Saint Nicholas’ legend vs Santa Claus…


A medieval fresco depicting St Nicholas from t...

A medieval fresco depicting St Nicholas from the Boyana Church, near Sofia, Bulgaria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sinterklaas or Nikolaus, San Nicola etc. in European countries is based on the legendary figure of St Nicholas.

Born in 271 AD to a rich Greek family in Asia Minor in in the city of Patara (Lycia et Pamphylia), he was very religious from an early age. His parents died by an epidemic while Nicholas was still very young and he was raised by his uncle (also named Nicholas), the bishop of Patara. ” He tonsured the young Nicholas as a reader and later ordained him a presbyter (priest).“(wikipedia) Nicholas decided to distribute his wealth to the poor and become a priest. Later he became the Arch Bishop of Myra, a place near the city of Anatolia in Turkey.

He had the reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him and became the model for Santa Claus (celebrated on 24th or 25th December), whose modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas in turn comes from a series of elisions and corruptions of the transliteration of “Saint Nikolaos”.

The fame of St Nicholas’ good deeds began to spread across the Mediterranean and he became known as a patron saint of children, sailors, merchants, archors, travellers and of the city of Amsterdam. Therefore this figure has a special meaning to the Dutch and to the children.

Legends about St Nicholas

There are many legends about St Nicholas. One tells how a terrible famine struck the island and a malicious butcher lured three little children to his house, killed them and placed their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, saw through this horrible crime and resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers. In another version (from the 11th Century), the butcher’s victims were three clerks who wished to stay the night. The man murdered them and intended to turn them into meat pies. Saint Nicholas saw through this and brought the men back to life. – These kind of legends seem to have originated some of the well known helpers of St Nicholas in many European countries.

The legends with the most likely historical basis are those with St Nicholas being the helper or being the secret benefactor:

Nicholas heard about a man who had lost all his money. He had three daughters who were old enough to get married but had no dowry.

This family was so poor they had nothing left to eat. The daughters were going to be sold as slaves because they couldn’t live at home any longer. They were very sad. They wouldn’t be able to have families of their own. And they would have to be slaves—no longer able to decide where they would live or what they would do.

The night before the oldest daughter was to be sold, she washed her stockings and put them in front of the fire to dry. Then all of them went to sleep—the father and the three daughters.

In the morning the daughter saw a lump in her stocking. Reaching in, she found a small, heavy bag. It had gold inside! Enough to provide food for the family and money for her dowry. Oh, how happy they were!

The next morning, another bag with gold was found. Imagine! Two of the daughters would now be saved. Such joy!

And the next night, the father planned to stay awake to find out who was helping his daughters. He dozed off, but heard a small “clink” as another bag landed in the room. Quickly he jumped up and ran out the door. Who did he catch ducking around the corner? – Nicholas, the young man who lived with his uncle. “Nicholas, it is you! Thank you for helping us—I hardly know what to say!” Nicholas said, “Please, do not thank me—thank God that your prayers have been answered. Do not tell others about me.”

Nicholas continued helping people. He always tried to help secretly. He didn’t want any attention or thanks. Years passed and he was chosen to be a bishop. Bishops look after their people as shepherds look after their sheep. And that is what Nicholas did. When there wasn’t any food, he found wheat; so no one went hungry. He always helped people in trouble. All his life Nicholas showed people how to love God and care for each other.

Everyone loved Nicholas. After he died, they told stories of the good and kind things Nicholas had done. Sailors took these stories about Nicholas everywhere they went. Some of the stories were about his special care for children—helping and protecting them when danger threatened. And so more and more people learned about good, kind Nicholas. They wanted to be like him. He is an example of how we should live. And that is why he became a saint. (Carol Myers)


Facts about Switzerland

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Would you like to know some facts about Switzerland, this great country in the very heart of Europe? Find out more in my pdf file by clicking on the picture above.– I set up those slides for a talk at my childrens’ school during International Day and presented it to two classes (year 3).

Today, 1rst of August 2015, Switzerland celebrates its 724th Birthday and we’re celebrating it by talking about its history, the many languages and dialects that are spoken and the tales that children are taught.

William Tell / Wilhelm Tell / Guillaume Tell / Guglielmo Tell whose legend is recorded in a late 15th Century Swiss illustrated Chronicle (the Kronika von der loblichen Eydtgenossenschaft by Peterman Etterlin).  According to the legend, Tell – an marksman with the crossbow – assassinated Gessler, a tyrannical reeve of Habsburg Austria, positioned in Altdorf, Uri (one of the founding cantons of Switzerland).

William Tell was known as a strong man, a mountain climber, and an expert shot with the crossbow. In his time, the Habsburg emperors of Austria were seeking to dominate Uri and Tell became one of the conspirators of Werner Stauffacher vowing to resist Habsburg rule. Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian Vogt of Altdorf, raised a pole under the village lindentree, hung his hat on top of it, and demanded that all the townsfolk bow before the hat.

