St Nicholas on the Adriatic

Home / Christmas / St Nicholas on the Adriatic

From Saint To Santa The History Of Santa Claus by Gregory Branson-Trent tells us how St Nicholas is honoured along the coast of the Adriatic Sea.


Among Albanians, Saint Nicholas is known as Shen’Kollë and is venerated by most Catholic families, even those from villages that are devoted to other saints. The Feast of Saint Nicholas is celebrated on the eve of December 5, known as Shen’Kolli i Dimnit (Saint Nicholas of Winter), as well as on the commemoration of the interring of his bones in Bari, the eve of May 8, known as Shen’Kolli i Majit (Saint Nicholas of May). Albanian Catholics often swear by Saint Nicholas, saying “Pasha Shejnti Shen’Kollin!” (“May I see Holy Saint Nicholas!”), indicting the importance of this saint in Albanian culture, especially among the Albanians of Malësia. On the eve of his feast day, Albanians will light a candle and abstain from meat, preparing a feast of roasted lamb and pork, to be served to guests after midnight. Guests will greet each other, saying, “Nata e Shen’Kollit ju nihmoftë!” (“May the Night of Saint Nicholas help you!”) and other such blessings. The bones of Albania’s greatest hero, Gjergj Kastrioti, were also interred in the Church of Saint Nicholas in Lezha, Albania, upon his death.

St. Nicholas (San Nicola) is the patron of the city of Bari, where the bones stolen from the saint’s tomb in Myra are buried. Its deeply-felt celebration is called the Festa di San Nicola, held on the 7-8-9 of May. In particular on May 8 the relics of the saint are carried on a boat on the sea in front of the city with many boats following (Festa a mare). On December 6 there is a ritual called the Rito delle nubili. The same tradition is currently observed in Sassari, where during the day of Saint Nicholas, patron of the city, gifts are given to young brides who need help before getting married. In Trieste St. Nicholas (San Nicolò) is celebrated with gifts given to children on the morning of the 6th of December and with a fair called Fiera di San Nicolò during the first weeks of December. Depending on the cultural background, in some families this celebration is more important than Christmas. Trieste is a city on the sea, being one of the main ports of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is influenced mainly by Italian, Slovenian and German cultures, but also Greek and Serbian.


Home / Christmas / Schwibbogen
Schwibbogen are arch-shaped light holders, a type of Christmas folk art from the Erzgebirge area of Germany. Based on the lamps worn by miners of the area, the first Schwibbogen appeared in the eighteenth century as a way to decorate the church during the midnight mass. Later these candle-holders were placed in windows and were used as home decorations. Nowadays they appear in many forms and have become a highly prized form of collectible. The name seems to have been derived from the German architectural term for arches on Gothic buildings.
Originally metal with designs based on the mining life, the craft is now largely fashioned from wood and can often feature religious scenes, landscapes, or even advertisements.

The Magi’s Gold

Home / Christmas / The Magi’s Gold

Gold was the first gift offered by the Magi (usually by Melchior, though some sources name Gaspar) to the baby Jesus; it symbolized Christ’s royalty.

According to a legend recounted by John of Hildesheim the gift was in the form of a golden apple that had once been owned by Alexander the Great and thirty gold coins minted by Thara, the father of Abraham. Abraham used these coins to buy his burial place; Joseph was sold into Egypt for them. They were later sent to buy spices in Sheba for Joseph’s burial; the Queen of Sheba deposited them in Solomon’s temple; and after the destruction of Jerusalem they made their way into the king of Arabye’s treasury, from whence the Magi took them. Mary lost the money on the flight into Egypt but it was found by a shepherd. Judas would sell Christ for the coins; finally, half of them would buy the burial field and the other fifteen would be given to the guards who kept watch over Christ’s tomb.

Born on Christmas

Home / Christmas / Born on Christmas

Having one’s birthday on Christmas Day is a lucky or unlucky coincidence depending on where one was born. In Eastern Europe it was generally considered bad luck to be born on the birthday of the Saviour. The Greeks traditionally believed that this was an affront to the Virgin Mother and Child and therefore children born on Christmas were likely to turn into monstrous kallikantzaroi. In order to prevent this from happening parents were obliged to singe the toenails of the new-born, lest they turn into claws, and bind the baby with tresses of straw or garlic. In parts of Poland and Germany it was feared that being born born on December 25 made a child more likely to become a werewolf — Christmas being the season of increased demonic power. In Silesia a Christmas birthday meant the child would be either a lawyer or a thief.

