Numerous countries observe Saint Nicholas Day, and many children have been gifted small presents from this seemingly jolly saint today. For instance, in Poland St. Nicholas hides gifts inside shoes or under pillows, provided that kids were good during the year. But it turns out that the beloved St. Nicholas’ name was sometimes used in more sinister phrases and imagery.
We find the first clue for that in Ware’s Victorian Dictionary of Slang & Phrase:
“Nathaniel, Below (Old English). Even lower than Hades—Nathaniel (like Samuel, or Zamiel in Germany) and Old Nick, or Nicholas, being familiar synonyms for Satan.”
The familiar euphemism ‘Old Nick’ is not easy to investigate, but it took on around the 17th century and most sources provide two possible origins of the name:
– connection to a water demon, goblin, or sprite (e.g., Old English nicker, nicor, Middle Low German necker);
– humorous reference to Saint Nicholas himself.
And a few St. Nicholas legends do contain some grizzly elements which could have inspired such a connection! Like the one where St. Nicholas resurrects three children, who had previously been killed and pickled in a barrel of brine in order to be sold as ham. He resurrects them by making the Sign of the Cross, but the imagery is of a very necromantic nature. Other stories show St. Nicholas controlling the weather by calming a seastorm and mention him encountering and vanquishing a sea monster (a nihhus), which echos the first possible etymology of Old Nick. We might never know for sure, but hopefully, historical linguists will bring us more answers!