Yes, there really was a St. Nicholas, who the Dutch know as Sinterklaas. The old saint is unquestionably accepted into the hearts of all Dutch people and has been for centuries, yet one cannot help but wonder about his true origin, importance and place in history.
In actuality the Nicholas' legend is at least 1500 years old and stems from two real bishops, Nicholas of Myra and Nicholas of Pinora, both living and dying between 241 and 546 A.D. in the area of Lycia in Asia Minor. While little is known of Nichoas of Pinora, Nicholas of Myra is known to have been born to wealthy parents in Patara, Lycia about 241. A.D. but was left an orphan at the age of nine during an epidemic sweeping his home city. Following this incident, the Christian church took Nicholas under its protective wing and in return he decided to give most of his family's fortune to the poor. As Nicholas grew into manhood, he became very popular with both the church and its neighboring townspeople. He became a young bishop in the early Christian church of Myra, now called Demre, Turkey and news of his many good deeds and saintly behavior began to spread far and wide. As a result of this, many legends are still preserved today in paintings, books and symbols. Soon after Nicholas' death, which is recorded as December 6th, 342 A.D., the church and townspeople elected him to sainthood. He was buried within a church bearing his name.
Many years after his death or during the 11th century, the Mohammadans invaded Nicholas' hometown of Myra. The local Christians were concerned that the Moors might destroy the church and grave site of Saint Nicholas. To prevent this from happening, local merchants rescued his hallowed remains and shipped them to the seaport of Bari, Italy.
There his remains found their second resting place and the Christians constructed and dedicated a new Cathedral in his honor. This new church became the center of St. Nicholas' fame within the Catholic religion and because of its location, the Nicholas' cult spread into Europe.
The coastal areas of the Netherlands, as well as Belgium, France, Russia and Germany soon heard of St. Nicholas by word of mouth from a few sailors sharing their various legends in every port. It did not take long before churches were being erected in harbor towns everywhere bearing the name of St. Nicholas. By the 12th century, the Netherlands alone has built 23 churches in his name, many of which are still standing today. The city of Rome has no less than sixty within its boundaries, while England boasts an incredible four hundred and Belgium, three hundred. With this type of fame, it is easy to see why many vocations and groups elected St. Nicholas to be their patron. It's only natural that he came the patron of sailors and merchants as they they were responsible for his popularity. Yet he went on to be revered as the protectorate of children, the poor and unmarried women.
History has recorded that convent schools, dating back to the 14th century, held a "bishop" procession through the city streets consisting of schoolboys, one elected to guise himself a St. Nicholas, and collected alms for the church. This traditionally was done on December 6th, proclaiming this day to honor St. Nicholas and his supposed birthday, though history records it to be the date of his death. The schools eventually changed the celebration into a play of sorts with a priest donning the traditional bishop costume consisting of a mitre (hat), crosier (staff) and red cape. He would, of course, reward the good school children with gifts of candy while the bad were given no less than a tongue lashing but more often the swift sting of a birch rod.
The costume of a Catholic bishop is the traditional attire for Sinterklaas.
The hat or mitre is shaped like a pointed eclipse, commonly covered in red brocdse, trimmed with white tunic and gloves under a red cape of similar cloth and design and carries a golden crosier or staff indicative of his bishop status within the Catholic church. His white steed is thought to have originated from the pagan god, Woden, and his white horse, Sleipne, who in pre-Christian times annually rode the skies during the winter solstice.
The most puzzling note of Saint Nicholas' origin is in the still popular belief that his year round residence is in Spain, since the steamboat upon which he annually arrives in the Netherlands is called "Spanje." Yet, oddly enough, this factor is the only connection St. Nichoas has with Spain's history for they do not celebrate his special day
There are many speculations as to how and when Black Peter or "Zwarte Piet" came into being, but today he is as much a part of the Sinterklass tradition as St. Nicholas himself. His coloring is not a racial statement but rather a representation of the devil. Though the possibility exists that Peter might be representing a Moorish servant from the original lifetime of the Bishop, it is much more probable that Black Peter originated from the medieval Christian idea of Satan. Since "black" is often associated with something evil and sinister, he was often referred to as "Black Peter" by the Dutch.
In many European countries and holiday customs, a similar devilish creature frequently plays the role of a prankster such as the Nissen in Denmark or a ghoulish fellow with a long red tongue and big tail called Krampus in Germany. Although Zwarte Piet's beginnings were once likened as to the devil bent under submission by the goodness of St. Nicholas, his demeanor through the years has taken on a more lighthearted air. Actually, his appearance today is an unusual mixture of a traditional black face in a sixteenth century Spanish costume with a set of duties that would tire even the devil himself.
Zwarte Piet begins the busy season by leading St. Nicholas' white steed with the Saint riding on his back down many a parade route welcoming Sinterklaas to the Netherlands. On St. Nicholas Eve, he must then ride across the roof tops with the Saint, listen down every chimney for good children, as well as deliver gifts. He is also expected to herald Sinterklaas arrival at parties that same eve by throwing "pepernoten" or candy to the throngs of children.