In Ireland, on the other hand, birth on Christmas allowed one to see the Little People and even to command spirits (a privilege also granted to those born on Good Friday.) In England it was lucky to be born on Christmas — one would never be hanged nor drowned nor troubled by spirits — and extra lucky if that day fell on a Sunday: one would be a great lord. To the Pennsylvania Dutch being born on Christmas Eve conveyed the power to understand the language of animals, for on that night beasts could speak and even predict the future. In the Vosges area of France a baby born on Christmas Eve would be a smooth talker but the baby born on Christmas would be a better thinker.

Some early-modern English almanacs, however, were more ambiguous. They seemed to agree that being born on Christmas was lucky if that day were a Sunday (lordship beckoned), a Wednesday (valour, nimbleness and wisdom were attributes), a Thursday (wise and persuasive speech were in store) or a Friday (a long and lecherous life lay ahead) but being born on a Christmas Day that fell on a Tuesday would lead to a life of covetousness and an evil end and a Saturday birth would result in death within half a year.

Modern scientists agree that being born on or near Christmas conveys a benefit, the so-called BIRG effect, or basking-in-reflected-glory. Studies in California and Israel have shown that a disproportionate number of famous people were born during the Christmas season and some have speculated that being born on Christmas might render a child special in his own eyes and those of his parents with consequent high expectations and the chance of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It also seems that more high-ranking Christian clergy than low-ranking were born on December 25, thus linking a Christmas birth with increased chance of success in the church hierarchy.

Christmas Blues 2

Home / Christmas / Christmas Blues 2

In the African-American musical tradition known as the blues, Christmas plays an important part. “Santa Claus” and “Christmas” were once code-words referring to a separated mate — Christmas-time often saw liberty for slaves to travel to different plantations to visit loved ones. More recently the words have added the connotation of sex or sensual pleasure. “I Want a Present for Christmas”, sang J.R. Summer, who was not referring to a neck-tie or socks, “you can fill up my stockings with any girl.” Count Basie’s “Good Morning Blues (I Want to See Santa Claus”) implored the gift-bringer not to bring him anything but his baby back.

John Lee Hooker’s lament here is typical of the genre:

Christmas Blues

Home / Christmas / Christmas Blues

The Swiss have a word for it: Weihnachtscholer; psychiatrists have a word for it too: Post-Christmas Traumatic Syndrome. Most people just call it the Christmas Blues, a feeling of sadness that overcomes those for whom the holiday period is a time of dysfunction instead of joy.

It must not be thought that this ailment affects only jaded moderns. An American woman’s diary from 1858 notes: “As these days come round our hearts are made Sad; we miss our loved Mother, now gone to her rest.” On Christmas Eve 1872 a widow wrote “These days are sad indeed to me. I try to conceal my feelings for the sake of those I am with.” On Christmas Day she wrote: “There many sad hearts, as well as merry ones.” In the 1901 Norwegian short story “Before the Candles Go Out” a couple struggles to be happier and to see the holiday through the eyes of their child but the wife says of her melancholy: “Do I need to tell you all over again that there’s something called Christmas Eve memories?”

Here are some reasons that have been proposed recently for the phenomenon of the Christmas Blues:

  • loss of a loved one through death, relocation or broken relationship
  • resentment of the commercialism of the season
  • a sense of not belonging stemming from membership in a religion, such as Judaism, that does not celebrate Christmas
  • anger over not being able to afford gifts for one’s family
  • anger at seasonally-induced weight gain or increase in indebtedness
  • homelessness, friendlessness or alienation from family or ethnic group
  • guilt at not being as happy as the ideal family depicted on television
  • spouse saturation syndrome: too much of one’s mate underfoot
  • separation at holiday-times from one’s lover who is married to someone else

Popular music, quick to spot trends, has cashed in on the sentiment with a plethora of songs emphasizing Yule-tide depression led by Elvis Presley’s 1957 hit “Blue Christmas.” One might add “What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas?” by The Emotions, “Christmas Eve Can Kill You” by The Everly Brothers and “Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas?” by The Staple Singers.

Though Christmas is not a time of increased suicide (in fact for women suicide declines in December and January) doctors do report a rush of depressed patients after the holidays. A number of churches hold “Blue Christmas” services to assure the faithful that God continues to be present even in the midst of sadness.


