There’s an old Russian legend about St. Nicholas’ Day collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev:
13th Century, from the collection of the Russian State Hermitage Museum; United States Public Domain. from Wikimedia Commons
Some peasants worked for a foreign steward, and the foreigner did not follow the Orthodox faith or observe the Russian holidays. He made the peasants work all the time.
One day the village elder came to the Estate house and spoke to the steward. “Tomorrow is St. Nicholas’ Day and we are forbidden to work.”
“Who is St. Nicholas?” the steward scoffed. “Show him to me.”
The village elder brought him an icon of the saint.
“This is just a wooden board” the steward persisted. “It can’t do anything to me. I shall work, and so shall you all.”
So the peasants worked the Estate, keeping St. Nicholas in their hearts and minds that day. But they soon decided to play a trick on the foreign steward.
A few months later, the elder walked up to the Estate house again. “Tomorrow we have a holiday,” he informed the steward.
“Who is it this time?”
“St. Hornet’s Day.”
“Who is he? Show him to me.”
The elder brought the steward to a hollow tree in which hornets had built a nest. “There he is,” he told the steward.
The steward peeped through the cracks in the bark. He heard humming and buzzing but could see nothing. “How he sings!” he exclaimed. “He must have drunk too much vodka. Nonetheless, I am not afraid of him, and you all must work.”
As he spoke, the hornets flew out of the hollows and stung him in a great swarm. The steward screamed at the top of his lungs. “I swear I won’t order you to work. I too shall rest. Take the whole week off.”
And that is how the peasants outwitted the harsh steward.
(Adapted by Cynthia June Long)
I couldn’t find hornets, so here are some bees. “Apes (apis = bee) coming from a bee-hive, attack a man.” 1450. From the National Library of the Netherlands via Europeana Creative Commons. Public Domain
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An amusing tale, good for a few chuckles, and like much oral tradition, no doubt with its origins in a reality Russian peasants would have faced working for a foreigner. I’m partial to stories about the underdog or trickster. My favorite heroes are those who overcome an adversary through wit.
However, history bears an unexpected somber resemblance to this folktale: in 1907 real-life tragedy struck down 239 lives while those who kept a holy feast day were spared. In December 1907, the celebration of St. Nicholas Day saved more than 200 Carpatho-Russian miners in Jacob’s Creek, Pennsylvania.
They worked long, hard, unsafe days in the Darr Mine on the west side of the Youghioheny River, about forty miles southeast of Pittsburgh. They lost a day’s wages to attend church and keep the feast. On December 19, 1907, in the middle of the liturgy, around 11:30 a.m., a loud rumble preceded an explosion which spewed thick smoke and shook the ground for miles. Immediately everyone knew what had happened. The mine had exploded. The next day the Philadelphia Inquirer reported “Scores Dodged Death by Going to Church Instead of to Work.” The survivors considered it a Miracle of St. Nicholas. A few years after the disaster, ~1911, St. Nicholas Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church at Jacobs Creek was founded to honor the saint’s intervention that fateful day. A commemorative icon was created later.
At least 239 men lost their lives in the Darr mine; the period newspaper accounts are gruesome, describing unidentifiable remains and worse. Very Rev. Dr. Edward Pehanich, pastor of the Jacob’s Creek St. Nicholas Church, was quoted by the Pittsburgh area Tribune-Review on the occasion of the 100th year anniversary of the event: “We certainly don’t believe that those who were saved were better than those who died, but for whatever reason, St. Nicholas prayed to save those miners. . . If it wasn’t for the service that day, another 200 men would have lost their lives.”
December 1907 was one of the bloodiest months in U.S. mining history, and over 700 miners died that month throughout the United States. The national total for 1907 was 3200 lives lost in mining accidents. Workplace safety rules followed on the heels of these mining disasters. Even so, forty-fivc years later in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, my own grandfather would die from the coal miner’s ‘black lung’; my father was only 13 years old at the time. It was—and is—a brutal profession.
The Philadelphia Inquirer also reports great drunkenness in the Jacobs Creek area that December 1907 night: “Some of the men . . .got a good start on account of the holiday, continuing their carousal after the explosion in celebration of their escape.” Constables were called in, and the only tavern within two miles was asked to close down throughout the several days duration of the recovery operation.
The folktale steward reconsidered his viewpoint after a painful encounter with hornets. It took 700+ deaths to begin to reform the mining industry. In my younger years, I would postpone filling up the car gas tank and then find myself a week later praying like mad that I’d be able to make it back to a gas station in time. A few times—I hate admitting it—I cut it too closely and unexpectedly rolled to a stop on the side of the road. Then I’d repeat the cycle a few weeks or months later. (It’s a Jersey Girl thing; after over twenty years living in Philadelphia, I still can barely accept the fact that I have to pump my own gas here.)
How many car accidents have I ‘miraculously’ escaped? One day I might be stung by a hornet and another day, spared from death or injury. Feast day or work day, December 6 or December 19 or any day at all, I pledge to celebrate each day as a gift.
Sources and Resources
Afanas’ev, Aleksandr. “The Foolish German.” Russian Fairy Tales. N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 1945, 1973. Print.
“Blames Coroner Juries.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. Vol. 159 n. 75. September 13, 1908. p. 5A.
“Buried in Wrecked Mine 250 Men Are Probably Dead.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. Vol. 157 n. 173. December 20, 1907. p. 1-2.
“Centennial of the Miracle of St. Nicholas, Jacobs Creek.” Holland, MI: St. Nicholas Center. Web. http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/centennial
“Darr Mine Disaster Historical Marker.” n.d. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Web.
“Experts To Probe Mine Disasters.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. Vol. 159 n. 27. July 27, 1908. p. 8.
Reeger, Jennifer. “New Exhibit Remembers 1907 Darr Mine Disaster.” Pittsburgh, PA: Tribune-Review. 2007. Web.
Storey, Jerry. “Orthodox Faithful Endure In the Face of Mine Disaster, Church Fire.” Pittsburgh, PA: Tribune-Review. n.d. Web.