Saint Nicholas, or Nicholaos, was bishop of Mira, in Asia Minor (then part of the Byzantine Empire), in the IV Century A.D. He died there about A.D. 350. He was a defender of orthodoxy and is said to have slapped the heretic Arius on the face during Nicene first Council, held A.D. 325. The Legend of his Life has enriched very much what we know of him. For example, he gave away all he had to endow three girls so they could marry, instead of being  destined to prostitution  (poor parents  sold then their daughters without giving a thought as to their future). The Saint Bishop saved them and saved also, with one of his most known miracle, three little boys who had been butchered by a perfidious innkeeper to be offered as salad preserved food to travellers.

In A.D.1087, some centuries after the Saint’s death, some merchants from Bari (Apulia) stole Saint Nicholas’ corpse from Mira cathedral and brought it to their city. There, the Normans then in power built a splendid cathedral to Saint Nicholas, where his memory is still fervently honoured.

But the cult to him didn’t remain confined within Apulia and Italy. The German Emperor Otto II’s Greek wife, Teophane, spread the cult to Germany and from there it sprawled to Northern Europe, in general, and to Scandinavian nations, in particular. In these last countries the Legend was cast anew and Saint Nicholaos of Mira became Santa Claus (variants: Saint Niklaus, Saint Klaus, Saint Niklaas) and got a sledge and flying reindeer to carry it around. Probably he was seen as a bountiful giver of gifts to little children in remembrance of the  three resurrected boys, who had been killed by the bad innkeeper and after that were  educated by this kind and splendidly generous saint (we must remember also the three endowed young girls). His feast day is December the sixth.

The Legend version I’m translating was narrated to me by my mother in the 50s, in the ancient form of our dialect. The folktale had two forms: prose and poetry.

This translation derives from the prose form and is being related to a strange spot of our town’s countryside, where ancient Samnites believied there was an entrance to Hell .



      On a particularly wild spot of Montecalvo countryside called “Bolle della Malvizza”, once upon a time there was a very rustic stone hostelry. Neighbours gossiped that there stopped overnight only highwaymen and other bad characters. On a certain cold winter day, the sun was already setting in a glory of red rays when three men came toward the solitary inn.

      The innkeeper was standing at the door, leaning against a stack of straw. The group’s leader , a tall middle-aged man, with a bishop’s tall cap on his head, a long shepherd’s staff in his right hand, his white hair and beard solemnizing his face, in which sparkled his beautiful blue eyes, greeted the innkeeper with a clear voiced “Dominus vobiscum” .

     “Where do you come from and what do you want from me?” grumbled in reply the man. A dark haired and sturdy fellow, whose black beard covered almost all of his face, leaving just place for his bloodshot eyes to peep out.

     “We are coming from Apulia and we want bed and warm food for money,” said the bishop.

     “Uh, as for bedding, there is just straw on the ground, and very little tunninu for food”.

     The weary travellers went inside and took their seat on low benches at the innermost side of a long wooden table, meanwhile looking warily around. The innkeeper spat on the ground and stirred the fire. Then called coarsely his wife. A shrivelled woman appeared. The man went to fetch his “tunninu”, while she went to the cellar to draw red wine.

      The meat and wine on the table, the bishop extended over the food his hands and prayed. He prayed a very long time, while his two young deacons couldn’t well suppress yawns under the hems of their cloaks.

      After the prayer, the bishop traced the Holy Cross in the air and then the food became two small children, a boy and a girl. The little ones smiled confusedly.

       The bishop stood up, took the children by the hand and went out of the tavern, the deacons following.

        At some distance from the inn, the holy man turned round and traced another Holy Cross in the air. And soon where before stood the hostelry there was now only a swamp of bubbling lime. Saint Nicholas (because it was him), his companions and the two little children set out again on their trail and soon disappeared behind the nearby cliff.


But at this point I always asked my mother why Saint Nicholas didn’t save the innkeeper’s wife. But she gave me only confused and contradictory answers.

As to the poetical version, I remember only two verses of it:

                                      “Santu Nicòla a la tavèrna jéva

                                         jennu truvànnu pe’ se repusàne…”

(In English, “Saint Nicholas went to a tavern / asking for shelter and food…”)


Well, enjoy the tale, and Merry Christmas to everyone.




[1] Bolle della Malvizza – that is, bubbling lime in an area called Malvizza for its poor fertility and aridness.

[2] Id est, a miter, a liturgical headdress for bishops and abbots consisting of a tall pointed laterally cleft cap, with two bands hanging down at the back  (Collins English Dictionary).

[3] Latin, “May God be with you”.

[4] Tunninu, literally “salt tuna fish” but in this old form of our dialect it meant “any animal’s cold meat preserved with salt.



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