Traditions from St. Nicholas
San Miguel: Faith Is Culture
By Joseph Toone
On a recent tour, I showed the image of St. Nicholas with frolicking boys behind him in the Church of Good Health (Nuestra Senora de la Salud). I assumed the lads were present because of St. Nicholas’s role as patron of children’s health.
St. Nicholas was a third century Turkish bishop. Tradition states that there was an evil butcher who kidnapped three small boys, chopped them up with an axe, and pickled them in a barrel. Their remains were then made into meat pies and sold much like Sweeny Todd’s attempts centuries later in London.
St. Nicholas became aware of the horror, rushed to the barrel, and was able to raise the young boys back to life and wholeness. To make the spiritual point, the painting’s barrel doubles as a baptismal font, symbolizing death and rebirth through prayer.
San Nicolas is popular in Mexico with nearly 200 cities bearing his name, including a village just south of Celaya. I recently came across a 1904 retablo (devotional painting) which a Mrs. Tiomitzi thanks the saint for healing her son’s leg after a basket full of tortillas fell on him. Near it was 1940 retablo by Casimiro Martínez Ortega who, not having sold any of his toys all year, sold all of his toys on the eve of Three Kings Day thanks to Saint Nicholas.
To most Northerners, Saint Nicholas is remembered as the inspiration for Santa Claus, translated from the Dutch word Sinterklaas. It is from Saint Nicholas that holiday traditions, such as stockings, candy canes, gift giving in secret during the night, and seasonal concern for the needy originated. Godiva Chocolates produces a large, solid chocolate memorializing St. Nicholas with three boys and a barrel at his feet.
As a teen, I played Santa Claus for various children’s events, though given my youth and Catrina-like frame, I am surprised I fooled even toddlers.
Every Monday evening at 5 pm, you can join the rosary and procession for St. Nicholas (in his signature red) around the Church of Good Health. The faithful give thanks for his continued intercessions in the well being of their children.
And what became of the evil butcher? He is condemned to follow St Nicolas in shame and remain a despised character for all eternity. While St. Nicholas gives away toys, the butcher dressed in brown follows alongside as a holiday Bogeyman in northern Europe. Here in San Miguel de Allende, the butcher is largely forgotten, replaced with the memory of St. Nicholas’s aid to children and the ever encroaching image of an American Santa Claus.