Saintly and Generous
Saint Nicholas and the Low Countries
by Eugenia Boer, translated by Nancy Forest-Flier, from The Low Countries (Ons Erfdeel), 1999-2000 yearbook
“It was the fifth of December, and from early in the morning there was an air of secret bustle, of smiling whispers, of anxious stashing from sudden encroachments at the home of the Van Erlevoorts.” Thus begins a chapter in Louis Couperus’s well-known novel Eline Vere, written in 1888, more than 100 years ago. There’s no doubt about it: these are preparations for a Saint Nicholas party; this is a time for tinkering. Each and every family member has ensconced himself in his own room, only to make his appearance later on in the day bearing a surprise package.
The party began early in the evening with all the traditional customs. First was the arrival of the saintly gentleman himself, properly attired as a Catholic bishop and accompanied by his black servant. A variety of tasty sweets and tidbits were then scattered about. His departure was followed by several rings of the bell, at which mysterious parcels were brought forth and “the deluge of gifts and surprise packages began,” as Couperus describes it. The torrent continued until the drawing room was a scene of unremitting chaos, full of “paper, straw, bits of bran and potato peels.” In the midst of it all sat the children—and the adults—beside their small tables laden with gifts.
The feast of Saint Nicholas (more popularly known as Sinterklaas) was originally a feast for children. That’s how it began during the Middle Ages, and that’s how it is still regarded in Flanders. In the Netherlands, however, the adults have joined the party, which wasn’t always easy. Giving someone a good dressing-down is a far simpler matter than having the same thing done to you. This sentiment was nicely expressed by P.A. de Genestet in his long poem “De Sint-Nicolaasavond” (“The Eve of Saint Nicholas,” 1849): “the fatherly brow was darkened by cloud, for being treated just like the younger crowd; he thought it was all quite horrid and childish … .”
The Personal Touch
From scraps of wrapping paper, wads of newspaper, bits of string, and adhesive tape sticking to everything, to crumbs of trampled gingerbread and abandoned glasses and cups—what’s left after the “delightful evening” is chaos.
The feast of Saint Nicholas is a feast of gifts, to be sure, but the main focus is really elsewhere. Saint Nicholas is all about the act of giving itself, trying to surprise people, personal innuendos, the extra joke, the accompanying poem. It’s true that it all ends with the gift, but that’s just a bonus.
It’s not even unusual for limits to be set beforehand on the amount that can be spent—a peculiar notion that many a foreign visitor has learned about the hard way. Invitations to join these typical Saint Nicholas evenings always come with instructions. It is explained that an ordinary gift-wrapped present simply won’t do. The point is to bring a so-called surprise. The jeweller’s ribbon or the shiny paper from the perfumery, he is warned, is a testimonium paupertatis. To show up with such an item would immediately render him an outcast. But no matter how hard he tries, the newcomer will gradually learn to his bewilderment that there’s something not quite right with his contribution: too small, too little packing material, too little fuss and bother on the outside. And indeed it is difficult to understand why a ball of string with a little trinket inside can make a splendid Saint Nicholas gift.
Anyone who hasn’t grown up with the tradition, who as a child hasn’t messed about with glue, slogged away with the most unlikely packing material, who has never tried to coerce a cardboard box to take the shape of a mitre or, even worse, made nasty poultices of plaster or syrup, will have a rough time for the rest of his livelong days with what is known as “gift night.” It’s highly doubtful if his gift will ever amount to a surprise.
Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children
During the Middle Ages, saints were indispensable helpers in daily life. Diseases were conquered through the intercession of the saints; harvests succeeded, ships were guarded from shipwreck and lost articles were recovered through their mediation. School children were also given their own patron: Saint Nicholas. Countless legends have been told over the centuries concerning blessed Nicholas, the third-century bishop of Myra in faraway Asia Minor. Many of these legends have to do with his actions on behalf of children. One of the best known is the medieval story of the three boys in the barrel of brine. On the way home from school the boys had sought shelter in an inn. The innkeeper, however, proved far from trustworthy. During the night he and his wife cut the poor boys up in pieces and pickled them in a barrel, with the intention of presenting his next guests with a superb meal. The first new visitor, of course, was none other than Saint Nicholas, who quickly realized that everything was not quite as it should be. He brought the young fellows back to life and, not least important, set the innkeeper and his wife on the straight and narrow.