On 18 November 1307, Tell visited Altdorf with his young son and passed by the hat, publicly refusing to bow to it, and so was arrested. Gessler—intrigued by Tell’s famed marksmanship yet resentful of his defiance—devised a cruel punishment: Tell and his son would be executed, but he could redeem his life by shooting an apple off the head of his son, Walter, in a single attempt. Tell split the apple with a bolt from his crossbow.

But Gessler noticed that Tell had removed two crossbow bolts from his quiver, not one. Before releasing him, he asked why. Tell was reluctant to reply, but after Gessler promised he would not attempt to kill him, he replied that if he had killed his son, he would have used the second bolt on Gessler himself. Gessler was angered and had Tell bound, saying that while he had promised to spare his life, he would imprison Tell for the remainder of the life he had been granted.

Tell was brought to Gessler’s boat to be taken to the dungeon in his castle at Küssnacht. But, as a storm broke on Lake Lucerne, the soldiers were afraid that their boat would founder, and they begged Gessler to allow them to remove Tell’s shackles so he could steer the boat and save them. Gessler agreed, and Tell used the opportunity to escape, leaping from the boat at the rocky site now (and already in the White Book) known as the Tellsplatte (“Tell’s slab”), since the 16th century the site of a memorial chapel.

Tell ran cross-country to Küssnacht. As Gessler arrived, Tell assassinated him with the second crossbow bolt along a stretch of the road cut through the rock between Immensee and Küssnacht, now known as the Hohle Gasse. Tell’s blow for liberty sparked a rebellion in which he played a leading part, leading to the formation of the Swiss Confederation.

According to Tschudi, Tell fought again against Austria in the 1315 Battle of Morgarten. Tschudi also has an account of Tell’s death in 1354, according to which he was killed trying to save a child from drowning in the Schächenbach river in Uri.(cfr. Wikipedia William Tell)


Multilingual Switzerland


I’ve often been asked if I was able to talk Swiss, as I’ve lived there for a long time. Even if this kind of comment seems funny to those who live in or close to Switzerland, it is quite a common assumption among people coming from other continents, that Swiss talk Swiss, like Swedish people speak Swedish, Italians speak Italian, Germans speak German etc.

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(© wikipedia, Marco Zanoli)

Switzerland is a multilingual country with four national languages: German, French, Italian and Rumantsch (you can find it transcribed also as Romansh, Romansch, Rhaeto-Romanic or Rhaeto-Romance etc.). But only German, French and Italian maintain equal status as official languages at the national level within the Federal Administration of the Swiss Confederation.

According to the federal census of 2000, 63.7% of the Swiss population speaks German, 20.4% French, 6.5% Italian, 0.5% Rumantsch and 9.0% speaks other languages.

People talk German in the German Region (Deutschschweiz) that would be northern, central and eastern Switzerland. In the Romandie (French Region), in western Switzerland, people speak mainly French, whereas Italian is spoken in the Svizzera Italiana, the Italian Region in southern Switzerland. Rumantsch is the native language of the population in Graubünden (Grisons) in southeastern Switzerland.

The cantons of Fribourg, Bern and Valais are officially bilingual (French-German), whereas Graubünden is officially trilingual (Rumantsch-German-Italian).

Why is Switzerland multilingual?

The Swiss do not form a single ethnic group, they are a confederation (Confoederatio Helvetica: CH).

Historically, the Swiss derive from an amalgamation of Gaulish or Gallo-Roman, Alemannic and Raetic stock.

In the German speaking region (Deutschschweiz) we find the Alemannic German, historically amalgamated from the Gallo-Roman population and the Alemannii and Burgundii, including subgroups like the Walser. The term „Swiss“ from the 16th and 18th centuries referred to this group exclusively and only with the expansion of the Swiss confederation following the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) the term was applied to non-Alemannic territories. Closely related German speaking people are the inhabitants of Alsace, Vorarlberg and the Swabians.

In the French speaking region (Romandie) people speak Franco-Provençal dialects. Today these dialects are assimilated to the standard Swiss French and amalgamated from the Gallo-Roman population and Burgundians (the historical Upper Burgundy). These dialects are closely related to the French (especially those of Franche-Comté).

In the Svizzera Italiana, people speak a variety of the Lombard language,Ticinese, partly assimilated to the standard Swiss Italian language, amalgamated from Raetians and Lombards. They are closely related to the Italian regions of Lombardy and Piedmont.

The Rumantsch is a Rhaeto-Romance language, closely related to the French, Occitan and Lombard. It was spoken in a larger territory in the early Middle Ages, that reached from the Grisons (Canton Graubünden) to the Lake Constance, whereas today, it’s limited to some parts of Graubünden.