Home / Christmas / Shepherds

The Gospel of Luke (2: 8-18) tells the story of the announcement of the birth of Jesus to local shepherds and their visit to the Holy Family. “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for behold I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapping in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which has come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told to them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.”

Theologians have often remarked on the importance of the choice of shepherds as the first humans to be told of the birth of the Saviour. Shepherds were notoriously dirty, infamous for their neglect of ritual cleanliness of body and utensils; their testimony, like that of thieves and extortionists, was not acceptable in court. The angels’ visit to these debased characters seems to stress the universality of the Christmas message and the social inversion implicit in the Incarnation — the King of the Universe born in an animal shelter; the good news given first to shepherds.

 This exaltation of the humble has been the subject of drama and song ever since. Church liturgies have long honoured shepherds; the Office of the Shepherds at Rouen re-enacted the story before the midnight mass. In Poland the midnight mass is called the Shepherds’ Mass and shepherds’ pipes are often played during the service. In the south of France special masses see lambs brought in by sherpherds and placed near the altar. Pastoral drama, stories of the shepherds’ journey to see the Holy Family, is a big part of the Christmas season around the world. In Italy shepherds come down from the hills before Christmas to play their bagpipes before shrines, in churches and on the streets. Carols that celebrate the role of shepherds include the English “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night”, the French “Berger, Seccoue ton Sommeil Profond” and the German “Stille Nacht”.

The fourteenth-century mystic St Bridget of Sweden whose spiritual revelations about the Nativity were important in shaping medieval depictions of the events said that when the shepherds first encountered the Holy Family they wanted to know the sex of the child “for angels had announced to them that the saviour of the world had been born, and they had not said it was a saviouress”. When Mary showed them that the baby was a boy they rejoiced and adored the child.

Today Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem are held in Shepherds’ Field where the angels made their announcement but various denominations disagree over the exact site.

The Seven Joys of Mary

Home / Christmas / The Seven Joys of Mary

The Seven Joys (and Sorrows) of Mary were a popular theme in medieval art and didactic literature. This song is based on a fifteenth-century English folk poem and was often sung by poor women who went door to door during the Christmas season with a vessel cup bearing images of the baby Jesus and Mary.

The first good joy that Mary had,
It was the joy of one;
To see the blessed Jesus Christ
When he was first her son:

When he was first her son, good man
And blessed may he be,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
To all eternity.

The next good joy that Mary had,
It was the joy of two;
To see her own son, Jesus Christ,
To make the lame to go:

The next good joy that Mary had,
It was the joy of three;
To see her own son, Jesus Christ,
To make the blind to see:

The next good joy that Mary had,
It was the joy of four;
To see her own son,
Jesus Christ, To read the Bible o’er:

The next good joy that Mary had,
It was the joy of five;
To see her own son, Jesus Christ,
To bring the dead alive:

The next good joy that Mary had,
It was the joy of six;
To see her own son Jesus Christ,
Upon the crucifix:

The next good joy that Mary had,
It was the joy of seven;
To see her own son,
Jesus Christ, ascending into heaven.

Christmas in Greece

Home / Christmas / Christmas in Greece

Christmas in Greece is entering a new era. The decorations, food and customs are becoming increasingly globalized and resembling Christmas in western Europe or North America and where once Christmas was a quiet spiritual time with little commercialization, there is now an increased tempo and flashiness, at least in the urban centres. Despite this, Greece retains many unique customs from its past.

A penetential Advent season in Greece, the Fast of the Nativity, begins on November 17 but preparations for Christmas accelerate on December 6, the feast of St Nicholas. Nicholas in many countries is a quaint gift-giver; in Greece he is the national patron saint and the special protector of sailors who perform devotional ceremonies to him on his day. Christmas trees, which were once rare in Greece, are now becoming more common (though often artificial) and are set up in mid-December. (Before the popularity of the tree many Greeks decorated model ships at Christmas time or kept a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross.)