An even better story perhaps is the legend of the three poor girls. In the village of Patara, near Myra, there lived an impoverished nobleman with his three daughters. They were his only possession, and he had no money to offer for their dowries. No dowry, of course, meant no suitors, but the poor man didn’t even have the money to support the daughters themselves. It was a bleak situation that appeared to have but one way out: prostitution. Nicholas, then a young priest, heard of their wretched plight and decided to help them. He waited until dark and by the light of the moon threw some money through their window. A few nights later, when everyone was asleep, Nicholas repeated his secret action. When the third night came the father quickly arrived on the scene. He managed to grab the generous giver by the collar, wanting to thank him. Keep it secret, Nicholas implored; no one has to know. It must remain a surprise.
A careful reading of this story easily reveals a number of elements from the Nicholas celebration: the secret approach in the dead of night, giving by means of stealth, the scattering of gifts. Since the girls were asleep, it’s reasonable to assume that the money landed right in their shoes, neatly lined up beside their beds. And the gingerbread men, the spicy suitors, that are gobbled down in such great quantities around December 5th, are direct offshoots of this ancient story.
A Saint of the Reformation
During the seventeenth century in the northern Netherlands, gingerbread men functioned as heralds of real suitors. Any girl who found a gingerbread man at her door on December 5th would know that somewhere out there a living heart was beating just for her. Because the tradition required (and still requires) that Saint Nicholas surprises be signed by no one but Saint Nicholas himself, it often took some doing to discover the secret admirer’s identity.
Gingerbread men, Saint Nicholas songs, poems, special markets, fathers risking their necks by climbing onto snow-covered roofs with a horseshoe in hand to make mock imprints of the Saint’s horse: the seventeenth century teemed with references to the Saint Nicholas celebration. The paintings of Jan Steen bear witness to extravagant domestic pleasure. But it’s really nothing short of miraculous that the feast was celebrated in the northern Netherlands at all.
The Reformation had firmly put the breaks on the veneration of the saints. The Protestants, with government support, tried with all their might to eliminate the popish Nicholas feast from the calendar. Fines were imposed for the setting of shoes or for appearing in public with Saint Nicholas gifts. Bakers were strictly forbidden from producing Saint Nicholas figures. But the intended effect failed to materialize. On the contrary, the feast not only managed to survive (albeit with the suppression of activities on the public roads), but it developed in the Protestant Netherlands to enormous proportions. And herein may lie the seed of difference from the way the feast is celebrated in the still-Catholic south: the conscious choice on the part of adults to carry on with the feast naturally led to an increase in their own personal involvement.
Saint Nicholas poems are a good example of that adult participation. The exact source of the custom is not known, but the fact is that it exists, and in a Saint Nicholas poem people are allowed to confront each other with the truth. Since a good Saint Nicholas poem has no regard for the number of playful digs it contains, Saint Nicholas provides the Dutchman with a happy outlet for his deep-seated moralism. And the poem’s guaranteed anonymity makes it that much easier.
That’s just how it was in the seventeenth century. The poet Mattheus Tengnagel eagerly stepped into the shoes of the saintly gentleman to take a few swipes at his fellow townsmen. From his post atop the chimney, he wrote in 1640, he could carefully observe the functioning (and nonfunctioning) of Amsterdam’s bigwigs:
“So now, good friends,
Be on your best behaviour,
And take these admonitions to heart … .”
This is Saint Nicholas at his best. The didactic principle can be traced to the monastery schools where the feast had its origins. Those who do their best will be rewarded—a tenet that still applies. At the very least there should be promises of improvement, which isn’t a matter for children alone by any means.
Good traditions are living traditions, and they’re constantly giving rise to new features. In the mid-nineteenth century a little Saint Nicholas book appeared that hit the market like a bombshell. The book was full of new details, and it seemed to be just what everyone was waiting for. In the wink of an eye, the familiar arsenal of rituals underwent a massive expansion. Saint Nicholas continued with his clandestine filling of shoes during the night, but now he spent the day making calls in full regalia at homes and school. His mode of transportation became a boat. He had an exotic black servant at his disposal who dealt with miscreants by stuffing them into a sack. There it was in black and white in Saint Nicholas and his Servant, so it must be true. The book’s opening poem, “The Steamboat Approaches” (Zie ginds komt de stoomboot), was an immediate smash hit. From now on it was an unquestionable fact that Saint Nicholas came from Spain—The steamboat approaches from Spain once again (Zie ginds komt de stoomboot uit Spanje weer aan)—although there was no such indication in his biography. The historical details concerning the good Saint are few and far between, but one thing is certain: Bishop Nicholas lived and died in Asia Minor.
These developments were eagerly welcomed in both Flanders and the Netherlands. They gave an air of refinement to the feast, and the rituals thereby settled into a concrete pattern. But all in all, the feast as it is celebrated in Flanders is still strictly for children. Surprises and poems are less in evidence. Actually, in the southern Low Countries the Saint is far from alone.
