Forget about your blue-eyed, North Pole Santa Claus. The original Saint Nicholas, or Saint Nicolas as he’s known in French, was born in modern-day Turkey around the year 260 AD, and would hardly have resembled the American version created by Thomas Nash for Harper’s Weekly magazine in the 19th century. Elected Bishop of Myra in 303 AD, he was martyred by the Romans in 340, presumably on December 6, now celebrated as Saint Nicolas Day.
His fame spread to Europe through the Crusades, in particular to Lorraine in eastern France when, supposedly in the year 1093, Count Aubert de Varangéville brought a relic back from the Middle East and deposited it in the church of Port, a small riverside village seven miles south of Nancy. The church became a popular pilgrim shrine and by 1193 had to be replaced by a larger edifice. It gained further momentum when the Sire de Réchicourt awoke in front of it on December 6, 1240, after being freed from prison in Palestine by the saint the previous evening—so it’s said—and miraculously transported to Lorraine overnight.
Nicolas thus became the patron saint of prisoners, while the village of Port went on to become the largest commercial center of the duchy of Lorraine. It was renamed Saint-Nicolas-de-Port after the holy man who had brought about its good fortune, and who eventually became the patron saint of all Lorraine.
More importantly for history, Nicolas is also the patron saint of children, having once put back together and resuscitated three children who had been cut to pieces by a wicked butcher. The children of modern-day Lorraine seem unaffected by the gruesome aspect of the story, since it all ends happily, and with the distribution of goodies en plus. Understandably, it is Saint Nicolas who steals the holiday show in Lorraine, and in neighboring Alsace, rather than Père Noël, the Father Christmas revered in the rest of France.
In today’s mobile society, in fact, many French children benefit from the generosity of both—except for naughty children, of course, who are punished instead by the Père Fouettard, who actually carries a stick rather than the whip his name indicates. In traditional families children still leave a little glass of eau de vie and some carrots by the fireplace for Saint Nicolas and his donkey. (No North Pole reindeer in this story either.)
On the other hand, since Nicolas sports a bishop’s gear, a few years ago some nursery school tots were denied both his visit and the goodies in the name of politically correct laicité, the strict separation of church and state. A compromise has now been reached by having his bishop’s miter stripped of its cross. Although such incidents are indicative of current social issues in Europe, Saint Nicolas Day remains a great moment for holiday festivities.
The celebrations in Nancy are held on the first weekend of December. Since Nancy is now a mere 90 minutes away from Paris’s Gare de l’Est on the sleek TGV, it’s a wonderful excuse for a holiday visit to this beautiful, under-explored city, whose architectural gems, museums and culinary specialties are worth a trip at any time of year.
You could stay at Martine Quenot’s guest house, the Maison de Myon, a beautifully renovated 18th-century townhouse in a quiet old side street near the cathedral, with the city center easily reachable on foot. Martine is in the wine business and the daughter of a sculptor, a combination that has yielded an amazingly creative hostess whose guestrooms you are likely to find enchanting. She also runs cooking classes, and prepares dinner if requested in advance. Enjoy time in the leafy old courtyard in warm weather, and snuggle into the library in the converted stables when it’s wet or cold.
The festivities begin on Saturday afternoon, but whenever you arrive you’re sure to come upon the annual Christmas Market on Place Maginot, just a short walk from the railway station. The toylike village of small wooden chalets, a storybook image when illuminated after dark, offers locally crafted toys and gifts, Christmas ornaments and the season’s regional specialties—gingerbread cookies, hot pretzels and hot mulled wine spiced with cinnamon and cloves.
The evening fireworks display is held at Place Stanislas, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is arguably France’s most gorgeous public square. The fireworks start around 7 pm, but get there much earlier, because entrance to the square is limited to 25,000 for safety reasons. If you also want to see the religious procession at Saint-Nicolas-de-Port, watch the fireworks from the Opera House side of Place Stanislas, so you can make a quick exit along rue Sainte Catherine in order to make it to the church on time. (Tourist Office shuttles from the Quai Sainte Catherine take passengers to Saint-Nicolas-de-Port and back; reservations are essential; dress warmly.)
Place Stanislas bears the name of Stanislas Leszczynski, the deposed king of Poland who was installed as Duke of Lorraine in 1737 by his son-in-law, Louis XV. (The French king had insisted that the hereditary duke, François III, give up Lorraine when he married Maria Theresa, the future empress of Austria.) Making the most of an imperfect situation, Stanislas built this Place Royale in honor of Louis XV, and the project was carried out by Emmanuel Héré, who also designed the adjoining Place de la Carrière and Place de l’Alliance, all three forming a link between the medieval Old Town and the new 17th-century sector.
The statue of Louis XV that originally stood here disappeared with the Revolution. It was replaced by the statue of Stanislas in 1831, and the square renamed in his honor. Nancy’s city hall, the Hôtel de Ville, faces the square, along with the Opera House (previously the Episcopal Palace), the Musée des Beaux Arts (previously the College of Medicine), the Grand Hôtel and the Tourist Office. The celebrated Belle Epoque brasserie, Jean Lamour, also on the square, is named for the artisan who contributed the square’s splendid gilded wrought-iron gates, and the Grand Café Foy on one corner is a favorite with visitors and residents alike. Place Stanislas is sheer magic when illuminated at night, and equally magnificent when washed by the sun on a cloudless afternoon. On the night of Saint Nicolas it is a fairy-tale enchantment.
A more spiritual mood prevails at Saint-Nicolas-de-Port. The third church to have been built on the site, the massive 15th/16th-century monument is an awesome edifice, its two towers soaring skyward some 280 feet, and the vast nave inside well over 100 feet high. Thousands of worshippers converge here each year—this year for the 765th time—for the Saint Nicolas ceremonies. It’s a uniquely uplifting experience, as the huge chorus of fervent voices fills the colossal basilica and thousands of arms are stretched up to raise their lighted candles. It’s a slice of la France profonde that tourists seldom come across, and it’s well worth the detour.
The Sunday afternoon parade is a two-mile convoy of 30 floats and many music bands, as well as Saint Nicolas himself and Père Fouettard, whose arrival on the scene is accompanied respectively by loud cheers and jeers. The parade leaves from Place Carnot at 4 pm and makes its way the center city, ending around 7 pm at Place de la Carrière, where Nicolas receives the keys of the city from the mayor and another display of fireworks brings the festivities to a close.
Sometime during the festive weekend, visitors should be sure to take in the superb Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, devoted to the French Art Nouveau movement that was launched here by renowned artists, artisans and designers including Emile Gallé, Louis Majorelle, Victor Prouvé, Jacques Gruber and Antonin Daum. Also worthy of attention, the Musée Lorrain, in the former Ducal Palace and the adjoining 16th-century Cordelier convent, provides an overview of the rich legacy of this often-overlooked region of France, which remained an independent duchy until 1766.
Office de Tourisme Place Stanislas, 03.83.35.22.41 website
Maison de Myon 7 rue Mably, 03.83.46.56.56 website
Brasserie Jean Lamour 7 place Stanislas, 03.83.32.53.53. website
Grand Café Foy 1 place Stanislas, 03.83.32.15.97 website
Musée des Beaux Arts 3 place Stanislas, 03.83.85.30.72. (Closed for renovation until June 2012) website
Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy 36-38 rue du Sergent Blandan, 03.83.40.14.86 website
Musée Lorrain 64 Grande Rue, 03.83.32.18.74 website
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of France Today; updated in December 2011
Thirza Vallois is the author of Around and About Paris, Romantic Paris, and Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia. Find Thirza’s books in the France Today Bookstore.