Last Updated: 8 February 2023

La légende de saint Nicolas (also known as Il était trois petits enfants or Complainte de saint Nicolas) is a traditional French song with lyrics dating from the 18th century.

The story of the song

La légende de saint Nicolas was collected by Gérard de Nerval in the province of Valois in 1842.

This legend tells us how the good Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myre, resuscitated three innocent little victims of a greedy butcher and how he became the patron saint of children.

The first traces of the legend of the three innocents in the salt cellar date back to the 12th century.

La Légend de Saint-Nicolas © French Moments

Saint-Nicolas artefacts © French Moments

To better understand the context

The song mentions two important facts that help us to understand the context.

The children are gleaning in the field. Gleaning (glaner, in French) means picking up the heads of wheat that have been forgotten by those who have harvested. This was what very poor people did to be able to eat. It was because the three children were very poor that they gleaned. 

The salt cellar or salting tub is a kind of fridge of the past. Meat was stored there and salted a lot to prevent it from rotting and to eat it later.

La légende de Saint-Nicolas in Nancy © French Moments

Saint-Nicolas in Nancy © French Moments

Who was Saint Nicolas?

Saint Nicolas is the Patron Saint of Lorraine and is celebrated on the 6th of December in north-eastern France and the Flanders.

Learn more about Saint Nicolas on the blog!

Christmas in Kaysersberg © French Moments

Saint-Nicolas © French Moments

La légende de Saint-Nicolas

Lyrics, music, free download... let's learn more about the popular song:

The lyrics in French

The original song of La légende de Saint-Nicolas has 8 verses and a chorus.

Refrain

Ils étaient trois petits enfants 
Qui s’en allaient glaner aux champs


Couplet 1

Ils sont allés chez le boucher
Boucher, voudrais-tu nous loger ?
Entrez, entrez, petits enfants
Y’a de la place, assurément


Couplet 2

Ils n’étaient pas sitôt entrés

Que le boucher les a tués,

Les a coupés en p’tits morceaux

Mis au saloir comme pourceaux.


Couplet 3

Saint Nicolas au bout d’sept ans

Vint à passer dedans ce champ,

Alla frapper chez le boucher :

Boucher, voudrais-tu me loger ?


Couplet 4

Entrez, entrez, saint Nicolas,

Y’a de la place, il n’en manque pas.

Il n’était pas sitôt entré
Qu’il a demandé à souper.


Couplet 5

Voulez-vous un morceau de jambon ?

Je n’en veux pas, il n’est pas bon.

Voulez-vous un morceau de veau ?

Je n’en veux pas, il n’est pas beau.


Couplet 6

Du p’tit salé, je veux avoir

Qu’il y a sept ans qu’est dans l’saloir.

Quand le boucher entendit ça,

Hors de la porte il s’enfuya.


Couplet 7

Boucher, boucher ne t’enfuis pas,

Repens-toi, Dieu te pardonnera.

Et le saint étendit trois doigts :
Les p’tits se lèvent tous les trois.


Couplet 8

Le premier dit : “J’ai bien dormi”.
Le second dit : “Et moi aussi”.
Et le troisième répondit :
“Je croyais être au paradis”.

Translation of the lyrics into English

Here is an approximative translation into English:

Chorus

They were three little children
Who were going to glean in the fields


Verse 1

They went to the butcher
Butcher, would you like to give us shelter?
Come in, come in, little children
There's room for you, of course


Verse 2

They had not yet entered
When the butcher killed them,
Cut them into little pieces
Put them in the salting tub as pigs.


Verse 3

Saint Nicholas after seven years
Came to pass in this field,
Went to knock at the butcher's:
Butcher, would you like to lodge me?


Verse 4

Come in, come in, Saint Nicholas,
There's plenty of room.
He had not been in a moment
That he asked for supper.


Verse 5

Would you like a piece of ham?
I don't want it, it's not good.
Would you like a piece of veal?
I don't want it, it's not fine.


Verse 6

I want to have some dried meat
That's been in the salting tub for seven years.
When the butcher heard this
He ran out of the door.


Verse 7

Butcher, butcher, don't run away,
Repent, God will forgive you.
And the Saint stretched out three fingers:
The three of them stand up.


Verse 8

The first one said: "I slept well".
The second said: "And so did I".
And the third said:
"I thought I was in heaven.

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La légende de saint Nicolas © French Moments

French Nursery Rhymes

My challenge for the year 2023 is to publish 80 French Nursery Rhymes lyrics and descriptions (list below). Come back as time goes by to discover the new articles:

About the author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of Discovery Courses and books about France.

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