“Old Nick”

December 6, 2004 | 24 comments
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I was just reading a new blog for Mormon teens called “The Greenies,” and LJ used “Old Nick” as an alternative appellation for Satan.

“Old Nick” apparently comes from the Danish word Nikker, which may also be the source of St. Nick. The Danish word was used to describe a water sprite. Old Nick was widely used in the U.S. in the 1800s, as was “Old Scratch.” It was common for people to speak to Satan in a playful manner, as if the battle for their souls was a contest. (For a more modern version of this phenomenon, see “The Devil Went Down to Georgia“?)

Nowadays, at least in my circles, we do not talk about Satan much, except occasionally at Church. But the idea of Satan is useful to us, isn’t it? We know that fidelity to the Gospel requires great discipline, and the idea that we are battling Old Nick — rather than some darker or weaker part of ourselves — might strengthen our resolve. Of course, I can see how some might use Old Nick as a scapegoat, Flip Wilson style: “The devil made me do it!” On balance, however, I think I prefer the image of resisting temptation from without, and I like the idea of doing battle with Old Nick. As LJ wrote:

[Saying "old nick" is] a little less scary than saying “satan” He seems much more conquerable as “old nick”. Sheesh, he’s gotta be at least 4 billion years old, I bet he has a cane, and a limp, and age spots, and no hair…and probably those fake teeth too. No wonder he didn’t get a body, he’d be a pushover. lol, plus it might kill him if we ever raked his yard or something. I don’t think he likes service very much.

Ok, I am convinced. I can take him.

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24 Responses to “Old Nick”

  1. danithew on December 6, 2004 at 8:32 am

    Ok, I’m convinced I can take him …

    That line leads me to think of these verses from Isaiah chapter 14:

    12 How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!
    13 For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north:
    14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.
    15 Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.
    16 They that see thee shall narrowly look upon thee, and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms;
    17 That made the world as a wilderness, and destroyed the cities thereof; that opened not the house of his prisoners?
    18 All the kings of the nations, even all of them, lie in glory, every one in his own house.
    19 But thou art cast out of thy grave like an abominable branch, and as the raiment of those that are slain, thrust through with a sword, that go down to the stones of the pit; as a carcase trodden under feet.
    20 Thou shalt not be joined with them in burial, because thou hast destroyed thy land, and slain thy people: the seed of evildoers shall never be renowned.

  2. john fowles on December 6, 2004 at 10:49 am

    Gordon, I have heard, more than once, that “Santa Claus” is really an apparition of Satan. People who claim this point to the fact that “Santa” spells “Satan” if you just put the “n” at the end. I’ve never given much credence to Santa/Satan theories. I think your focus on Nikker is more realistic for any commonalities between the two, though.

  3. David King Landrith on December 6, 2004 at 10:53 am

    The purpose of mortality is to overcome our own weaknesses, not to overcome Satan.

    Presumably, if Lucifer had not rebelled, we would still be here in mortality. But I’m not sure exactly how this contingency would play out. For example, how would we account for Eve’s or Adam’s eating the fruit without an adversary to tempt them?

  4. David King Landrith on December 6, 2004 at 10:57 am

    john fowles: I have heard, more than once, that “Santa Claus” is really an apparition of Satan

    Doesn’t McConkie says that in the first edition of Mormon Doctrine?

  5. Gordon Smith on December 6, 2004 at 11:12 am

    John, I had the same reaction and was pretty surprised when I did some digging. I was too lazy to bore all the way to the bottom, however, so I am open to correction by someone with more intimate knowledge of this.

    David, excellent question. Someone once asked me if all temptations originated with Satan or if the “natural man” were sufficiently weak to be tempted without Satan’s influence. At the time (having been in the Church less than one year), I was convinced that Satan was the source of all of my temptations, but now I am not so sure. Moreover, I am not sure whether it matters. My original post comprised some of my initial reflections on that. It seems to me that it might matter. If our ability to overcome our own weaknesses benefits from having an adversary, then it matters.

  6. john fowles on December 6, 2004 at 11:27 am

    Stumbled across this picture today in a German newspaper:

    This is the German St. Nikolaus. Notice he is not fat. (Hence even I was able to pass as a credible German St. Nikolaus as a scrawny 19-year-old missionary in East Berlin. Also he wears a bishop’s mitre in addition to the classic red robe.

  7. john fowles on December 6, 2004 at 11:28 am

    Looks like the picture didn’t work.

