Published: 18-03-2010, 05:18

St. Nicholas’s Day

During the Middle Ages ST. NICHOLAS was one of the most venerated saints in western EUROPE. Although his popularity has since declined, his feast day, December 6, is still celebrated in the Netherlands and other European countries. Immigrants brought the legends and customs surrounding St. Nicholas with them to the United States. There the saint was transformed into the American CHRISTMAS SEASON gift bringer called SANTA CLAUS.

In Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and parts of GERMANY, folk tradition cast St. Nicholas in the role of a Christmas season gift bringer. Folk representations of St. Nicholas usually portray him as an elderly white-bearded man who carries a bishop’s staff and dresses in a red bishop’s robe and miter. This kindly saint distributes presents to others in honor of his feast day. On the night of December 5 he brings fruit, nuts, cookies, candy, and other small GIFTS to well-behaved children. Those who have misbehaved too often during the year might receive a stick, warning them of punishment to come.
Children expecting presents on St. Nicholas’s Eve helpfully provide small receptacles in which the saint may deposit his gifts. In the Netherlands children leave their SHOES by the fireplace. In Czechoslovakia children attract the saint’s attention with STOCKINGS hanging on the window frame. In Austria Nicholas knows to look for children’s shoes on the windowsill. Perhaps inspired by legends of pagan spirits descending into homes via the smoke from the hearth, St. Nicholas often enters homes through the chimney.

The powerful saint does not have to carry out his gift-giving activities alone. According to some folk traditions, he can compel a minor demon to aid him in his mission. In Czechoslovakia this devil is known as a CERT. In parts of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland a shaggy demon called Klaubauf, or Krampus, serves St. Nicholas. He frightens children with his blackened face, scarlet eyes, horns, and clanking chains. Incidentally, the name “Klaubauf” is a contraction of the German phrase Klaub auf!, which means “pick ‘em up.” This is an especially appropriate name since St. Nicholas and his helper often toss their goodies on the floor. In other parts of Germany a rough fellow named Knecht Ruprecht or “Knight Ruprecht,” sometime aids the saint. In the Netherlands a menacing character called BLACK PETER tags along behind Nicholas. These sinister figures often carry a heavy sack of gifts, the book in which the saint has recorded the children’s behavior, and a stick with which to smack misbehavers.

As early as the tenth century, St. Nicholas’s Day was observed with liturgical dramas retelling the story of the saint. By the twelfth century these dramas had evolved into “St. Nicholas Plays,” which were usually produced by choirboys in honor of the saint’s feast day (see also NATIVITY PLAYS). These plays retold some of the most widely known legends concerning St. Nicholas and were quite popular during the late Middle Ages, when the cult of St. Nicholas reached its zenith in western Europe. They present us with some of the earliest surviving European plays that take as their subject matter something other than Christian scripture.
Some researchers think that the custom of giving gifts to children on St. Nicholas’s Day started in the twelfth century. At that time nuns from central FRANCE started to leave gifts on the doorsteps of poor families with children on St. Nicholas’s Eve. These packages contained nuts and oranges and other good things to eat. Some researchers believe that ordinary people adopted the custom, spreading it from France to other parts of northern Europe. Other writers suppose that the folklore surrounding St. Martin may have inspired the traditions that turned St. Nicholas into a gift giver. In past centuries St. Martin, another bishop-saint, was said to ride through the countryside delivering treats to children on the eve of his feast day (see MARTINMAS). In the Netherlands Nicholas’s helper Black Peter wears sixteenth-century clothing, which may indicate that St. Nicholas was bringing gifts to Dutch children at least as far back as that era.
Western Europeans honored Nicholas as the patron saint of chil-dren. Some of the customs associated with his feast day gave children the opportunity to reign over adults. For example, in medieval times the festivities surrounding the BOY BISHOP often began on St. Nicholas’s Day. The boy bishop, a boy who assumed the rank of bishop for a short while, was one of the mock rulers who presided over Christmas season merrymaking in the Middle Ages (see also KING OF THE BEAN; LORD OF MISRULE). In the sixteenth century, schoolboys in the British Isles hit upon the idea of BARRING OUT THE SCHOOLMASTER in order to gain a few days’ vacation. This custom, which continued for several centuries, was often practiced on St. Nicholas’s Day.
An early seventeenth-century document records a German Protestant minister’s displeasure with the myth that St. Nicholas brings gifts for children. His sentiments echoed the concerns of many Protestant leaders of that era who wished to do away with the veneration of saints. In the centuries that followed, the CHRISTKINDEL, or “Christ Child,” became the Christmas season gift bringer in most of Germany. This change indicates that Protestant leaders had achieved some success in their campaign against the saint.

