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Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, Santa Claus

Saint Nicholas, on a stone from the Archaeological Museum of Bodrum (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering.
Representation of Saint Nicholas, on a stone from the Archaeological Museum of Bodrum
Nicholas of Myra: early Christian bishop, who was in the Middle Ages venerated as patron of sailors and protector of blessed marriages (Saint Nicholas). As Sinterklaas, he remains a characteristic figure in Dutch folklore. He is also the historical figure behind Santa Claus.

<< Part 1
Myra 343
Bari 1087
Amsterdam 1578
New York 1776

Bari 1087

All that we know for certain about Saint Nicholas' earthly existence is that he was bishop of Myra and died on the sixth of December in an unknown year in the fourth century. It is plausible that he once helped poor girls and attended the Council of Nicaea, but beyond this point, we are entering the realm of speculation. 

In the Middle Ages, new legends were added. Some sound historically plausible and may even be true, like the story that the good saint had survived the Diocletianic persecution. Because this legend is found in late sources, it is not accepted as a historical fact.

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Relic holder with remains of Saint Nicholas. Cathedral of Worms. Photo Jona Lendering.
Relic holder with remains of Saint Nicholas (Cathedral of Worms)

Other legends are just the normal hagiographic additions and are without any historical value. The most famous example is the story about the three boys: the bishop of Myra had learned about an inn where the cook killed children and offered their meat to his guests. Nicholas discovered a tub with the pickled bodies of three boys and, fortunately, one episcopal blessing was sufficient to restore them to life. It has been argued that this story is derived from a misunderstood picture of the story of the three purses, which were mistaken for the heads of children.

Sint-Nicolaas komt zeelieden in een storm te hulp. Schildering van Bicci di Lorenzo.
Nicholas saves the sailors
(Bicci di Lorenzo)

However, the main development of the cult of the saint was that he became the patron of navigation. This comes as no surprise. The pagan patrons of the sailors, the Divine Twins, had for centuries been venerated in Myra. Nicholas overtook some of their temples and those of similar deities. For example in Rome, an old church of Nicholas stood at a stone's thrown from a shrine of the Lares Permarini on the square that is now known as Largo Argentina. Other churches were newly founded, like the one erected for Nicholas in Constantinople by the emperor Justinian (527-565). The date of its inauguration was celebrated every year.

Saint Nicholas, Notre Dame, Paris (France). Photo Jona Lendering.
Saint Nicholas, Notre Dame, Paris

Soon, Nicholas was the most-represented saint on Byzantine seals. After all, the Byzantine empire was largely situated around the eastern Mediterranean, and the protection of navigation was of supreme importance for the state. (He still is the patron of the Greek navy.) When Russia converted to Christianity, it was put under the protection of Saint Nicholas.

His cult was known in the west, but not extremely popular. This changed when the Turks invaded Anatolia after the battle of Manzikert (1071) and captured Myra. The Greeks living in the 'heel' of Italy were worried about the relics of the popular saint, and in 1087, a group of merchants landed at Myra and snatched away his body. (The story is known from several sources but told best by Orderic Vitalis.) On the ninth of May, Nicholas' bones arrived in Bari, a date that has been celebrated ever since as the 'translation' of the saint. Two years later, the new church was inaugurated by pope Urban II, who personally placed the bones in their new tomb beneath the altar. (A couple of years later, he announced the First Crusade.)

Some bones were brought to a small village named Port, near Nancy in France, which has become another center of the cult of Saint Nicholas. It is now called Saint Nicolas de Port. Other relics were transferred to Worms on the Rhine, by the Byzantine princess Theophanu, wife of the emperor Otto II.

The church of San Nicolą di Bari, seen from the sea.
The church of San Nicolą, Bari
(BasilicaSanNicola.Org; ©!!!)

Because the saints' (invented) birthday had also become a day of rejoicing, four days of the ecclesiastical year were now dedicated to Saint Nicholas. A nice Byzantine story explains this exceptional honor. It says that Nicholas was ascending to heaven with another saint, when they heard the prayers of sailors in a storm. The other saint was too occupied with the glory of God to be distracted, but Nicholas immediately returned to earth to help the poor sailors. God rewarded him with not one, but four festivals, whereas his saintly colleague had to be content with only one... 29 February.

After the translation of the relics, Nicholas' popularity spread to the west. Soon, every port belonging to the Hanseatic League, and many others, had a church that was dedicated to the man from Bari. In England alone, nearly 400 churches were dedicated in his honor. When the Vikings settled on Greenland, they built a church for "Nils", and in 1492, Columbus called a port on Haiti after San Nicoląs.

The Old Church of Amsterdam, dedicated to Saint Nicholas. Photo Jona Lendering.
The Old Church of Amsterdam,
dedicated to Saint Nicholas

The saint remained of course invoked as protector of navigation, but also as protector of marriage, because he had once given dowries to three girls. In Holland, which plays an important role in the transformation of the cult of this saint, he was lovingly called Goedhuwelijksman, 'good marriage man', a word that was later pronounced as Goedheiligman, which is equally apt, because it means 'good holy man'.