    Here’s the link:

    http://www.welt.de/z/photos/p/bdt/ic4ec3a305c4a88ee3d10d2a940da4864_normal.jpg

  8. Wilfried on December 6, 2004 at 11:32 am

    Santa Claus… I couldn’t resist saying something about him on this very day of his, December 6th. The Anglo-Saxon tradition has changed (corrupted in a pagan sense) the original Christian saint, Saint Nicholas, or Hagios Nikolaos, Bishop of Myra (in the present day Turkey). He died about 350 AD and was known as the friend of children (several legends tell how he saved children from death). His fame spread during the Middle Ages. Many churches are dedicated to him. Patron saint of those who needed protection.

    In the Netherlands and Belgium, he is represented as a Christian bishop, coming during the night of December 5th or 6th to leave presents to the children. A lot of family traditions and lore surround the event. No relation with the merry American Santa Claus, except the transformed name.

  9. Kaimi on December 6, 2004 at 11:33 am

    Umm, and he has a _camel_! Interesting picture, John.

  10. a random John on December 6, 2004 at 11:36 am

    David,

    Given enough time Adam and Eve might have eaten the fruit out of boredom! :)

    More seriously though, had Lucifer elected not to rebel, then this life would still be a test, and I would guess that there would still be evil in the world. It would seem odd if he were the exclusive source of all things bad.

  11. Gordon Smith on December 6, 2004 at 11:43 am

    Wilfried, That tradition of St. Nick survives in some parts of the U.S. My co-blogger over at Conglomerate is experiencing it in Milwaukee.

    I am curious whether you know anything about this Danish word Nikker and its possible relation to St. Nick. I wonder if the pagan tradition involved Nikker (is that plural?), which then were attached to a Saint as the holidays were religified (?). After reading about the origins of Old Nick, it occurred to me that shortening Nicholas to Nick (a nickname?) seems like a modern thing to do.

  12. john fowles on December 6, 2004 at 11:50 am

    Good point Kaimi! No reindeer here. . . .

  13. john fowles on December 6, 2004 at 11:55 am

    Wilfried, at least in Germany St. Nick leaves candy and gifts for the children in their shoes which they put outside the door on this night. Is that also done in Holland and Belgium?

    Also, in the picture I linked, we see him wearing the mitre indicating his status as a Christian bishop, but what about the red robe? The caption to this picture in the newspaper implies that the red robe predates the coca-colaized fat American Santa. Do you have any details on the red robe and its source?

  14. Wilfried on December 6, 2004 at 12:13 pm

    Gordon: “I am curious whether you know anything about this Danish word Nikker and its possible relation to St. Nick.”

    It’s a complex linguistic and cultural story… Let me quote from http://www.liveoakuu.org/sermons/santa.html

    “This saint has a murky resume. In the 1970′s Vatican Council 2 acknowledged that no Roman Catholic Bishop named Nicholas ever existed. Legends attributed to this saint had no Christian origins and probably came from pagan traditions. (Santa/Shaman, p.96) The names Nick, Klaas, and Klas come from Nikker (Old Dutch) or nicor (Middle English) meaning goblin or waterspirit. (Ibid,p.105)

    In time, Saint Nicholas’ persona was split. St. Nick became the bearer of love and gifts, while the presence of the shaman, Herne/Pan, became his slave, depicted as the “Dark Helper.” Van Renterghem contends this signifies the Roman church having conquered the indigenous, pagan, fertility/nature spirit; banishing it as symbolic of evil. The job description of the Dark Helper was to carry the bag, and scare maidens and children into devout behavior.

    In 1626 a ship with settlers from the Netherlands reached the shores of our country, founding the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. They brought their winter holy day customs with them involving the good St. Nicholas, known in Dutch as “Sinter Claes,” or “Sinte Klaas.” (…) In Holland, on the eve of St. Nicholas day, Dec.6, the myth stated that a white haired old saint clad in a wide mantel, rode through the skies on a white horse, with his swarthy slave the Dark Helper. This reluctant helper dispensed gifts to good people, but would gleefully drag sinners away to a place of eternal suffering. (Ibid,p.111)

    In 1823, Washington Irving mentioned the Dutch Santa Claus in his “Knickerbocker History of New York.” Clement C. Moore inspired by this account wrote the now celebrated poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” with this well worn opening, “‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house…”

    Reindeer replaced the white horse, and Santa is an elf who arrives through the chimney.(…) The first illustrator of Clement’s poem drew a strange little Dutchman smoking a stubby clay pipe. 40 years later cartoonist Thomas Nast etched a character in Harper’s Magazine to depict Clement’s poetry. (Pictures,p.54)

    The Bavarian born Nast drew Santa as the winter holiday figure he remembered from the mountain villages in the Alps; a rather scary, less than friendly gnome dressed in animal skins, reminiscent of the Herne/Pan character.

