Saints (Un)Preserve Us: St. Nicholas Resurrects Pickled Boys!

An evil shopkeeper chops up and pickles three boys. A fourth-century saint comes to the rescue.

The historic St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor. St. Nicholas is traditionally considered the patron saint of children, particularly boys. In fact, in medieval England, it was the custom on St. Nicholas' Day (December 6) to choose a choirboy from the cathedral choir as "Bishop for a Day." Some cathedral museums still have their "boy bishop" vestments on display.

Icon: St. Nicholas and the Three Slain Boys


The association is traced to the legend of St. Nicholas and the Three Pickled Boys. Tradition has it that an evil shopkeeper in the town of Myra hated children. He kidnapped three small boys, chopped them up with an axe, and pickled them in a barrel. St. Nicholas, upon hearing of this horror, prayed fervently to God. Because of the purity of his faith, the boys were raised to life and wholeness again and came out of the pickle barrel singing "Alleluia!" and giving thanks to God.



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The legend of St. Nicholas and the Three Pickled Boys was popularized in this century by the composer Benjamin Britten in his well-known cantata "St. Nicolas" (op. 42). The witty choral work, with poetry by Eric Crozier, tells the life of the saint in song; three choirboys sing the part of the Pickled Boys, always an audience favorite.



For several years at Christmastime, Godiva Chocolate produced a large, solid chocolate St. Nicholas figure which had at his feet three boys and a pickle barrel.



The illustration shows what is believed to be the only existing icon depicting this legend. The evil shopkeeper's axe is visible in the lower right corner. To make a theological point, the artist has made the pickle barrel a baptismal font, symbolizing death and rebirth.

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