In the west, the cult received some new elements. The legend of the three boys saved from death became more so popular that Nicholas was recognized as patron of children. It was not uncommon to give children presents on his saint's day, 6 December. In Germany, a popular new custom originated: the election of a boy bishop.

The Germanic supreme god Wodan (Odin) on his horse Sleipnir, on a stone from Ardre (Sweden). Copy from the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Mainz (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
The Germanic supreme god Wodan (Odin) on his horse Sleipnir, on a stone from Ardre (Sweden). Copy from the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Mainz (Germany).

However, the most important development was probably the addition of several elements from ancient Germanic paganism. The ancients had believed that their bearded god Wodan (or Odin) rode over the white clouds on his white horse Sleipnir, carrying a lance, and judging which people were worthy warriors to be allowed to enter the hallowed halls of the Walhalla. The Germanic tribesmen appear to have exchanged presents in December.

This saga was now christianized. As a bishop, Nicholas could easily be represented as a horseman with a bishop's staff. From now on, it was believed that he was judging children's behavior, awarding good children and punishing the bad ones. In Holland it was said that during the night of 5/6 December, the bearded Saint Nicholas and his white horse rode over the snow-covered roofs and threw presents through the chimneys, which the children would find early in the morning, often hid in shoes (cf. the illustration below).

Ambrose of Milan; mosaic from the Sant' Ambrogio, Milan (Italy).
Ambrose; mosaic from the
Sant' Ambrogio, Milan

As giver of presents, Nicholas was an important saint. According to the Roman-Catholic church, it is good when the rich unconditionally give to the poor. In fact, it is sometimes argued that they don't give at all. The earth, as Nicholas' younger contemporary Ambrose of Milan pointed out in a sermon on the Old Testamentical scoundrel Naboth, was given to humankind to be used by all, and when someone gave alms to a beggar, he only returned what was already his. The church of Rome taught (and teaches) that the rich should not expect something in return or must not boast of their generosity. This attitude was embodied by the good holy man from Myra.

Amsterdam 1578

't Misbruyck in Godes Kerck allengskens ingebracht,
Is hier afgedaen in 't jaer seventich acht.

The abuse slowly introduced in the Church of God
was here abolished in the year seventy-eight.

Interior of the Old Church in Amsterdam. Photo Jona Lendering.
Interior of the Old Church
in Amsterdam.

This little rhyme can be read in the Old Church of Amsterdam, dedicated to Saint Nicholas. It is one of the few memories of the Reformation of the Dutch capital. During the Wars of Religion, the city had always kept a pro-Catholic course, but now it became Calvinist. Priests were forced to leave Amsterdam, the Inquisition was abolished, and Protestant exiles returned.

Ornamental plaque, Dam Square, Amsterdam, showing an unusual beardless Sinterklaas. Photo Jona Lendering.
Stone sign, Dam Square Amsterdam, showing an unusual beardless Sinterklaas.

This was more than just a religious change. The returning exiles had established large international networks and as Protestants, they were supposed to honor God by industrious work. The old impediments to making profit -which according to Catholic doctrine needed justification- disappeared and an early form of capitalism, based on trade, was born. However, the old medieval mentality that profit was wrong as long as other people did not benefit as well, did not disappear, and many Dutch found their wealth embarrassing. Early capitalism retained some aspects of Catholic thought. This explains why Saint Nicholas remained popular in the world's first Capitalist nation.

We might expect the cult to have been abolished during the days of the Reformation, which held a dim view of the cult of saints. And indeed, several Protestant hard-liners have attempted this. As late as 1663, mayor Nicolaes Tulp (who was to become famous from Rembrandt's painting of the Anatomical Lesson) tried to prevent the celebration of his namesake's feast day, 6 December. He was merely led to look for another job: the Amsterdammers were fond of their saint.

Jan Steen, The feast of Sinterklaas (c.1660); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (Holland)
Jan Steen, The feast of
Sinterklaas (c.1660)
(Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

They continued to sell special cookies and sweeties in December, continued to surprise their children with little presents hidden in their shoes, and continued to organize "official" visits, during which an actor, dressed like a bishop, preached to the children how to behave. If the enterprising spirit of the Amsterdammers found the sailor's patron appealing, the good bishop kept watch over their morals. Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, as he was called, embodied the full range of their concerns. As Protestants, they no longer venerated him as a real saint, but the folkloristic exhange of presents remained popular.

A painting by Jan Steen, made in c.1665, shows how Sinterklaas was celebrated. In the center, we see the father of the family. His daughter has received a doll, and his youngest son points at the eldest son, who has obviously received nothing because he has not been a good boy. Fortunately, the maid points at grandma, who has found a present behind the curtain. To the right, a servant points at the flue, through which Sinterklaas has thrown the presents. We also see the mother, who has probably been in the kitchen to prepare all the sweet cookies we see on the floor.

The feast, which is still celebrated, is what anthropologists call an "archaic survival". Capitalism developed, profit no longer embarrassed people, modern society was being born; yet Sinterklaas kept some traits of an earlier period in which wealth was more connected with morality.

Myra 343
Bari 1087
New York 1776
Part 3 >>
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2005
Revision: 5 December 2007

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