St. Nicholas: The Story of Santa Clause
By: Anise Hollingshead
Strictly speaking, the tradition of St. Nicholas is not synonomous with the role of Santa Claus in the U.S.. As practiced in many European countries, the celebration of St. Nicholas is separate from the Christmas holidays, and occurs during the 2 weeks prior to December 6th, which is St. Nicholas's day. Sometimes St. Nicholas Day is the main holiday for gift giving, and not Christmas.
In the Netherlands, legend has it that Sinterklaas (Dutch name for St. Nicholas) arrives in the Netherlands by way of steamboat from Spain 2 weeks before his traditional birthday, December 6th, along with his helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), who will help disperse the gifts and candy to all the good children. Sinterklaas, along with the zwarte piets, will go abroad at night and stride about the countryside wearing his red mantle, his mitre, and his golden crosier and sporting a long, white beard. Referring to his book that lists all the good and bad children, Sinterklaas will deliver presents to all the good children, but watch out if you've been bad! The bad children may be taken back to Spain with him. The Low Countries (Belgium and Luxemburg) have basically the same traditions surrounding St. Nicholas, but not to the extent of the Netherlands. Children in Luxemburg call him Kleeschen, and his helper is Hoseker (Black Peter). Belgian children know him as Sint Niklaas.
In Germany, St. Nicholas is also known as Klaasbuur, Sunnercla, Burklaas, Bullerklaas, and Rauklas, and in eastern Germany, he is also known as Shaggy Goat, Ash Man and Rider and is more reflective of earlier pagan influences (Norse) that were blended in with the figure of St. Nicholas, when Christianity came to Germany. After the reformation, St. Nicholas's attire began to change, maybe as a reflection of the change from the Roman church, and he started to wear a red suit with fur. His dark-skinned helper is most often known as Knecht Ruprecht. Although he still visits many homes on Dec 5th/6th and leaves candy and gifts in the children's shoes, more recently St. Nicholas has begun showing up on Christmas Eve in Germany and is called Father Christmas.
In France, he is now called Pere Noel (Father Christmas) and he travels in the company of Pere Fouettard. Pere Noel leaves presents for good children, while Pere Fouettard disciplines bad children with a spanking. Pere Noel only sometimes leaves presents on St. Nicholas day, more often now on Christmas. St. Nicholas day was celebrated formerly in Russia, but under Communism he was changed to Grandfather Frost and wore blue instead of red. In Sicily, he comes on Dec 13th and is called Santa Lucia.
St. Nicholas was born in 271 AD and died around December 6, 342 or 343 AD near the Asia Minor (Turkey) town of Myra,. where he later became Bishop. He performed many good deeds and was a friend to the poor and helpless, and upon his death, myths soon sprang up about him all around the Mediterranean Sea. He was reputed to be able to calm the raging seas, rescue desperate sailors, help the poor and downtrodden, and save children. He was soon named as the patron saint of sailors, and when Myra was overthrown, his bones were transported by sailors to Bari, a port in Italy, where a tomb was built over the grave and became the center of honor for St. Nicholas. From here the legend spread on around to the Atlantic Coast of Europe and the North Sea to become a European holiday tradition regardless of religion.
The Holiday Today
In anticipation of St. Nicholas's nightly visits, children in several European countries put their shoes in front of the fire place. They sing traditional songs and provide a carrot or hay for the horse. At night Black Pete puts gifts and candy in the shoes.
In the Netherlands, families celebrate St Nicholas's birthday the night before his feast day (December 6th). At one point during the evening, a loud knock will herald the arrival of Sinterklaas and at the same time candy may be thrown from upstairs; when the door is opened, a bag of gifts will be on the doorstep.
For families with older children and adults, different twists are added to the gift giving and may include gag gifts or the drawing of gift ideas or names, and most times are accompanied by poems with a "personal touch" that poke fun at the recipient in a gentle way (or not, depending on the families ;) ). Wrapping the presents up in odd packages and planting a trail of clues is also part of the general fun, and can sometimes be pretty tricky to get to, depending on the squeamishness of the recipients.