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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Saint Nicholas and the “Nicolinas”

 19th century Russian St. Nicholas iconography.

This is an unexpected subject and post. Last week I was random googling when Saint Nicholas day was (knowing it was more of a North European tradition), when I found out that in Portugal it is celebrated as well although in a different fashion. Here is what I could find out:
Saint Nicholas was a bishop of Mira (today Turkey) and he became a saint for the catholic church after witnesses saw him resuscitate 3 children after they've been killed by an innkeeper. It was his image that originated the notion of Father Christmas. Today he's also the patron of students. For more information please research it further. There are some good wikipedia pages about this man. I will only focus on the Portuguese traditions.

 Saint Nicholas and his servant,Jan Schenkman,1850

In Guimarães, a town in the North of Portugal (place of birth of this country), this Saint also has it's own festivities, very different from the remaining Europe. Scholars say that this Portuguese town is the only place in the Iberian Peninsula where Saint Nicholas is still celebrated.
The cult of this saint in the Peninsula, and therefore Guimarães, may have arrived through pilgrims from other parts of Europe on their way to Santiago de Compostela, (which isn't that far away from the Portuguese town).
The “Nicolinas” are festivities to celebrate the patron Saint Nicholas. The 1st documented references of these festivities in Portugal goes as far as 1660's around the time of the construction of a chapel dedicated to that saint, although there are references of this saint being celebrated much earlier, as far as the Middle Ages.
Primordially, celebrations around this patron had more of a Christians character, with a mass on 6th of December and games on the afternoon, but soon it became a popular fest branching out to the days before the 6th, being then exclusively organized by “brotherhoods” of students of the Guimarães. For about a week to 10 days, there are different traditions and games, which include a theatrical representation of the miracle explained above, to suppers, dancing and other. Here's the explanation of these traditions:

Students of Guimarães celebrating the "Pinheiro". Photo taken from http://www.cm-guimaraes.pt/pages/900
  • Novenas – catholic prayers repeated for 9 days
  • Ceias Nicolinas - Saint Nicholas supper, a nightly meal dedicated to the patron that starts the festivities around the 29th of November;
  • Pinheiro - a procession of students and other people goes through the town after the meal, singing and chanting, for then to bury a pine tree (“pinheiro”) that has been cut before;
  • Posses – (belongings or holdings) the brotherhood goes through the streets at night asking for goods (usually a basket of eatable goods), giving the people a chance to speak up and criticize any chosen subject;
  • Magusto – after the “Posses”, chestnuts are roasted on an open fire and wine is drunken;
  • Pregão – a chosen student is the public voice to speak out satirical verses of occurrences that year;
  • Roubalheiras – members of the brotherhood go around town at night steeling all which is unantended: flower pots, business signs, etc, giving the population a chance to take it back untill mid-day of the following day;
  • Maçazinhas – tradition of a romantic inclination where girls stand at the window or balconies and are wooed and courted on December 6th;
  • Danças de S. Nicolaudifferent dances and a theatrical play are organized, that traditionally started with the intention of gaining enough money to cover the costs of the festivities;
  • Baile Nicolino – a formal dance that closes the festivities on the 7th of December.

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