    Over time Claus became a bit friendlier, until in 1931 the Coca-Cola Company decided they wanted to increase their sales to children. (…) Artist Haddon Sundblom portrayed a jovial Santa relaxing with a Coke served to him by children. He was rotund, and outgoing in a bright red suit with white fur trim- Coca-Cola’s colors. By the close of WW2 this reborn Santa had joined our GI Joes to help win freedom for the world.”

    (end of quote)

  15. Wilfried on December 6, 2004 at 12:24 pm

    John Fowles: “Wilfried, at least in Germany St. Nick leaves candy and gifts for the children in their shoes which they put outside the door on this night. Is that also done in Holland and Belgium?”

    Absolutely, though not outside the door. Last night my daughter placed a shoe next to the fireplace, and lo and behold, this morning there were candy and gifts next to it. It’s a tradition Dutch and Flemish families keep up even with older children (who love it, it’s just fun and revives kid’s memories).

    Also, a fully dressed “Sint-Niklaas” (as a Catholic bishop) arrives in many Dutch and Flemish cities weeks before and can be visited by children in malls or even in the town hall. Children send thousands of letters and mails to Sint-Niklaas, and the postal services have a crowd of employees and volunteers answering the letters. It is a major event.

    As for the red robe, see my previous comment.

  16. J. Stapley on December 6, 2004 at 12:48 pm

    1) I had heard that Wenceslas (Czech) was the origin of Santa, have I been believing in a fallacy?

    2) From the narrative and from the words he uses in self-defense, it seems as if Satan is not necessary to the plan, even that there are precedents of the plan going forward without one.

  17. a random John on December 6, 2004 at 1:02 pm

    I should mention that “Old Nick” was my old nick, until I read this post and decided to become arJ.

  18. John Mansfield on December 6, 2004 at 2:08 pm

    This entry on Old Nick and St. Nick provides an unusual opening for a little story. In a store a several years back, one of our older boys saw a stuffed Santa Claus and pointed to it: “Look! It’s a Christmas goblin!” Before starting school, they didn’t know much about Santa Claus, the pointed hat on the stuffed figure looked like the kind used by some goblins in one of Sendak’s Little Bear books, and the colors were obviously Christmasy.

  19. Mark B on December 6, 2004 at 2:11 pm

    This seems to be the ideal place to shoot down some flying reindeer.

    I don’t know who first took Clement Moore’s poem, and made Santa’s sleigh and reindeer into unidentified flying objects, but all you who read the poem regularly (everyone with small children, I should hope) should realize that he meant nothing of the kind:

    As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
    When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
    So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
    With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.

    So, you see, they didn’t come flying in and land like an Apache helicopter on the roof, but, when they approached the house (on the ground), their forward momentum was translated into upward thrust, and that carried them up to the roof. (I’ll let the physicists fix all the techical errors in that line.)

    With that one correction, Santa lives!!

  20. Ivan Wolfe on December 6, 2004 at 2:25 pm

    J. Stapely -

    Wencelas, as in “King”?

    That’s from a St. Stephen’s day song (Dec. 26th), not a christmas song, despite it appearing in many Christmas albums.

  21. The Only True and Living Nathan on December 6, 2004 at 2:51 pm

    All right, time to start a campaign to bring back the Dark Helper into the public eye (especially with my six-year-old, who’s staring down the barrel of a lump of coal right now).

  22. Julie in Austin on December 6, 2004 at 7:50 pm

    I grew up celebrating St. Nicholas’s Day (today, Dec 6th) as the day our stockings were filled (not Christmas, but we did get stuff on Christmas, too).

    We’ve saved that tradition, with a St. Nicholas Family Home Evening where we share the legends of Nicholas and tie that in to the Santa Claus myth and the idea of giving gifts in Jesus’ name and helping the poor.

    You’ve got a few hours left if you want to celebrate St. Nicholas’s Day, and http://www.stnicholascenter.org has all sorts of great stuff.

  23. Skipless on December 7, 2004 at 1:43 am

    I believe upon closer view that camel does indeed have a red nose?

  24. Riksa on July 11, 2005 at 9:28 am

    Contrary to a claim on one web-site, Santa Klaus is not called Father Christmas in Finland. That would be translated to “Isa Joulu”, word “ISAâ€?, “fatherâ€? written with “A with umlaut” (which is pronounced like letter “A” in the word “AND”), meaning “father”. Instead we use the word “Joulupukki”, which literally translates to Christmas Goat. A goat of all things!!! Shaitan, the Celtic Horned God, anyone!? And it is also a Satanist symbol… How strange is that…

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