. Soon St. Nicholas Eve will be here!", it is said in an Advent song from the 19. Century, which provides for feverish anticipation with children, with adults however for an annoying earworm. Then it’s just a quick shine of the shoes and the mild gifts of St. Nicholas provide a brief distraction during the unbearable wait for Santa Claus ..
There is also a St. Nicholas in Nossen Castle. It is 500 years old and made entirely of dark wood. Dignified he stands in the showcase and reminds more of the pope than of an old man bringing gifts. Presumably it once stood in a village church or castle chapel. He is on loan from the von Schonberg family for our exhibition. What is this St. Nicholas all about, what role does he play in Saxon history and why are children allowed to enjoy his gifts??
The revered bishop
Actually St. Nicholas is a saint. About 1.700 years ago he lived as a bishop in Myra, a small town in today’s Turkey, which belonged to the Roman Empire at that time. Bishop Nicholas of Myra led his congregation, helped the poor, comforted people in the manner of Jesus Christ – and all this at a time when the Roman emperors were still inclined to persecute Christians and throw them to the wild animals in the Colosseum. Nicholas is also said to have been arrested and tortured by the Romans at a young age.
Nicholas was laid to rest in the Episcopal Church of Myra. The tomb became a pilgrimage site where believers asked for heavenly assistance. Stories were told of his charity, his kindness, his benevolence and of the miracles that St. Nicholas was said to have performed. Consequently, it did not take long until he was officially venerated as a saint.
Bones of saints were a sought-after commodity in the Middle Ages. And so the bishop’s bones soon reached Bari in southern Italy. From there, the veneration of St. Nicholas spread throughout Europe. In many cities St. Nicholas’ churches were founded as spiritual centers of emerging merchant settlements – also in Saxony. Even today you can visit the famous Nikolaikirche in Leipzig. And also the Kreuzkirche in Dresden was originally built as a church in honor of St. Nicholas.
A versatile saint
Nicholas is considered the patron saint of merchants, sailors, bakers and many other professions. But also thieves, prostitutes and prisoners as well as old people, children, pupils and students are under his protection according to tradition.
It is therefore not surprising that the saint was often the godfather for the choice of name. Important Saxon name bearers in the 16. In the nineteenth century, for example, were Nikolaus von Schonberg, cardinal and close confidant of the Pope, and Nikolaus von Carlowitz, penultimate bishop of Meissen. And the Dresden council family Munzmeister also liked to baptize their sons in the name of the holy bishop.
Helper in need
What makes this St. Nicholas a generous giver?? This custom goes back to one of the many legends surrounding the holy bishop: as a young man, Nicholas, himself heir to a rich fortune, is said to have learned of a father’s great need. This poor man was forced to give his three daughters into prostitution to earn money for the family. St. Nicholas secretly threw gold through the man’s window at night, so that a sufficient dowry was ensured and the daughters could be married off. As a symbol of his charity, St. Nicholas therefore wears three golden balls on many representations – also our old St. Nicholas in the castle Nossen.
The modern St. Nicholas actually gives presents to every child who has been at least a little well-behaved and has cleaned his shoes to some extent. Despite all the joy about the filled boots, one thing should not be forgotten – that St. Nicholas was primarily concerned with helping people in greatest need. An extremely topical thought.
Dr. Peter Danhardt works as a museologist in the castle of Nossen and of course shined his shoes.