The Netherlands hosts Europe’s most extensive St. Nicholas Day celebrations. They begin with the official arrival of St. Nicholas in the Netherlands, weeks before his feast day. Each year the arrival of St. Nicholas and Black Peter from their home in far-off SPAIN is reen-acted in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands. A great crowd gathers to witness the arrival of the ship bearing the saint and his helper. A white horse, St. Nicholas’s traditional mode of transport, stands ready to serve the saint. As the gift bringers descend from the ship, the crowd easily identifies Nicholas by his red bishop’s robe, miter, crook, and long white beard. After greeting the mayor, the saint and his helper lead a parade to Amsterdam’s central plaza. There the royal family officially welcomes Holland’s Christmas season gift bringers. This event is broadcast on Dutch television.
In the weeks that follow, STORE WINDOWS display treats and gifts appropriate for St. Nicholas’s Day. Meanwhile, children dream of the evening when they will put their shoes by the hearth to receive gifts from the kindly saint. Dutch folklore asserts that Nicholas and Black Peter, mounted on the saint’s magical white horse, fly across Holland on St. Nicholas’s Eve distributing gifts to children. Black Peter does the dirty work of slipping down the chimneys to deposit the children’s gifts. He also collects the carrots, hay, and sugar that thoughtful children have left there for St. Nicholas’s horse. If the two should find any children who misbehave frequently, they leave a rod or switch, warning of punishment to come.
Families begin celebrating St. Nicholas’s Day on the evening of December 5 when they enjoy a special meal together. A traditional St. Nicholas’s Day dinner features roast chicken or duck. In addition, many special sweets are served at this meal. Some cooks mark each person’s place at the table with letterbankets, large, marzipan-filled pastries shaped like letters of the alphabet. Other St. Nicholas’s Day treats include speculaas, spicy butter cookies, oliebollen, doughnuts with raisins in them, and taai-taai, honey cookies.
It is not unusual for St. Nicholas and his helper, Black Peter, to visit these parties. Sometimes they just open the door, throw candies into the room, and dash away (see also JULKLAPP). Other times they enter and deliver these treats to the children in person, along with advice and admonitions concerning future behavior. Adults know that friends or family members are impersonating these figures, but children are often astonished by the pair’s detailed knowledge of their good and bad deeds during the past year.
Family members also exchange presents with one another at this time. In fact, St. Nicholas’s Eve, Sinterklaas-Avond in Dutch, is sometimes called Pakjes-Avond, or “Parcel Evening.” Attention falls less on the simple gifts themselves, however, than on the tricky way in which they are delivered and the rhyming verses that accompany them. Sometimes the package only contains a clue as to where the real gift is hidden. Other times small gifts are wrapped in a succession of much larger boxes. The Dutch take great care in composing humorous lines of verse to accompany these gifts. Everyone looks forward to hearing these short poems read out loud. Those who can’t come up with something clever can hire one of the professional verse writers who ply their trade at department stores around St. Nicholas’s Day. Indeed, rhyming verses can be found throughout Dutch society at this time of year. Visitors to the Dutch parliament may be surprised to find the nation’s politicians occasionally delivering a short rhyming speech in honor of the holiday.

St. Nicholas’s Day festivities in ITALY emphasize the saint’s role as the patron of seafarers. In Italy St. Nicholas Day is observed on May 7 and May 8, dates that commemorate the arrival of the saint’s relics from their original tomb in Myra (now Demre), Turkey. The town of Bari, where the saint’s remains now rest, hosts a large celebration. Worshipers flock to the saint’s tomb in the Church of San Nicola. A procession escorts a statue of the saint from his tomb down to the harbor. Followers place the image on the deck of a flower-strewn boat which is escorted out to sea by hundreds of small vessels carrying fishermen and pilgrims. After the day’s festivities worshipers escort the image back to the Church of San Nicola.