Christmas baking is important in Greece and are number of productions are indispensable: loukoumathes, honey dough balls, kourabiedes, sugar-coated shortbread, melomakarona, dipped in syrup and rolled in ground nuts, and Christopsomo, the round Christmas bread that is the centre-piece of the Christmas Eve meal. Kouloures are Christmas breads that are made to indicate the family’s profession: a plough shape for a farm family, a sheep for shepherds, etc.(Some of these cookies are saved for the children who go door to door singing kalandas, the beautiful Greek carols which are often accompanied by the sound of the triangle and drum. )

Where it was once customary for most Greeks to open their presents at the New Year, many are now following the western custom of doing so on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. The main course at the Christmas meal is changing as well. Roast pork was once the invariable highlight with many rural families raising the pig themselves for just this purpose but nowadays the turkey is making its appearance on Greek tables. Disappearing too are the rituals of the pig slaughter and the marking a cross on the children’s foreheads with the animal’s blood. The Christopsomo though remains an unchanged and essential element of the meal.

On New Year’s Eve more carolling takes place as children sing hymns to St Basil (whose feast is January 1) and are rewarded with treats and money. St Basil’s cake, the spongy Vassilopitta, is eaten after a ceremonial division in which portions are ritually allocated to the saint, various family members and the poor. A coin is baked into the cake and the finder is considered lucky for the coming year — if it is found in the piece for the poor the coin is given to charity. The next day gifts are distributed, a sumptous meal is served and the “Renewing of the Waters” takes place when new “St. Basil’s Water” replaces the old year’s water in jugs.

January 6 is the last major celebration of the Christmas season in Greece and marks the Theophany of Jesus, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him at his baptism. Greek bishops carry out the Great Blessing of the Waters by carrying a cross, tied with a sprig of basil, and throwing it into a river, lake or sea in token of Christ’s birth and baptism. The cross will be retrieved by a diver; sometimes there will be competition for the honour of finding the cross as luck accrues to the one to return it to the bishop.

No account of Christmas in Greece would be complete without a mention of the folk belief in the Kallikantzaroi. These are subterranean monsters who emerge during the Twelve Days of Christmas to torment humans — they are angry that their year-long work to gnaw away at the tree that supports the world is thwarted by the birth of Jesus at Christmas. In their rage they will come down the chimney and perform little acts of nastiness, such as souring the milk, urinating in the fire or forcing folk to dance to exhaustion. They can be deterred by keeping the Yule log burning throught the period, burning old shoes, or hanging hyssop and a pig’s jaw. The Blessing of the Waters finally drives them back underground for another year.

St Nicholas of Manhattan

Home / Christmas / St Nicholas of Manhattan

Among the buildings destroyed in the September 11, 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center skyscrapers is one that is little talked about, despite being the oldest in the area, dating back to about 1830. Just south of the Twin Towers, separated from the complex by Liberty Street, stood the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas which was crushed by the collapse of the South Tower when no one was inside.

In 1916 a group of Greek Orthodox from New York founded the congregation of the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in the southern tip of Manhattan; at first the faithful gathered for worship in a hotel restaurant on Morris Street, until in 1919 five families raised $25,000 with which they bought a tavern at 155 Cedar Street to convert it into a church. The four-story building was built in the 1800s as a residential apartment building.

The new church began to function as a place of worship in 1922 and at first was located between two other residential buildings, then when the neighborhood was demolished to make room for the World Trade Center, the church found itself to be an independent building with the entrance pedestrian on the north side, the one facing the towers, and parking on the other three sides. Since its foundation, the community of Saint Nicholas has been an old-calendarist and only since 1993 has it adopted the Gregorian calendar.

The church was only 6.7 meters long, 17, 11 high and inside were kept relics, small bone fragments, of San Nicola di Bari, Santa Caterina d’Alessandria and San Saba Archimandrite which had been donated to the community by the last Tsar Nicholas II and which obviously went missing in the collapse of the towers. Because of the presence in this church of a fragment of the body of St Nicholas, the saint was known as St. Nicholas of Myra (where some say his bones still lie), Bari (where the bones pilfered by Norman pirates in the 11th century lie), and Manhattan.

After 9/11, Saint Nicholas parishioners joined the community of Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Brooklyn where they remained for more than twenty years until July 2022, when the new Saint Nicholas, built beginning in 2014, it was consecrated and inaugurated on the southern side of the same block that housed the previous building. The new church was designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and, due to the four towers at the top, is inspired by Hagia Sophia and the Church of Our Saviour in Chora, both in Istanbul.

The new Saint Nicholas Church opened in 2022

Most of the information in this post was found on this website (in Italian) devoted to 9/11: