San Nicolo a Trieste

La Fiera di San Nicolo a Trieste

I have always loved everything to do with the Christmas season. I love to pick a colour theme to decorate my tree and house, I look forward to setting up my precepio, to putting the multicoloured lights on the boxwoods outside my front window, to all the cookies my mother bakes only at Christmas, to  our traditional family Christmas meal that includes sarma.

I will not be doing any of those things this year so the next best thing is to share with my family and friends a little bit about the Christmas season in Trieste.

San Nicolo, as celebrated in Trieste, picks up on the recent Wall Street Journal article that floats the idea by the reader that Trieste is perhaps not quite an Italian city.  One of the things that sets Trieste apart from the rest of Italy at this time of year is the celebration of San Nicolo, in the Triestine dialect. We talked a little bit about San Nicolo in my Italian class. The teacher suggested that the celebration of San Nicolo in Trieste is a part of the Austrian legacy, Trieste having played  a  big role in the economy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as the only port of the Empire .

In Trieste, Gorizia, some parts of Friuli,  Istria and Tyrol (all areas who were under the former Austro-Hungarian Empire) St. Nicholas bears gifts, tangerines and sweets to the children on December 6.  And of course lumps of coal (today a sugary black treat) to those children that were not so good.

So I went to the …..internet….to see what I could find about this tradition.

According to the legend, San Nicola really existed. He was a native of Patara and bishop of Myria (Anatolia in Turkey), originally from a wealthy family but unfortunately orphaned as a child. He was raised in a convent, studied to become a priest and later became a bishop.

As the story goes, Nicholas, learned that three poor children of his city, would be sold as slaves, because the family could not give them dowries. The girls and their father were desperate and crying.   Nicholas was moved by their suffering and decided to help them by donating three bags of gold coins, one for each girl. He left the first bag of gold  in an open window. Then he did the same with the second bag the next night. The third night, he found the window closed, and dropped the bag down the chimney, giving the poor family endless joy.

The tradition of St. Nicholas was actually likely started in Trieste at the end of the eighteenth century with the establishment of the city as a free port. This started a large influx of traders from the Middle East particularly from Greece. The Greek community built a Greek-Orthodox church in Riva III Novembre dedicated to St. Nicholas. In the nineteenth century the location of the church was actually in the financial center of the city. The community also started a flea market to commerate the date of the saints death – December 6th.

Today the “Fair of St. Nicholas” on the Viale XX Settembre in the first week of December marks the start of the Christmas season in Trieste.

It still has the feel of a huge flea market along the Viale. In the early morning all the vendors are preparing for the day and night ahead. Unlike the typical Canadian city where everything shuts down at dusk, as night settles in, the Viale is teeming with people. It is a treat for the senses. First the smells – the slightly burnt chestnuts shells, yes, roasting on an open fire as the song goes, the sugary scent of spinning cotton candy, the pungent cheeses and salamis, the frying onions for the porchetta paninis, spicy cinnamonie vin brule. Then the colours of the Sicilian cookies, the peperoncini, the olives, the candied fruit and the spices. And the carnival style barkers selling the “best” frying pans made in Italy; the perfect tool to slice and dice all your fruits and veggies to perfection; and even the mop that will leave your floors spotless. Then the disconnect for me and hearing “Hark the Herald Angel” in English blaring from a loudpeaker.

The cult of St. Nicholas is said to have been  brought to New York by the Dutch settlers (he is the protector of the city of Amsterdam), under the name of Sinterklaas. Washington Irving is attributed with having Americanized Sinterklaas into Santa Claus, no longer as the bishop San Nicholas,  but represented as a corpulent Dutch sailor wrapped in a green cloak and with a pipe in his mouth.

It seems that the modern look of Santa Claus took shape with the publication of the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”, now better known as “The Night Before Christmas”, in December, 1823.







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