6th December - Saint Nicholas and the Boy Bishop

Boy_bishop.jpg The 6th December is Saint Nicholas’ Day.

It’s also the traditional date of the election of ‘the Boy Bishop’ at Salisbury and other English Cathedrals.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says

The custom of electing a boy-bishop on the feast of St. Nicholas dates from very early times, and was in vogue in most Catholic countries, but chiefly in England, where it prevailed certainly in all the larger monastic and scholastic establishments, and also in many country parishes besides, with the full approbation of authority, ecclesiastical and civil. The boy-bishop was chosen from among the children of the monastery school, the cathedral choir, or pupils of the grammar-school. Elected on St. Nicholas's day (6 December), he was dressed in pontifical vestments and, followed by his companions in priest's robes, went in procession round the parish, blessing the people[1].

The custom was banned by Henry VIII, re-instated by Queen Mary, and then banned again by Queen Elizabeth I[2].

The custom was revived in many English towns, including Salisbury.

The idea of the Boy Bishop seems to me to resonate with two traditions - the association of Saint Nicholas with children and the idea of the time of the solstice being a time when traditional order is turned upside down.

Saint Nicholas and children

Saint Nicholas was a 3rd of 4th century Bishop of Myra.

There are two significant legends about ‘Saint Nick’ and his kindness to children.

The first tells of a poor man and his three daughters. The father could not afford a dowry for any of the girls, so they were to be sold, either into slavery[3], or into prostitution[4].

Mysteriously, three bags of gold or golden balls were thrown down the chimney overnight, possibly landing in stockings, or shoes that had been left to dry by the fire. Saint Nicholas is identified as the mysterious gift-giver.

The second legend is more grisly. Saint Nicholas sits down for a meal in an inn. He becomes aware of something wrong in the kitchen. He goes into the kitchen and looks into a barrel which would be expected to contain meat. The meat he finds is the butchered bodies of three children. He prays for the children and the inn-keeper and the three boys are returned to life[5].

The ‘boy bishop’ and Saturnalia

The other strand which seems to me to have influenced the ‘Boy Bishop’ tradition is that of Saturnalia - ‘a brief social revolution, in which power, dignity or impunity is conferred for a few hours upon those ordinarily in a subordinate position[6].’

This was known or reflected by the Feast of Fools in England. The Feast was presided over by the Lord of Misrule (in Scotland, the Abbot of Unreason and in France the Prince des Sots).

The Feast of Fools seems to have been a fairly wild affair. The Catholic Encyclopedia refers to ‘almost blasphemous extravagances’ and says that ‘ the parody must always have trembled on the brink of burlesque, if not of the profane[7].

The ‘Boy Bishop’ ceremony, especially as practiced today, could be seen as a bowdlerization of this wilder, more earthy tradition.

The Salisbury Boy Bishop

In Salisbury, the Boy Bishop assumes his role[8] at Evensong on the Sunday following the 6th December[9].

After the 2012 service, Tom Clammer the Canon Precentor, said that

Sunday’s Boy Bishop service was a fitting reminder, in the heart of Advent, that God comes to us in humility. As words of wisdom were spoken from the Bishop’s throne by a child, we recall that it is as a baby that God comes closest to us. [10]

Image Credit

By unknown.Tomasso at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons


[1] Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Boy-Bishop - Wikisource, the free online library

[2] Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Boy-Bishop - Wikisource, the free online library

[3] St. Nicholas Center ::: Who is St. Nicholas?

[4] St. Nicholas - Saints & Angels - Catholic Online

[5] From memory, I think Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of vegetarians - if so, good for him!

[6] Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Feast of Fools - Wikisource, the free online library

[7] Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Feast of Fools - Wikisource, the free online library

[8] I assume the ‘Boy Bishop’ has always been a ‘boy’. It might be quite nice if there was a ‘Girl Bishop’ - whether it would be more appropriate to wait until after the first ‘real’ woman Bishop has been enthroned, I’m not sure

[9] News Archive - Salisbury Cathedral and Boy bishop (From Salisbury Journal)

[10] Salisbury Cathedral School News - Boy Bishop Ceremony