Happy Saint Nicholas Day! Today we visit a country with a strong tradition of celebrating the origin of our Santa Claus, The Netherlands. December 6 is the biggest holiday on the Dutch calendar and is called Sinterklaas.
Who is Saint Nicholas?
While there are no exact records of who Saint Nicholas was, there are many legends. He was likely a bishop from Myra, in modern-day Turkey, in the third century AD. He was possibly from a wealthy family and gave much of his inheritance away to the poor. In the most famous story about him, (other than the one about Rudolph) Saint Nicholas heard of three poor maidens who were not able to marry because they had no money for a dowry. In the night, Nicholas (or in some stories, his assistant) snuck into the home, found the girls’ shoes drying by the fire, and filled each girl’s shoe with a pouch of gold coins, allowing them to marry. This appears to be the origin of why we hang stockings on the fireplace.
The naughty or nice bit may come from another legend. Three little boys, who were not always nice, were poor and begging for food from a pub. Rather than feed the homeless boys, the pub owner chopped them up and cooked them in a stew. Nicholas came to the rescue, fishing out the nicest piece of each boy from the stew and bringing them back to life. He is the patron saint of children because of stories like this.
You may not know that Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors. As he was from the coast, he was likely a sailor himself and was know to have gone on a trip to the Holy Land. While at sea, a storm raged and was about to destroy his ship, but through his prayers the ship was saved.
You may not associate the Netherlands with Santa, but Saint Nicholas Day is heartily celebrated here. The Sinterklaas legend is also a little different here from Santa. There is no story of the North Pole, rather Saint Nick lives in sunny Spain. Seriously! Even today, in mid-November there are festivals in parts of Spain that herald the arrival of Santa as he prepares his trip north to the Netherlands.
The connection is oranges. Oranges were an exotic treat for many in the past, even as recently as my dad’s childhood, Christmas was the only time that Europeans got the gift of a sweet orange. Oranges were primarily grown in Spain in the past, so getting an orange from Santa must mean that he is from Spain, no? This is the story in the Netherlands, and still today kids receive a mandarin orange in their shoes.
As in Austria, there is another character involved in the festival. Saint Nicholas is assisted by “Black Pete” or “Grumpus”, a character sent out to punish the naughty kids and to carry the burlap sack full of gifts for the good. Some versions of this character carry chains for the really bad kids and switches for the mildly bad kids. The assistants are also charged with hiding on the roof near the chimney to try and overhear children, to determine if they have been naughty or nice. Ring any bells? I’ve always wondered why Santa comes down a chimney, kind of makes sense now.
These days, “Black Pete” doesn’t beat children but instead hands out sweets and ginger cookies. The “Black Pete” character seems a bit racist, especially because people in the Netherlands still dress up in black face on December 6 for parades. There has been plenty of controversy over it lately, and justifiably so.
The explanation for this character goes back to the strange twist of Santa’s residence. Since he is supposed to live in Spain, his assistant is a Moor, a North African. If you’ve ever been to Spain, you’ll know that the Spanish were constantly invaded by the Moors and therefore there was a large population in Spain in the past. Having an African assistant would not have been strange 300 years ago.
Have I blown your mind? Maybe Santa does live in Spain. If I were him, I would take that over the North Pole any day.
The celebrations of Saint Nicholas today will involve parades and festivals, and the eating of many sweets. In Dutch homes, kids open the gifts left in their shoes overnight. Kids will get oranges, marzipan and chocolate Santas or chocolate letters. This is traditionally when Christmas presents are exchanged, although many Dutch people do Christmas on the 25th as well and give gifts on the 6th only to kids.
Your Advent Task of the Day
Your assignment for today? Fill in your advent map, color the Netherlands orange, as that is their national color and the color of sunny Spain! In honor of Saint Nicholas, who gave away everything to the poor, I’d suggest that you do something nice for someone else. Buy the person behind you a coffee at Starbucks. Take cookies to a neighbor. Even better, give some food to a local food bank or donate some money to a favorite charity. If you’re not sure where to donate to make an impact on the poorest among us, you can make a donation to my employer’s favorite charity, Bread for the World, www.bread.org. They do an excellent job.
Happy Sinterklaas, may your shoe be filled with sweets!