Colette is a French female name; essentially a double-diminutive of Nicole by way of Nicolette. Nicole is, of course, the feminine form of Nicholas, which is the French and English form of Nikolaos, from the Greek Νικολαος, meaning, quite literally, “people of victory,” composed of the Greek elements nike “victory” and laos “people.”
The survival of this name is owed almost entirely to St. Nicholas, a 4th century Bishop of Myra (present day Turkey). St. Nicholas is remembered by history for his religious zeal and extraordinary kindness. Although little is factually known, as with many early saints, Nicholas’s legends spread and he became one of the most beloved saints ever. His piety was exemplified, for instance, in the story of a poor man who, without dowry for his three daughters, was preparing to give them over to prostitution. On three different occasions, each while disguised by the darkness of night, St. Nicholas threw a bag of gold through a window into the man’s house (three bags of gold for each of the three daughter’s necessary dowries so they could be married and saved from prostitution). St. Nicholas’s cult arguably had the largest following of any other saint among both Eastern and Western European Christians in medieval times; it is said artists were inspired by his image second only to the Blessed Mother. In the East, Nicholas was invoked by sailors for safe travels (“May St. Nicholas hold the tiller!”). In the West, St. Nicholas was believed to watch over children (stemming from a legend that he resurrected three small children from the dead after they were killed for food during a famine). St. Nicholas was also the inspiration behind the Dutch figure of “Sinterklaas,” a magician-like character who left gifts for children around St. Nicholas’s Feast Day (December 6), in honor of the saint’s reputation for secret gift-giving and for his patronage of children. The early Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (America) brought this concept to the New World colonies. The relics of St. Nicholas are housed at Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy, a place of pilgrimage for centuries. Obviously it’s clear that St. Nicholas was/is one of the most beloved and venerated saints ever. It is for this reason that the name persisted in usage for over 1,700 years!
Several ethno-linguistic and gender variations of Nicholas emerged over time. Both the English and the French used Nicola, Nicole, Nicolette and Colette – though Colette was first considered a pet form. The name was borne by Saint Colette (b. Nicole), a 15th century French nun who gave her money to the poor and founded a reformed branch of the Poor Clares. Though Colette has been in use in the English speaking world since the 12th century, it enjoyed a revival in the 20th century thanks to the fame of the flamboyant novelist and actress known simply as Colette (1873-1954).