German immigrants brought St. Nicholas traditions to Louisiana in the 1880s. For many years this was a raucous event—young boys dressed as Santas, with switches and chains, ran about frightening youngsters, as is still the custom in some parts of Europe. In the 1950s a Dutch priest guided the adoption of gentler practice, borrowing elements from the Netherlands. These changes took root and a much-loved, distinctive tradition has evolved and endures.
Late in the afternoon on St. Nicholas Eve in Roberts Cove, people gather at St. Leo Church Hall. There are sixteen members from the choir and three others who portray St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and Black Peter. St. Nicholas and Santa Claus once had to be choir members, but now can be any man from the church. Black Peter is one of the altar boys. The parish priest and choir director make the selections.
To keep St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and Black Peter anonymous, when they arrive, each is surrounded by choir members who help them into their costumes. St. Nicholas dresses in a flowing white and gold robe with white gloves and a bishop's mitre. Thick white face paint and a long white beard disguise his face. He carries a tall crozier.
Black Peter wears black tights, a long dark blouse and a turban. His face is completely blackened and he wears black gloves. Santa Claus dresses in the traditional manner with white face paint and gloves. Choir members wear black pants, black shoes, red sweaters decorated with an image of St. Nicholas, and bells around their necks.
After getting ready, the group boards a school bus to begin the evening tour. The bus stops at fifteen houses in the Roberts Cove area. Forty-five homes alternate hosting St. Nicholas, each receiving the procession every three years. Between 25 and 100 people gather at each site—the hosts with family and friends from throughout the state.
When the bus stops at a house, the choir rings their bells, singing, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," as they get off. The group goes in the home, or carport or out-building, where hosts and guests are waiting. Singing all the while, the choir gathers in the middle of the group. The song ends when a baritone voice sings out, "You mean the big fat man with the long white beard?" The choir responds in unison, "he's coming to town." This is the cue for the hidden St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and Black Peter to enter.
St. Nicholas walks into the crowd and, using a disguised voice, greets everyone. He is seen with awe and excitement, although the very young may be afraid of his elaborate costume and entourage. St. Nicholas addresses the children together, not individually, stating he hopes they have been good during the year and obeyed their parents and teachers. Then he circulates, greeting adults with a handshake, and children with a light touch to the head—much like a blessing. Santa Claus also greets everyone and, with Black Peter's assistance, gives each child a few pieces of candy.
The choir continues singing while everyone is greeted and the candy distributed. Songs include German carols, like "Ihr Kinderlein," "O Tannenbaum" and "Stille Nacht," and songs in English, like "Silver Bells*," "Joy to the World," and "The First Noel."
Then Santa Claus throws the rest of the candy on the floor. There is a mad scramble with children, and even a few adults, rushing to grab treats. St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and Black Peter quickly return to the bus so they won't be recognized. The evening is a great success if they go the whole time without being identified. Choir members stay for a little while, visiting and eating refreshments, before joining St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and Black Peter on the bus.
This routine continues at each stop. Then the bus returns to the church hall with the group chanting, "two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate," followed by the name of a participant. The chant continues until everyone has been named. Back at the church hall everyone removes makeup and packs costumes away before rejoining celebrants at various host homes.
As Roberts Cove residents have moved, they've taken this popular St. Nicholas Eve custom to nearby Meridian and Broussard.
*Songs have been adapted to the occasion, for example:
Silverbells, silver bells
St. Nick has come to the children
Ring-a-ling, hear them ring
Soon it will be Christmas day!
Adapted from "A Kinder, Gentler St. Nicholas: Transformation and Meaning in a 'Louisiana German' Tradition, by Rocky L. Sexton, published in Southern Folklore, 1998. For the complete article, see Louisiana Folk Life. Used by permission.