St Nicholas in the Venetian tradition

St Nicholas, the Saint who brings gifts to children on the night between 5 and 6 December


The saints who bring gifts to children during Advent are different, depending on the customs followed in different parts of Italy. In Veneto, it is a common custom to celebrate St Nicholas, who traditionally rides by on his donkey and leaves a gift for the little ones, usually ‘barbagigi’, mandarins, and for the best ones even a toy.

The children prepare the letter with their wishes a few days before and then leave it on the table, with a carrot or hay for the donkey and a glass of milk (or wine) for St Nicholas, on the evening of 5 December.

Legend and history

St Nicholas derives from St Nicholas, bishop of Myra, who was born in Patara in Lysia (Asia Minor) and died in the year 350.

St Nicholas, it is said, learned that three poor girls from his town were to be sold as slaves, because the family could not give them a dowry with which, having grown up, they could marry. So the bishop went alone in the night to the house of the poor girls and placed three bags full of gold on the window.

By the 6th century, the cult of St Nicholas (or St Nicholas) was widespread throughout the East. His fame then reached Italy, especially Rome and the south, which was then dominated by the Byzantines. Throughout the centuries, the memory of this saint did not fade, so much so that he is named as St Nicholas of Bari, almost as if the Apulian city had adopted him. However, the people of Bari, of whom he is also the patron saint, celebrate the saint on 9 May, the day his remains arrived in the city in 1087, while in the north his feast day falls on 6 December, which is the date he is said to have died in Myra in 343.

It is widely believed that the relics of St Nicholas are in the Basilica of St Nicholas in Bari, but the latter retains about half of the saint’s skeleton because the rest is in Venice.

St Nicholas of Myra was highly venerated in Venice, as he was the patron saint of sailors: at the time of the Serenissima Republic, during the Feast of the Sensa, at the end of the famous ceremony of the Marriage of the Sea, the solemn thanksgiving mass was celebrated in the Benedictine abbey of San Nicolò del Lido.

A well-known Venetian nursery rhyme goes like this:

“Sa’ Nicolò de Bari, / la festa de i scolari; / e chi no’ farà festa / ghe tajarén la testa”.

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