[Somehow, we missed posting this in a timely fashion; whoops! Talk about being caught in a time warp … But here it is anyway because you just might find this spooky enough.]
Did you know that Santa Claus has a birthday? Well, a nameday, anyway: December 6th, the feast of St. Nicholas. Don’t get the connection? Try this: in German, he’s Sankt Niklaus, except the nickname (get it – ‘nick’ name? Ha!) for Nicholas in German is Klaus. Sankt Klaus. In Dutch, it’s Sinterklaas. Say it fast enough (possibly with some Heineken in you), and you begin to understand where the name Santa Claus came from. No? Oh, never mind …
Here’s the point: there are any number of spooks and spooky stories revolving around things named after the good saint, which are/were appropriate for the feast of St. Nick. And we’re here to tell you about them.
Perhaps it’s most appropriate to start with the story of a dead priest’s ghost at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, in the Millvale neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The church is famous locally and among Croatian-Americans because of the huge, beautiful murals painted throughout the interior by the (now late) Croatian artist Maxo Vanka. The artist was hard at work late one evening in the church, trying to finish the murals surrounding the altar, in the sanctuary. The story has it that as he was working, Vanka saw a priest passing through the church, apparently on his way out, and greeted him; the priest just nodded and kept walking, and Vanka didn’t think much of it, at first – until the priest walked right into a wall and vanished. Other witnesses have seen the spectral priest tending the altar or other parts of the church. Apparently, the good father thought his job wasn’t finished yet. Perhaps he’ll run into Vanka, now that the artist himself is gone.
In Estonia, things are a shade more mysterious at St. Nicholas Church in Tallinn (over there, St. Nick is the patron saint of merchants, which explains a lot when it comes to Christmas shopping). The towering church itself is famous for its near-perfect acoustics, its 12-foot carved tombstones of early Swedish noblemen (yup, the Estonians had their border problems with bigger, badder neighbors). But the real curiosity is a famous and famously haunting painting by the artist Bernt Notke, called Danse Macabre. It seems the painting originally hung in Lübeck, Germany but mysteriously vanished from there and showed up almost immediately in Tallinn – with no explanation. Nobody knows how it got there or why it vanished in Lübeck. This would be a case of more than missing provenance.
Cripple Creek, Colorado is supposedly one of the most haunted towns in America, due to its long history of unexplained phenomena. The town is in the high plains in a mining district of the same name, west beyond Pike’s Peak. The Hotel St. Nicholas was once St. Nicholas Hospital run by the Sisters of Mercy during the mining town’s heyday. Built in 1898 high atop a hill overlooking the town and its namesake stream, the building was originally multipurpose, also serving as a home for the nuns and a school for students during its early days. It served many prospectors and their families over the years and even expanded to add a ward for the mentally ill. However, as the mining business waned when the mines played out, the hospital finally closed in the mid-1970s and remained closed for two decades, despite the efforts of several successive owners to run several types of businesses from it.
A team of three innkeepers finally acquired it, restored and refurbished it, reopened it as a hotel, and got the place listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The hotel’s Boiler Room Tavern is apparently very popular – and so are most of the hotel’s resident ghosts, except for one called Stinky (you can guess why: wherever Stinky goes, so does the smell of raw sewage) and little Petey, the spirit of a boy who appears in the bar and sometimes mischievously moves small items or hides cigarettes (maybe he’s not a smoker?). Petey is thought to have been a young child, possibly an orphan, whom the sisters cared for in the early days of the hospital. Then there’s another friendly enough spirit, the ghost of a former miner who’s dressed like one – he’s supposedly been seen or heard on the back stairways or seen sitting on a stool in the hotel’s office. These are the most common sightings (or smellings, in Stinky’s case), but there are others as well. The hotel sometimes
There are several churches named for St. Nicholas in the UK that have their own ghost stories, but perhaps the most compelling one is the tale of the so-called Robber’s Grave at the church in Montgomery, Powys, Wales, which is a town near the English border, west of Birmingham and southwest of Shrewsbury. In the churchyard is the grave of one John Davies, whose death dates back to some time between 1819 and 1821 (different sources vary about the year). The common tale is that he was accused and convicted of robbery and assault; though he protested his innocence, nobody believed him and he was sentenced to be hanged.
One version of the story, however, explains how this might have happened to a supposedly innocent man: Davies was a farmhand who worked to help the Widow Morris improve her rundown farm and got friendly with the widow’s daughter Jane – so friendly that Jane abandoned her fiancé, Robert Parker (relax: not the novelist), in favor of the hard-working Davies. The furious Parker then teamed up with one Thomas Pearce, who had wanted to buy the farm at a bargain price and was angry that Davies’ work was raising its value. Parker and Pearce then carried out a violent robbery and left behind ‘evidence’ that implicated Davies. Of course, just before he was hanged, Davies protested his blamelessness one last time, saying that his innocence would be proven when no grass grew on his grave for at least a generation (which is about 20 years). Sure enough, no grass grew for more than a century, and even now, bare patches persist on the gravesite. Visitors are warned not to tend the grave in any way because it’s bad luck to do so, in this case.
London has a neighborhood called Chiswick (CHIZ-ik), and in it there’s yet another St. Nicholas Church with its own ghost story. Apparently, two of the daughters of Oliver Cromwell, Mary Fauconburg and Frances Rich, are buried in the churchyard. It is widely believed that when the body of their father was disinterred from its burial place in Westminster Abbey at the Restoration of the Monarchy and hung in chains at Tyburn, the daughters of Oliver Cromwell bribed a guard, took their father’s corpse and had it secretly placed in the family vault at St. Nicholas where they would later be interred.
Unfortunately, St. Nicholas Church was rebuilt in 1882 and the vicar decided to investigate if there was any truth to the story. Instead of finding the two coffins he expected, he found three, one of which was very battered. Fearing that, if it were Cromwell’s coffin, sightseers would disturb the quiet of the place, the vicar bricked up the vault and now there is no record of where it is. It is the fact that they now effectively lie in an unmarked grave that seems to have upset the two sisters and causes to them to haunt the churchyard. They usually appear both dressed in white in the churchyard of St. Nicholas at dawn and later disappear into the walls of the church.
Got any ghost stories? Scored any sightings of your own? Tell us – we’ll be happy to hear from you! Until then, nighty-night, sleep tight, don’t be afraid of things that go bump in the night. Well, not too afraid …
Bye for now,
Michael and Marie