Zwarte Piet has also been credited for recording many of the legends and adventures about St. Nicholas for story telling. If nothing else, one would likely call him a "good" sport for performing his many duties with untiring devotion. All in all, he has evolved into quite a necessary assistance to the festivities of the season.
History brings us many a tale from the past adventures of the good Saint Nicholas. Some legends even or-date his role as a bishop in Myra, but one must remember that after 1500 years, the exact details of teach tale can vary slightly from storyteller to storyteller. Some of the most famous ones are retold here to help understand the reasons for Nicholas' elevation to sainthood. Many of these legends have been preserved with the credit given to Zwarte Piet for recording them.
The most popular story is that of the poor peasant man with three daughters. Each of the girls was in love and wanted to be married, but their impoverished father was unable to provide the dowries customary in those days. Each daughter was willing to sacrifice herself into slavery for the others. Nicholas overhead their tearful conversation and prayers one evening and resolved to return with an anonymous gift of gold coins in a purse. Nicholas left a purse of gold at their doorstep and naturally the family was elated. He returned twice more to deliver purses for each of the daughters dowries. He tossed one in an open window and one down the chimney but was discovered by the father on the final delivery. Nicholas begged to remain anonymous and the father respected his wishes.
In another tale, Nicholas is recalled as a protector of children during his time as a bishop. The story tells of a cruel innkeeper and butcher, who for no apparent reason killed three schoolboys and hid the evidence by storing the remains in pickel barrels. Seven years later, Bishop Nicholas entered the butcher's shop and demanded to see the contents of the barrels. Upon opening them, the three schoolboys emerged unharmed and ran to the good bishop's protection.
Of course, there are also legends dealing with sailors and the sea. One closely resembles the Biblical account of Jesus calming the raging sea while on board. This particular story tells how Nicholas enroute to the Holy Land, is asked to intercede with God and nature and saves the ship from certain doom. Another legend describes the adage, "one can never suffer by doing a good deed". During a famine in the town of Myra, the good bishop implored visiting seamen to share their grain cargo. Upon doing so, the sailors discovered that once they had given out the grain, every pound was restored and sailors and merchants would later return the favor and rescue the saint's remains from the invading Moslems in 1087.
There are many more legends that recall the miraculous adventures of St. Nicholas but their details are obscure and basically unimportant when one considers the greater good of their mutual messages and prevalent theme: "it is in giving that we receive"
Traditionally the St. Nicholas season begins in mid-November. The Dutch people everywhere are gearing up for Sinterklass' arrival by preparing for a town parade. One the last Saturday in November, Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet, and the white steed, board the steamship "Spanje" to sail into many harbors where large crowds have gathered. As soon as Sinterklaas descends the gangplank upon his horse led by Piet, the merriment heightens among cheering crowd and the parade begins. The triumphant march through the streets spreads a contagious air of excitement.
The parade in Amsterdam, for example boasts an extensive procession consisting of many brass bands, beautiful floats, a motorcade of local officials, and of course, a marching mass of school children. This particular parade, concludes in Amsterdam's city square where the Queen and her children await Sinterklaas' arrival. The two famous figures greet one another and presents are distributed to the Royal family.
With the welcoming of St. Nicholas to Dutch cities everywhere, come the anticipation and bustling behavior that is typical of Dutch people between the first and fifth of December. It is not unusual to see daily tasks set aside in favor of the arduous preparation it requires to compose clever poems. These lighthearted rhymes are concocted to accompany the "surprises" young and old alike will receive on St. Nicholas Eve given to them from anonymous friends and family members. Within the verses of these poem, the author traditionally includes hints of the recipients' shortcoming, but it is always written in jest and signed by Sinterklass.
The "surprises" are just what the word implies, a cleverly camouflaged small gift hidden or wrapped not in pretty paper but rather in anything from potato skins to old sock. Even at that, the recipient might have to set out on a "treasure hunt" to locate the hiding place of nothing less than a sack of potatoes. The mystery of it all make it just that much more enjoyable.
When the eve of St. Nicholasfinally arrives everyone is in a festive mood for giving and receiving. Traditionally, this is the evening that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet ride across the rooftops of Holland on his horse and listen down every chimney for good children. Zwarte Piet is then sent down the chimney or to the doorstep of every home to deliver small gifts and candies to those deserving of them. In anticipation of Piet's delivery, Dutch children place carrots and oats in their shoes by the fireplace or in buckets by the door for Sinterklaas' horse. Later that evening or the following morning, the children find candies and surprises in exchange for the oats. The gifts are opened slowly one by one as each recipient reads aloud the verse attached to their surprises. During this flurry of excitement and laughter, a dinner is served a decorative table with guests finding their initials in candy next to their place setting. Traditionally candies and cookies form the centerpiece of speculaas, borstplaat and kerstkrans.
The actual celebrations and customs today may differ slightly from family to family and different geographic locations, but the theme of giving remains the same.
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