Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: Saint Nicholas, by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Nicholas of Bari; by James Powell and Sons, 1904; chapel of Saint Nicholas, cathedral of Saint David, Wales; photographed on 21 July 2011 by Wolfgang Sauber; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe patron saint of boys, as Saint Catherine is of girls. In Germany, a person assembles the children of a family or school on the 6th December (the eve of Saint Nicholas), and distributes gilt nuts and sweetmeats; but if any naughty child is present, he receives the redoubtable punishment of the klaubauf. The same as Santa Claus and the Dutch Kriss Kringle.

Saint Nicholas. Patron saint of parish clerks. This is because he was the patron of scholars, who used to be called clerks.

Saint Nicholas. Patron saint of sailors, because he allayed a storm on a voyage to the Holy Land.

Saint Nicholas. The patron saint of Russia.

Saint Nicholas. The patron saint of Aberdeen.

Saint Nicholas, in Christian art, is represented in episcopal robes, and has either three purses or golden balls, or three children, as his distinctive symbols. The three purses are in allusion to the three purses given by him to three sisters to enable them to marry. The three children allude to the legend that an Asiatic gentleman sent his three boys to school at Athens, but told them to call on Saint Nicholas for his benediction; they stopped at Myra for the night, and the innkeeper, to secure their baggage, murdered them in bed, and put their mangled bodies into a pickling-tub with some pork, intending to sell the whole as such. Saint Nicholas had a vision of the whole affair, and went to the inn, when the man confessed the crime, and Saint Nicholas raised the murdered boys to life again.

Clerks or Knights of Saint Nicholas. Thieves; so called because Saint Nicholas was their patron saint; not that he aided them in their wrong-doing, but because on one occasion he induced some thieves to restore their plunder. Probably Saint Nicholas is simply a pun for Nick, and thieves may be called the devil’s clerks or knights with much propriety.

“I think yonder come prancing down the hills from Kingston a couple of Saint Nicholas’s clerks.” – Rowley: Match at Midnight (1883)

– from Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, 1905