Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2009/37 posted by hidden europe on

St Nicholas is the ultimate all-purpose saint. His patronage extends to virgins, sailors, children and pawnbrokers. And he is patron saint of Bari in Italy, where the local fishing community makes much of the feast.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Did you know that in addition to our e-brief, we also have a 'Notes' section on our website where we regularly post news snippets on European topics that rarely make it into the mainstream media. Recent articles feature Icelandic banana production, reindeer on thin ice and an intriguing tale from Potsdam that shows how difficult it can be to reconcile conservation and community interests.

the feast of St Nicholas

The last time hidden europe stopped off in Bari was on a December journey to Albania. The Adriatic port is the Italian terminal for the ferries that make the overnight crossing to Durresi. We picked up our boat tickets just before noon, and so had some eight hours to wander the streets of Bari before joining the ferry to Albania in the evening. It happened to be the feast of St Nicholas - as indeed it is today.

St Nicholas is the ultimate all-purpose saint. His patronage extends to virgins, sailors, children and pawnbrokers. And he is patron saint of Bari in Italy, where the local fishing community makes much of the feast. The story goes that sailors from Bari raided St Nicholas' tomb in Lycian Turkey in the late eleventh century, stole the saint's relics and transferred them to Bari.

Of course the reason many northern Europeans think of St Nicholas is in terms of secret gift giving. The story of St Nicholas evidently inspired the Santa Claus tale and finds expression in the practice of giving gifts to children on 6 December (or in some places on the evening preceding the feast). Across Belgium and Germany, for example, children last evening left out a shoe and they awoke this morning to find a gift had appeared in the shoe overnight.

There are many stories from the life of St Nicholas that allegedly associate the saint with secret gift giving. The one we heard in Bari is particularly interesting. Nicholas is said to have helped out three girls, all about to be wed, and each from families so poor that there was no chance of a dowry to accompany the bride. Nicholas gave a small ball of gold to each maiden. Could that be the origin of the classic symbol of three small gold spheres outside the premises of pawnbrokers across the world?

The association of St Nicholas with brides-to-be persists in some parts of Italy. The giving of gifts to next year's brides on the feast of St Nicholas may anticipate the modern North American practice of the bridal shower.

a prize article

Our hearty congratulations to Rudolf Abraham, a regular contributor to hidden europe magazine. Rudolf has recently secured an accolade from the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild (OWPG) for his article on Velebit (Croatia) that was published in hidden europe 22. Rudolf's evocative essay on a mountain massif in Croatia won the OWPG award for the best outdoor feature published in 2008-2009. In their evaluation the OWPG judges commented that "it was heartening to see that, in these times of the dumbing-down of the print media generally, there are still outlets where good writing is appreciated and published, for which we should all be grateful." We have placed Rudolf's article online on our website and it will remain there until mid-January. You can read it here. And you can find out more about Rudolf on our contributors' page.

Susanne Kries and Nicky Gardner
(hidden europe)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.