St Nick’s makeover

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The Dutch connection

One thousand years after Nicholas lived, he had famously become patron saint of children – and was soon to become something like patron saint of Christmas, too. Here’s how it happened…

 Early 20th century, with bishop’s hat

If we fast-forward approx. 1,000 years, St Nick had become one of the most popular saints in the world, with the celeb status of St Francis and St Christopher.

Pictures were painted of St Nick, churches and babies were named after him, and the legends of his life were famous.

Nicholas had also become the patron saint of many things: children, travellers, brewers, bakers, pawnbrokers, Russia, Greece… and seafarers. That last item is important for our story, because it explains why St Nick was so popular in the Low Countries (Holland and Belgium), where people lived so close to the sea and earned their living from it.

Even though Nicholas was the patron saint of so many things, the church decided there was one more job he could usefully do. The people of northern Europe, who still believed in elves, fairies and goblins, also believed that one of the pagan gods came by night in the dead of winter to deliver them presents. The church decided that rather than abolish this superstition, St Nick could take it on.

It was in Holland that St Nick picked up the name Sinterklaas, and his feast day (December 6th) became a day when small children were given presents of gingerbread or small toys. The children left hay, carrots or turnips in their shoes for Sinterklaas’s horse, and the next morning they would find their shoes empty, and little presents left in their place.

Sinterklaas was said to give good children rewards and bad children punishments. The line, “He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice,” from the song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” goes back a long, long way.

In those days, though, Sinterklaas was said to travel from Spain, rather than from the North Pole. Dutch children still welcome his arrival on a steamboat from Spain in mid-November, in time for his feast day on December 6th.

When the Protestant Reformation came to Europe in the 16th century, the celebration of St Nick, along with all the other saints, was banned in many Protestant countries. But by then, he had grown so popular that most people simply moved his celebration forward three weeks, so that he brought his gifts on Christmas Eve, rather than December 6th.

Next: Destination New York.

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About this module

Santa Claus, who appears all over the place at towards the end of the year, raises so many questions. Who is he? Where on earth did he come from? Why the red suit?

In this special rejesus investigation, we look at the saint behind it all, St Nick.

Written by Simon Jenkins

Categories: Lives, Biographical, Poetry, Seasonal,


Module contents

arrow Introduction

arrow Turkish delight

arrow The Dutch connection

arrow Destination New York

arrow A visit from St Nicholas

arrow What do Christians think of Santa

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