Monday 5 December - His piety and marvellous works, from Saint Nicolas (Benjamin Britten)

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From Britten - Saint Nicolas, by the choirs of King's College, Cambridge, and Sawston Village College.

Most people know the "St Nicholas > Sinterklaas > Santa Claus" progression, but why would a fourth-century Turko-Greek bishop with a penchant for walloping Arians become so associated with Christmas and present-giving?

Quoth Wikipedia, In his most famous exploit, Nicholas aided a poor man who had three daughters, but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes.

One version has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throwing the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes of age. Invariably, the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; a variant holds that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.

This association with secret gift-giving cemented Nicholas' place as a Christmastide benefactor.

For forty years our Nicolas,
our prince of men, our shepherd and our gentle guide,
walked by our side.

We turned to him at birth and death,
in time of famine and distress,
in all our grief, to bring relief.

He led us from the valleys
to the pleasant hills of grace;
He fought to fold us in from mortal sin.

O! He was prodigal of love!
A spendthrift in devotion to us all,
and blessed as he caressed.

We keep his memory alive
in legends that our children,
and their children’s children treasure still.

A captive at the heathen court
wept sorely all alone -
“O Nicolas is here, my son!
And he will bring you home!”

“Fill, fill my sack with corn!” he said,
“We die from lack of food!”
And from that single sack he fed
a hungry multitude.

Three daughters of a nobleman
were doomed to shameful sin,
till our good Bishop ransomed them
by throwing purses in.

The gates were barred, the black flag flew,
three men knelt by the block -
But Nicolas burst in like flame
and stayed the axe’s shock.

“O help us, good Nicolas!
Our ship is full of foam!”
He walked across the waves to them
and led them safely home.

He sat among the bishops
who were summoned to Nicaea.
Then, rising with the wrath of God
boxed Arius’s ear!

He threatened Constantine the Great
with bell and book and ban,
till Constantine confessed his sins
like any common man.

Let the legends that we tell
praise him, with our prayers as well.

We keep his memory alive
in legends that our children,
and their children’s children treasure still