Today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas who was made Bishop of Myra, then in Greece, now in Turkey, in 317 AD. Since then he’s had a few name changes and a bit of a makeover. From being ‘Saint Nikolaos’, he became, in the Netherlands, ‘Sinterklaas’ and from there ‘Santa Claus’.
The most famous story connected to his life is about a time he helped out a poor man with three daughters. The man didn’t have enough money to provide a dowry for them and they risked remaining unmarried. That might not sound so bad, but in those days it meant either you became a prostitute, or everyone just thought you were one. Nicholas didn’t want to embarrass the man by helping him publicly, so on each night before one of his daughters came of age, he sneaked up to the house at night and threw a purse of gold, or in some stories, a golden ball, through their open window. There is a version in which, on the last night, the father tried to catch him, but Nicholas climbed on the roof and threw his gift down the chimney instead. Here, it landed in a stocking that was drying by the fire. Saint Nicholas is, among other things, the patron saint of pawnbrokers and they took his three golden balls as their symbol.
In another tale, there was a terrible famine in Myra. An evil butcher lured three children into his home, killed them, chopped them up and put their bodies in a barrel with some salt. He intended to sell their remains as ham. But luckily, Saint Nicholas found out about it and brought the children back to life and they were returned to their homes. This is how he gained his reputation as a protector of children. In France, the story goes that the evil butcher had to follow the saint in penance and he became Père Fouettard who doles out lumps of coal or beatings to children who have been naughty. In Germany, his servant is called Knecht Rupecht, a figure clad in brown or black who will check that children know how to say their prayers. If not, he will beat them or shake a bag of ashes at them. In Austria, of course, they have Krampus.
In the Netherlands, unlike our North Pole dwelling, sleigh-driving Father Christmas, Sinterklaas arrives in mid-November, on a steamboat, from Spain. He rides a grey horse over the roof tops and drops presents down the chimneys of good children, for them to find on his feast day. Some think Sinterklaas may have pre-Christian origins in the god Odin, who also rode through the sky on a grey horse. But Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, had eight legs. Odin also gave us the gift of runes and had a couple of ravens who flew out into the world, sat on roofs listening at chimneys and returned to tell him what was going on.
This brings us to Sinterklaas’s servant, or servants, Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) who listens at chimneys to find out if children have been good or bad. The Zwarte Pieten sport colourful seventeenth century costumes, complete with lace collar and, controversially, blacked faces. They carry a sack with candy for the good children and a birch rod for the naughty ones. If you’ve been really bad, they might put you in the sack and take you back to Spain. I first heard about this story from David Sedaris in his story ‘Six to Eight Black Men‘.
In medieval times the feast of Saint Nicholas became, not just an occasion for giving gifts to children, but also an opportunity to help those less fortunate by, like the saint himself, leaving gifts of money for the poor. Nuns would place baskets containing food and clothes on the doorsteps of those in need. Saint Nicholas’s three golden balls turn up again too, in the form of oranges, a traditional Christmas gift which, as they would have come from Spain, might explain the belief in his Spanish origins. Or it might be because most of his remains were removed to Bari in 1087. While Bari is clearly in Southern Italy, it was once a part of Spain. Europe is a strange and ever-changing place. When the bones of Saint Nicholas were at Myra, they exuded a clear liquid which smelled like rosewater and is referred to as myrrh or mannah. When they were removed to Bari they fortunately continued to ooze the healing liquid. A flask of manna is still taken every year from the bones of the saint. In 2005, forensic scientists were able to measure the bones of Saint Nicholas and make a reconstruction. He was revealed to be around five feet high with a broken nose.