Christmas Past: The Old Nick/Saint Nick Connection

Today’s festive clipping comes from — of all places — Demonology and Devil Lore Volume 1, an 1881 book by Moncure Daniel Conway that includes a section discussing the origins of a nickname for the Devil: Old Nick.

The author mentions the theory that the name derives from the Nixie or Nikke (a water-spirit of Germanic folklore) before providing a theory of his own: that the name of Old Nick is at least partly connected to that of St. Nicholas. Connecting the two quite different figures, Conway points to St. Nicholas’ association with fisherman (giving him an aquatic aspect like the Nixie/Nikke) and to the devilish purveyors of punishment said to accompany the kindly saint. Krampus, the most famous such figure today, is unmentioned; instead, the author brings up Bartel and Knecht Klaubauf (see also Knecht Ruprecht).

Take them or leave them, here are Mr. Conway’s theories…


I believe, however, that this phrase [Old Nick] owes its popularity to St. Nicholas rather than the Norse water-god whose place he was assigned after the christian accession. This saintly Poseidon, who, from being the patron of fisherman, gradually became associated with that demon whom, Sir Walter Scott said, ‘the British sailor feared when he feared nothing else,’ was also of old the patron of pirates; and robbers were called ‘St. Nicholas’ clerks.’ in Norway and the Netherlands the ancient belief in the demon Nikke was strong; he was a kind of Wild Huntsman of the Sea, and has left many legends, of which ‘The Flying Dutchman’ is one.

But my belief is that, through his legendary relation to boys, Sr. Nicholas gave the name Old Nick its modern moral accent. Because of his reputation for having restored to life three murdered children St. Nicholas was made their patron, and on his day, December 6, it was the old custom to consecrate a Boy-Bishop, who held office until the 28th of the month. By this means he became the moral appendage of the old Wodan go of the Germanic races, who was believed in winter time to find shelter in and shower benefits from evergreens, especially firs, on his favourite children who happened to wander beneath them.

‘Bartel,’ ‘Klaubauf,’ or whatever he might be called, was reduced to be the servant of St. Nicholas, whose name is now jumbled into ‘Santaclaus.’ According to the old custom her appeared attended by his Knecht Klaubauf –personated by those who knew all about the children — bringing a sort of doomsday. The gifts having been bestowed on the good children, St. Nicholas then ordered Klaubauf to put the naughty ones into his pannier and carry them off for punishment. The terror and shrieks thus caused have created vas misery amongst children, and in Munich and in some other places the authorities have very properly made such tragedies illegal. But for many centuries it was the custom of nurses and mothers to threaten refractory children with being carried off at the end of the year by Nicholas; and in this way rach teat closed, in the young apprehension, with a Judgment Day, a Weighing of Souls, and a Devil or Old Nick as agent of retribution.

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