It is St Nicholas’s Day, named after the 3rd and 4th-century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor who became the patron saint of children. Via his Dutch name, Sinterklaas, he has evolved into the jolly, rotund, present-giving figure of Santa Claus. Nicholas is also the much-loved patron saint of Greece and Russia, where Orthodox icons (above) of him abound. Russian devotion to Nicholas is so intense that there is a popular saying: ‘If anything happens to God, we always have St Nicholas.’
The Anabaptist leader and apocalyptic prophet Hans Hut died today in 1527, when the straw in his prison cell in Augsburg, Bavaria, caught fire, and he was asphyxiated by the smoke. In one version of the event, Hut started the fire himself, in an attempted jailbreak, but the guard arrived too late to save him. The next day, in a bizarre sequence, his dead body was put on a chair, carried to court, sentenced to death, and burned at the stake.
On St Nicholas’ Day in the Middle Ages, the choirboys of many cathedrals and churches chose a boy to become an Episcopus Puerorum, or Boy Bishop. He would occupy the adult Bishop’s throne for most of December, dressing in bishop’s robes, leading services, wafting incense, preaching sermons, blessing people, receiving gifts, and playing the starring role in processions. He ruled until Childermas, laying down his mitre on Holy Innocents’ Day, 28 December. In England, Boy Bishops were abolished by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, but they live on in Spain, where they are still popular.
‘Upon St Nicholas, St Catherine, St Clement, the Holy Innocents, and such like, children be strangely decked and apparalled to counterfeit priests, bishops, and women, and so be led with songs and dances from house to house, blessing the people and gathering of money; and boys do sing mass and preach in the pulpit, with such other unfitting and inconvenient usages, rather to the derision than any true glory of God, or honour of his saints. The King’s majesty therefore… willeth and commandeth that from henceforth all such superstitious observations be left and clearly extinguished.’ Decree of King Henry VIII, 1541
Today in 1273, St Thomas Aquinas, who is in the running as the greatest theologian of the Catholic Church, gave up writing theology. He had spent the previous eight years writing his magisterial and hugely influential Summa Theologica (‘Summary of Theology’). But after celebrating the mass of St Nicholas, he refused to write another word. He told his secretary, Reginald of Piperno, ‘All I have written seems like straw to me.’ That was a big thing to say after writing an estimated 1.8 million words on the Summa alone. No one knows what happened to Thomas during mass, but theories include him experiencing a stroke, an emotional breakdown, or an ecstatic encounter with God.
Today is the birthday of Evelyn Underhill, who was born in Wolverhampton, England, this afternoon in 1875. Her writings on Christian mysticism, worship and spiritual practice were influential throughout the English-speaking world in the early to mid 20th century. Her most famous book, Mysticism, opened up the mystical tradition of the Western Church to a new generation of readers, but she was also treasured for her practical wisdom about the spiritual life.
‘I do think all kinds of pain and struggle, and all un-easy things done with effort, are or can be what I mean by the Way of the Cross. All people who live honestly, intensely and sincerely are treading it in spite of themselves: but it is better to know what one is about. I suppose taken alone it does seem rather an austere view of the universe: but I am sick and tired of the feather-bed and dry champagne type of religion, aren’t you?’ Letters of Evelyn Underhill, 1909
Photo: Simon Jenkins