St. Nicholas rides again…..

It has been unseasonably warm this autumn and it’s hard to believe that we are only 3 weeks away from the winter equinox. Despite the glorious sunshine though, the days seem shorter than ever, so it must be true. One thing that confirms the time of year is the fact that people in the Netherlands have just celebrated the official arrival of St. Nicholas. They will celebrate his life on the 5th of December, the eve of his birthday, with the giving and receiving of pepernoten, sugar mice and presents (of course). Most of us have heard of St. Nicholas, who appears in many different guises all over the world, the best known of which of course is that of Santa Claus. But who exactly is St. Nicholas and how is it that this saint became so well loved and so widely known both inside and outside religious circles?

The Path to Sainthood…

St. NicholasBorn in 270AD in Patara (in present day Turkey) Nicholas gave away all his worldly goods to the poor and dedicated his life to the sick and needy. He became Bishop of Myra, Turkey, at a very young age and was severely persecuted by Roman Emperor Diocletian for his Christian beliefs. Numerous tales of miraculous rescues followed, which led Nicholas straight up the path to sainthood and in due course he became patron saint of children, sailors and prostitutes – to name just a random few. His miracles are too many to recount but here are just a small few.

A particularly gruesome tale tells how St. Nicholas came across the bodies of three children, murdered by an evil butcher and pickled in a vat for 7 years. St. Nicholas’ intervention miraculously restored them to life and returned them to their parents. There are also numerous legends of shipwrecked sailors rescued by St. Nicholas, and stories of his mythical powers that prevented ships (including his own) from going down in terrifying storms. In a different story, St. Nicholas is believed to have personally prevented three poor young girls from becoming prostitutes by dropping a bag of gold in each of their shoes which were drying by the hearth, the money being enough to ensure they had a dowry sufficiently large to ‘buy’ them a husband. With so many good deeds to his name, it is hardly a miracle then that St. Nicholas ended up being revered by millions.  What is equally miraculous, though, is the fact that after all this time he is still celebrated widely, and not just in the Netherlands.

Customs and Traditions

Many of the customs and traditions surrounding St. Nicholas can be traced back directly to his earlier life and miracles.

Pere Fouettard.jpg

In France, statues of St. Nicholas often show him with a barrel of children at his feet, while Père Fouettard, the evil butcher, is forced to follow St. Nicholas everywhere, in punishment for his crimes against the children he was supposed to have killed, although he still carries a switch with which he threatens those who have not been ‘good’ in the year gone by.

In many countries, including France, Belgium and the Netherlands, children will put their shoes by the chimney on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day – an action reminiscent of that of the three poor girls he saved – although to my knowledge no further donations of gold have ever been left by the good man. These days, the best children can hope for is to see their shoes filled with sugar mice and chocolates by morning. Their chances can be improved considerably if some hay and carrots are left out at night for St. Nicholas’ horse, who of course has to ride miles and miles to reach all children everywhere, while a little glass of sherry or brandy will provide the holy man with that extra bit of Dutch courage to do his good deeds, night after night.

Burning Boats

Other regions of Europe celebrate St. Nicholas Eve in their own way. In Croatia children can expect similar treats, provided their boots are polished before they are put out for the good saint to fill with candy and gifts. In both Croatia and Austria, St. Nicholas is followed by Krampus, a devil-like creature, who roams the streets rattling rusty chains and bells.

Boat Burning in Komiza.jpg

But in Croatia, it’s not just the children who celebrate. The beautiful port of Komiža, on the remote island of Vis, has an annual St. Nicholas feast day on the 6th of December. A statue of the saint is paraded to St. Nicholas Church, just above the town, where a boat-burning ceremony takes place in the hope that it will bring good fortune to all sailors and fishermen in the year to come.

Although the celebration of St. Nicholas is one of the truly ancient celebrations, it was considered too frivolous by half for many centuries – particularly for a religious celebration – and in some countries it was actually banned for a period of time. In the end the strength of feeling for the kind and generous saint overcame even that, so that by now St. Nicholas has his permanent place in the annual cycle of festivities. Not only is he among the most revered saints and recognised by Christians, Muslims and the Orthodox alike, but he also became the patron saint of several countries, towns and cities across Europe, while thousands of churches were built in his name the world over.

The Bone Collectors

Buried in Myra, where he had been Bishop, St. Nicholas’ burial place became a hugely popular place of pilgrimage, but this all came to an abrupt end at the turn of the first millennium when the crusades made it increasingly difficult for Christians to travel safely to Myra.

San Nicola Church Bari.jpg

Pilgrims brought enormous wealth to any town that had relics of a famous saint on offer though, and it is reported that Venice and Bari, both in Italy, were keen to get their hands on St. Nicholas’ bones and benefit from the additional income. In the end, Bari beat Venice to it and his remains arrived there by ship in 1087. A basilica was built over his shrine, which became one of Europe’s most important places of pilgrimage and has remained so ever since.

The ‘Holiday Season’

But back to the Netherlands, where children get not just one night to put their shoes out, but instead get a full three week period of fun and festivities. The holy man arrives each year in magnificent style by ship – as is to be expected of the patron saint of sailors. The ship carries not only himself, but also his troupe of trusted Mores and his loyal horse, and the event is broadcast live on television each November.

sinterklaas arrival.jpgThis year the official arrival was in the town of Dordrecht, on the 12th November, where St. Nicholas was greeted by thousands of children and nearly as many cameras.  Shortly after, the merry group set off to travel the country, making their appearance in every self-respecting city, town or village.

Most of the time, their arrival is carefully choreographed and rehearsed but it would appear that accidents befall even the best of saints. On the lake, near the small town of Paterswolde, a mere stone’s throw away from where my father lives, the little boat carrying the holy man to his audience inexplicably sank, leaving the robed and mitred saint bobbing in the water until a rescue boat arrived, which proves that even one of the greatest and best-loved saints occasionally needs to be rescued. I am reliably told that he is safe and well, and after a little period by a hot fire, is now in full swing again, delivering his goods all over the country.

I love this time of year, and for me the arrival of St. Nicholas is the perfect start to a month of festivities and the time we often call ‘the holiday season’. As we hurtle towards the first of December, spare a thought of a very busy and hard-working saint, for whom the coming month is anything but a holiday!

Annemieke Waite is a freelance travel writer who specialises in writing for families and young people about EU travel destinations.


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  1. Miss Elske Waite
    Posted November 27, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Come on Christmas!!!!

  2. Brian Staines
    Posted November 28, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    I just love stories like this.Just makes you feel good Thanks

  3. Annemieke Waite
    Posted November 28, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Brian! 🙂

  4. Ada Bauer
    Posted November 28, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Leuk verhaal, we zijn volop in de Sinterklaas stemming, en zingen luid in de schoorsteen.

  5. Annemieke Waite
    Posted November 28, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    How lovely! We celebrate it each year (still….) with surprise wrapping and a poem – but all in English these days, of course…. 🙂

  6. Amber McPhetridge
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    You have definitely put me in the Christmas mood with that interesting bit of history. And I thought he just went down chimneys!!!

  7. Aleida Brinkman
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Another very interesting story !

    Keep them coming Annemiek .

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