Jacqueline Oud - Culture

Saint Nicolas - the celebration and its origines

In the calendar of the Saints, Sinterklaas - or Saint Nicolas, is being celebrated on the evening of the 5th or during the day of the 6th. This celebration can be compared with the Santa Claus at Christmas time, but is only celebrated in the Netherlands, part of Belgium, Germany and the French region Alsace.

From far away origins to today’s celebration

Knowing its origins is not that easy, but is said that this Saint came from Turkey - Myra - to Spain and was used to impress the children to keep the good and brave. The Saint, influenced by European culture was a white person whereas his «servants» where Moors. Children are being told that if there not good during the year, they will be taken by the Moors and taken back to Spain, where Saint Nicolas lives during the year. This creates as from a young age a fear of the Moors, called in Dutch «Zwarte Piet» ( +/- Black Peter / Père Fouettard).

The celebration of Sinterklaas has taken its own life and the origins of this Saint seem to have lost its importance. Hardly any child would wonder about the history. What counts are his fears and the presents he might get.

The threat of Santa Claus to Saint Nicolas

In the Netherlands many songs, traditions and special candy goes with Saint Nicolas. Though «Sinterklaas» is rooted in the Dutch recent history, with the upcoming of Christmas as a moment of gifts rather than family-gatherings, Sinterklaas is getting a hard time. Since years, we can notice a "competition" between Sinterklaas and Christmas resulting in a decrease of the importance of Sinterklaas. Lets have a closer look to the past and see where this competition comes from and how they are linked.

The origins of Saint Nicolas from Myra

Saint Nicolas seems historically have been a bishop in Myra, at the coast of Anatolia. Besides his miracles he has gained his notoriety as the saviour of various children. Soon he becomes soon the protector for children and is known from East to West. Though he has lived around the 3rd or 4th century, his worships continues centuries afterwards, always highlighting his aspect of protector of Children. The Slavs become Christians around the 10th century and influence the Northern countries with their worship of Saint Nicolas.

In the Middle Ages, Saint Nicolas has integrated Northern Europe - namely the Netherlands and Germany - and the children wait on the 6th December for their presents. Already at this moment, the children will be punished by the servant of Saint Nicolas if they have not been good. In the 16th century, the Protestant Reform no longer allows this celebration, but nevertheless the Dutch continue.

The birth of Santa Claus

When emigration of the Dutch to the United States starts, they took Saint Nicolas with them and turn him locally into Santa Claus. Saint Nicolas and Santa Claus started from this moment to live their own life. In the United States, in the beginning of the 19th century, Santa Claus gives his presents when riding though the air and coming in from the chimney. Saint Nicolas in Europe continues to come via the door without being seen and rides on the roofs with his horse.

The physical transformation of Santa Claus seems to be the credited to Coca Cola and his marketing staff in 1931. He made Santa Claus more «fun and more human». The colours of Coca Cola - red and white - fit Santa Claus perfectly and have in the United States a good success. They start exporting Santa also to Europe where he no longer represented the same person as Saint Nicolas, he being remained more serious and more Saint-like.

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A Coca Cola ad with Santa Claus from 1939

Santa Claus does not have immediate successes in Europe. It takes quite some time before he gains the confidence. Today however, in many parts of Europe, Santa Claus has been fully accepted but the competition in the North of Europe between Saint Nicolas and Santa Claus is very alive and fierce. The dates are too close and celebrating both in the same way costs a lot. The popularity of the American way of Live is strong and may turn out to have Saint Nicolas disappeared one day. The children will not agree, but it means in a way that the clones have taken over the original.

For visitors understanding Dutch, read also the article on how to make the famous Pepernoten yourself

Thanks to the article on Saint Nicolas and the origins written by Michel Braudeau, as published in the Journal Le Monde on July 30th 2004.

[29 November 2004]

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