The tradition of Saint Nicholas in Gemona del Friuli
The origins of the stories of the elves: myths and legends
- The story of the Saint: myths and legends
- Saint Nicholas: patron saint of children
- From Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus
The tradition in Gemona is that Saint Nicholas comes back every year on the 5th of December, for the joy of all the local children, accompanied by all the saints of Gemona: Saint Michael, Saint Roche, Saint Valentine, Saint John, Saint Agnes, Saint Christopher and Saint Lucy. Saint Nicholas originally came down to castle, accompanied by his squire and a mule laden with gifts!
This custom is an intrinsic part of the town’s history, and in fact in 1962 the Pro Glemona association began to organise an event, repeated every year for the joy of the children, without interruption (even in 1976, when the initiative took place in Lignano, and in 2020, through video messages).
The basic form of the initiative has remained practically the same, though the programme is often enriched with performances and music: Saint Nicholas, accompanied by the other saints of the town, personally deliver gifts to all the children. The event may be held indoors or outdoors, but every single child whose name appears in the book of good children has his or her name called out by the saints and is taken by little angels to see Saint Nicholas, who gives the child a gift in return for kissing his ring, which magically lights up!
The last time the event was held in person (in 2019), it was a joint effort on the part of the Pro Loco Pro Glemona, the ANA Gemona Group and the Comitato delle Borgate del Centro Storico, and it was even more successful because it succeeded in combining the forces and enthusiasm of these three historic organisations in the Gemona area.
The arrival of Saint Nicholas officially marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Gemona: a packed calendar of events, concerts, exhibitions and celebrations, concluding with the Epifania del Tallero on January 6th of each year.
But who was Saint Nicholas, really?
The story of the Saint: myths and legends
We have very little information about his life. Nicholas of Myra, also known as Nicola di Bari, was a native of Patara, in the ancient region of Lycia (on the Mediterranean coast in Turkey), who became bishop of Myra in the fourth century. He presumably died around the year 350, and his body was stolen away from Myra in 1087 by merchants from Bari, who brought it back to their home town, where the famous basilica was erected in his name, becoming a renowned pilgrimage destination for pilgrims from the east and west alike. Relics of the saint are also preserved in Venice, where Saint Nicholas has been venerated since before the year 1000.
Legend has added all sorts of marvellous details to the life story of the saint behind the figure of Father Christmas. From the sacred to the profane, from San Nicola to Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus and Father Christmas.
It is said that while travelling to the Holy Land by sea, Saint Nicholas calmed a storm, and repeatedly offered his miraculous protection to sailors in danger of shipwreck. These stories have made him the patron saint of sailors.
Saint Nicholas: patron saint of children
Legend also has it that Saint Nicholas was very generous from a young age, especially with children. He is said to have revived three young men who had been assassinated by an evil innkeeper, and to have given an anonymous gift to three poor girls, by throwing bags of money in through the window of their room.
He thus became the patron saint of children, to whom he brings gifts in secret on the eve of his feast day. Children are in fact the focus of the celebrations on December 5th and 6th, the saint’s feast day.
In the Middle Ages, on December 6th the children would elect an Episcopus Puerorum in die Innocentium, a child “bishop” who wore solemn episcopal insignia and was surrounded by a little court of children until the Feast of the Innocents, December 28th.
From Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus
In Switzerland, during the night of the feast of Saint Nicholas, adults and children parade with candles lit in hats made of cardboard and coloured silk.
When evening falls on this night in the Tarvisio area, and in Carinthia and Slovenia, strange sounds of ringing bells may be heard in the chill area, and a frightening parade appears in the distance. Wrapped in the smoke and visible in the tremulous light of the candles, the terrible Krampus escort Saint Nicholas on his cart as he goes from home to home to praise the good children who kneel to say their prayers according to the custom and warn children who have been naughty.
In the meantime, the village children fight off the Krampus with snowballs and firecrackers on streets white with snow. The terrible Krampus win, of course, and everyone is frightfully amused!
The tradition is that when they wake up the next morning, the children find the plates they put out the night before full of dried fruit and nuts: figs, walnuts, pistachios, carob beans and a gingerbread Krampus, holding a rod, the length of which depends on how good the child has been. The children know that Saint Nicholas has passed by their homes after his long tour of the town.