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Soul FriendsBack to Soul Friends

Advent Thoughts: Sinterklaas Komt! (Saint Nicholas is Coming!)

Posted by Billy Pilgrim on December 19, 2011, 10:56 am


By the time of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Saint Nicholas was well established as the great December gift-giver across a broad swath of Europe: from Holland and Belgium, across the flat north of Germany, and down into Austria and Central Europe. Across the continent, he was recognized as a tall, dignified, and white-bearded gentleman, dressed in the traditional red vestments of a Roman Catholic bishop, complete with miter and crosier.

Through the bleak, dark days of early winter, children looked forward, with excitement and a certain amount of anxiety, to a visit from Saint Nicholas on the eve of his December 6 feast day. The established custom was for children to leave their shoes by the fireside or on the doorstep, sometimes filled with a treat for Saint Nicholas’s horse, before they went to bed. In the morning, good children would find their shoes filled with nuts and fruit and little gifts from the Saint. Badly behaved children may have been threatened that Saint Nicholas would only leave them a pile of ashes or a bundle of switches for future spankings.

In some places, it was the Saint himself who visited homes on the evening of the fifth of December. A loud knock on the farmhouse door announced his arrival. Then, dressed as Bishop Nicholas, the parish priest or a village elder would be invited in with a respectful welcome. He was almost always accompanied by one or several companions in dark, raggedy clothes. These mysterious figures went by various names—Pelznickel, Belznickel, and Aschenclaus (Ashy Nicholas) among others—usually variations of the Saint’s own name. They were the kindly Saint’s alter egos. While Saint Nicholas spoke gently to the children, quizzing them on their behavior during the previous year, their lessons and their catechism, his companions stood mute in the firelight, often in demonic masks, holding whips and jingling bells. While Saint Nicholas might distribute candy and gifts from the bag he carried with him, his companions were there to remind children that bad behavior would have serious consequences. The sack full of toys and goodies we associate with Santa Claus was once as much of a threat as a delight for children. Bad kids could get taken away from home in that sack, to a place of eternal punishment. But then, as now, I suspect Santa’s role as a disciplinarian was more bark than bite!

Nowhere in old Europe was Saint Nicholas more revered than in Holland, as both patron of sailors in this country of traders and seafarers, and patron of children. Yet in few places was the Protestant Reformation more complete and radical than in the Netherlands. The power of Saint Nicholas’s appeal and the celebrations associated with Saint Nicholas Day (Sinterklaas Dag) almost miraculously transcended this major shift in religious culture. In a country that had essentially abolished both bishops and “saints,” in the old Catholic sense, the traditional figure of kindly old Saint Nicholas remained virtually unchanged for centuries.

The Netherlands today is one of the most “post-Christian” and secular societies in the world. But Saint Nicholas still arrives by ship in dozens of Dutch cities and towns every November with great fanfare. Accompanied by his now somewhat-controversial and very politically incorrect servant Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), often dozens of them, he kicks off a holiday season that is deeply loved by the Dutch. Just about every child in the Netherlands expects a visit from the “real” Saint Nicholas, and on the evening of December 5, in the cold and drizzle that the Dutch call “Saint Nicholas weather,” the streets are filled with family friends and favorite uncles dressed as Bishop Nicholas visiting homes with gifts and goodies. With that old knock at the door, Nicholas and Piet are welcomed into the warmth and comfort of the family home on a cold winter night. With a drink and a “cookie” (an old Dutch word), Saint Nicholas visits with the children, laughs and jokes with the grownups, and spreads good cheer. The children of Holland go to bed confident that Saint Nicholas, riding his flying white horse from rooftop to rooftop, will be coming down the chimney that night and filling their shoes with gifts.

This Dutch Sinterklaas was very much the one came to New Amsterdam (modern-day New York) by way of the colonists in the 17th century. It is thanks to them that Santa Claus has become an American tradition as well. While some Christians may lament that both Americans and the Dutch--and much of our modern world--may have seemed to lose the Christ child and kept the “secular” symbol of Christmas giving, we should not forget that Saint Nicholas was a sincere follower of Christ. His persona continues to point the way toward the truest meaning of Christmas.
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