother Ludmilla, a devoted Christian, and he became Duke in 922. He often followed the advice of the clergy and worked for the religious and educational improvement of his people. He forged close links with the rest of the Christian world, particularly the German Empire whose King, Henry the Fowler, Wenceslas recognised both as the successor of Charlemagne and as his own overlord. Unfortunately this policy, together with a pagan reaction against a determined Christian king, led to the death of Wenceslas at the hands of his brother’s followers.

Boleslav his brother, who was implicated in his murder, nevertheless had the relics of Wenceslas translated to the church of St Vitus in Prague, where they became the centre of the cult and a place of pilgrimage. His feast was celebrated from 985. Within another twenty years he had become Bohemia’s patron saint, his picture was engraved on coins, and the Crown of Wenceslas was regarded as a symbol of Czech nationalism and independence. There was no ancient cult of him in England, but his feast (28th September) came in with the Roman Missal, which in spite of Benedict XIV’s contrary recommendation, retained it.

Nicholas of Myra

6th December (4th century)

Also known as Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in Lycia, south west Turkey, in Asia Minor. Feast Day 6th December. A saint whose existence is doubtful, although he is said to have been present at the First Council of Nicaea (325). The child of wealthy parents, he revealed his saintly destiny when he stood up and praised God the moment he was born. When he inherited his father’s fortune, he gave his money away to the poor.

There can be no doubt of the antiquity of his cult, which was clearly established in the East from the 6th century, increased by a fictitious biography by Methodius, and he became widely known in the West in the 10th century. He is also claimed patron by Russia, towns such as St Nicholas at Wade, Kent, children, choirboys, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants, pawnbrokers, apothecaries, and perfumiers. Some of these patronages are linked with episodes in his legendary Acts. The number three appears many times in these Acts, as can be seen in the following stories.

  • His most celebrated act of generosity was when he heard an impoverished gentleman lamenting that his three daughters would have to become prostitutes because he could not support them honourably. On three successive nights he threw through their window a bag of gold (or a golden ball) for their dowries so that each might find a husband. When St. Nicholas became the patron saint of pawnbrokers, three golden balls were adopted as their insignia and displayed outside their shops.
  • During a famine he discovered that a certain innkeeper had stolen little children, killed them and salted them in a tub with the intention of serving them up for his guests. He made the sign of the cross over the tub and three children stood up, restored to life and health.
  • He brought back to life the child of his landlady at Myra, who had fallen into the fire and had been burned to ashes while his mother was attending Nicholas’ consecration as bishop.

His association with the sea (one of his attributes is an anchor, and many harbour churches are dedicated to him) is commemorated annually at Bari, Italy, where part of his relics were transferred from Myra in 1087. His relics exude a curative and sweet-smelling oil, the Manna di San Nicola, and he is therefore also the patron of perfumiers.

In England about 400 churches were dedicated to St Nicholas; and also in England there survive two important iconogaphical cycles of his life, on the font at Winchester cathedral and on an ivory crozier-head at the V&A Museum, both of the 12th century. The latter includes several scenes, one of which records the infant Nicholas refusing his mother’s breast on Wednesdays and Fridays, in accordance with his Legend. Renaissance painters also depicted him: all in all, he was probably the most frequently represented saintly bishop of all for many centuries.

Perhaps the most popular result of his cult is the institution of Santa Claus. Based on Nicholas’ patronage of children and the custom in the Low Countries of giving them presents on his feast, it attained its present form in North America, where the Dutch Protestants of New Amsterdam united to it Nordic folkloric legends of a magician who both punished naughty children and rewarded good ones with presents.

Angela Newton
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 28th November 1997