Whimsical View: Christmas exhibit introduces kids to children's saint

by Peg McNichol
Holland Sentinel, December 22, 2005

Dutch candy containers
SANTA-NALIA: All the items in the Holland Museum's St. Nicholas exhibit were loaned by Holland resident and collector Carol Myers.
Photo: Holland Sentinel Used by permission

With playful puppets and plush dolls, the Holland Museum is showcasing St. Nicholas from a child's point of view this year. All the items belong to Holland resident Carol Myers, who says she has been collecting St. Nicholas memorabilia for 20 years.

The biennial exhibit always has a theme, according to Myers. This is the fifth time she has loaned part of her collection to the museum. Most of the items this year have never been displayed before.

"In some ways this is a more visual exhibit," she said. "It's all things related to children. This exhibit shows the fun side."

Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra (Turkey's one-time capital city), is the real man behind both SinterKlaas and Santa Claus. According to Catholic Online, a Los Angeles-based information service for Catholics, he is the patron saint of sailors, bakers, pawnbrokers, several countries and children. Germans, Swiss and Dutch give presents in his name, a tradition that began in the 17th Century.

The saint best known for giving away his inheritance to the poor and interceding on behalf of the downtrodden was reinvented by author Washington Irving in 1809. Since then, the image of a rotund, jolly elf has been common.

Dutch candy containers
Photo: Holland Sentinel
Used by permission

A mixture of images makes up the museum's visually appealing display. It includes several tall, spare bishop-like dolls, as well as a SpongeBob SquarePants candy stick, with the cartoon character sporting a playful version of the bishop's mitre hat. A poster touts one of Belgium's many St. Nicholas circuses, alongside marionettes from Czechoslovakia and Germany.

Myers has visited the Netherlands Belgium, France, Italy and the city in Turkey where St. Nicholas was once a bishop: Demre, formerly known as Myra. But she also used the Internet to add items to her collection.

"One can find all kinds of things on eBay," she said. "It's enabled me to get things from a lot of places I'd never have had access to."

Past exhibits have highlighted customs of various European countries, music and food associated with St. Nicholas.

This year, an over-sized plush doll sits in the museum lobby on an ornate wooden chair that once belonged to the Holland Furnace Company.

The dolls and puppets enchant the kids, said Nathan Kemler, the museum's curator of historic sites and collections. He said it's an opportunity for children to see the variations of their patron saint up close.

"There's the Sinter Klaas with no reindeer, no North Pole," he said. "The further away from the original source, the less accurate (the images are). It goes from the tall, thin St. Nicholas with the full costume, the hat, the robe, the staff to the abstract versions like a simple hand puppet."

"Adults seem to like the marionettes," he added, or the 1950s-era rubber stamps.

Myers, a life-long volunteer, spends much of her time these days maintaining a Web site devoted to the life and legacy of St. Nicholas. Between Dec. 5 and 6, St. Nicholas Eve and Day respectively, more than 60,000 people visited www.stnicholascenter.org; over the course of 2004, the site had 10 times that many visitors, from 155 countries.

In showcasing the various St. Nicholas depictions and history, Myers hopes to achieve one goal.

"We hope that people understand there was a real person behind the American Santa Claus," she said. "That person can be a model for modern living for the kind of care and compassion he showed others."

Exhibit cases
SANTA ZONE: Holland Museum's exhibit on St. Nicholas is aimed at children.
Photo: Holland Sentinel Used by permission

Christmas week at the Holland Museum starts Monday [26 December]. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, 31 W. 10th St. (616) 394-1362.

By Peg McNichol, Copyright © 2005 Holland Sentinel, December 22, 2005. Used by permission.

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