by Eduard Schaepman, on 5 Dec 2019
December is a pleasant month, with a lot of festivities. Tonight, it’s time again for the tradition of our culture: the feast of Saint Nicholas. An evening full of mystery (when will he finally knock on the door...), cheerfulness, and gifts. The good saint is pretty busy in this period of year, so he decided to come to us in Blaricum a little earlier. He visited us with two pete’s last Saturday, and just like last year, Charlie was a bit tensed before they arrived, but when they were finally there, he was super excited.
I think it is a fantastic tradition every year, and with two daughters who now know the deal, and who are quite curious (family trait), I decided to investigate the celebration. Who is Saint Nicolas and where does the tradition come from? I did some research and guess what: Saint Nicolas is a bit nomadic!
We go back to the fourth century AD to Asia Minor (now Turkey), where Bishop Nicholas of Myra performed miracles from an early age. Nicholas was a religious man, known for his goodness and generosity, and there are many stories about his great deeds. He would have saved sailors from shipwrecks, shared his wealth, and stood up for children. One of the best-known stories is that he saved three young sisters from slavery and prostitution, by giving them a dowry so they could get married. And there is our generous holy man and children's friend.
The stories of Nicholas' goodness spread like wildfire, especially when he was declared a saint and renamed Saint Nicholas, the patron of children and sailors. After his death on 6 December he was honored every year on this day, originally only in the east of Europe, but around the thirteenth century the feast came over to the west of Europe. The story of good Saint Nicholas probably picked a little up from other cultures during the 'journey', such as a flying horse (perhaps from the Germanic god Wodan, also called Odin, who flew through the air with a large white beard and a staff on horseback).
From the archives it appears that in 1427 there were already shoes filled with food in Utrecht, which on December 6 could be picked up by the poor at the church. Saint Nicholas day was all about giving and sharing, but where that shoe came from... There were no songs, no sweets and no gifts: that was only introduced in the 20th century. Because in 1850 the booklet 'Saint Nicholas and his knight’ appeared, in which Jan Schenkman, former teacher, wrote down the story of Saint Nicholas and introduced the steamer, his arrival from Spain, his favorite songs, and his faithful comrade (but did not give him the name of 'Pete', which we later gave him ourselves). With the advent of more prosperity and web shops, the sweets are often replaced with toys and other gifts and we have added the surprises and poems.
As you can see: a tradition may have the same basis (we still put the shoe in front of the fireplace, even though we have no idea why), but it is also subject to time. So maybe St. Nicholas will be alone again in a while, or we'll call Pete Jan or Petra, or we’ll find something gender neutral: we make the St. Nicholas party ourselves.