The same but different: saints in Flanders
Martin, a fourth-century officer in the Roman legions, ended up as bishop of the French city of Tours. But it was at the city gate of Amiens where the incident occurred that would assure his fame and his sanctity: he cut his cloak in two and gave half to a shuddering beggar. The saint, who is celebrated on the day of his death, November 11th, lent his name to many churches and schools in the Low Countries. The weather vane on Utrecht’s cathedral spire, for instance, isn’t a cock at all; it’s Saint Martin astride his horse. And the church is named after him as well.
His feast is still celebrated in certain Low Country enclaves (Dutch Limburg, the region around Aalst in eastern Flanders and Ieper in western Flanders). Understandably, the celebration has always been connected with the cycle of the seasons. The agricultural work was finished, the harvest was in, the pigs were slaughtered. The poor got whatever fell from the table. During the evening a great fire was built, the Saint Martin Fire. This still takes place in the Limburg countryside, where the people from outside the villages gather together to collectively burn their garden refuse. The generosity of Saint Martin, which granted warmth and light to people in need, is linked here with a ritual exorcism of winter’s advancing darkness and cold. By coming together in solidarity, the people help each other get through the winter.
In the villages of Dutch Limburg, children go from house to house with lanterns or hollowed-out beets with candles burning inside. They ring doorbells and sing songs in order to get sweets or fruit.
Gradually the Saint’s generosity became limited to children, and the feast was contaminated by the celebration of Sinterklaas on December 6th according to the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” principle. In a few places, Saint Martin became the Sinterklaas whose day is celebrated on November 11th instead of December 6th. Children are told that he’s Sinterklaas’s brother, and indeed the one saint has becoming the spitting image of the other. As a fellow bishop, Saint Martin appears on horseback bearing a crozier and wearing a mitre and mantle (whole and untorn for the occasion). In Dutch Limburg you sometimes see him without the long white beard, but in Flanders the syncretism is fairly complete.
So the ingredients for both Saints are the same: Black Pete, whom parents can use to threaten their offspring and keep them in line, the fear of the Saint’s big book which “will be brought forth and in which is contained everything that is” (the Liber scriptus proferetur in quo totum continetur from the Dies Irae), the letter whose return address is “Heaven,” in which one humbly petitions the Saint for pardon and gifts and which is solemnly deposited in a postbox set up on the marketplace especially for this purpose before the evening rituals begin—setting out one’s shoes and placing in them a carrot and a turnip (for the horse, always a grey), and perhaps a bottle of beer for the hard-working servant, Pete. And then early to bed, because the miracle can only happen if you’re asleep. The Saint rides over the snow-covered roof and instructs his Pete to dump all the sweets and toys down the chimney.
In 1992 and 1993, the Flemish public broadcasting company produced “Hello, Saint Nicholas” (Dag Sinterklaas), a genuine serial about Sinterklaas whose ten episodes have been re-broadcast every year since. The aim of scenarist Hugo Matthysen was to present a Sinterklaas people could really believe in. The show featured just the right mix of humour and respect, with an exemplary Saint Nicholas played in all solemnity, wisdom and austerity by actor Jan Decleir, and with a non-politically-correct but likable Black Pete as the mischievous sidekick. In short, it managed to convey the magic of an old Catholic-pagan mythology that’s quite indestructible, at least if people are willing to play along for a little while and return to childhood once again—even if central heating has replaced the chimney, if the saints have been done away with, and if our black neighbours no longer inspire xenophobia. Each episode goes about answering a different question: does the Saint have to buy all the presents himself? How do you write him a letter? Is Black Pete naturally black, or is it for some other reason? Does the Saint even fall in love? Whether the answers are true or not is anybody’s guess; the most important thing is that they are convincing. Because, it has to be admitted, sometimes television can really bring back the magic.
The Saint vs. Santa
It was in the Middle Ages that Saint Nicholas filled the first little shoes, and for centuries hence children have been singing their songs in expectation of his nightly visit. But whether they’ll continue singing with just as much enthusiasm is a very big question. Saint Nicholas has acquired a competitor who is also dressed in red, who also makes his entrance in December, but who doesn’t make nearly as many demands: the Christmas Man (de kerstman).
For lovers of the Sinterklaas tradition he comes as a thorn in the side. They see him as a good-for-nothing who’s using his idiotic joviality to take over the role of gift-giver. The fact that de kerstman is clearly nothing but a product of commercialism doesn’t make it any easier.
That his roots are in America is undoubtedly another strike against him. There he’s known as Santa Claus, and under that name he’s actually quite familiar to us. His name contains a clue to his background. During the nineteenth century within certain New York circles, the concept of an ethnic past for the country’s various population groups began to take shape. An attempt was made to blow new life into the faded memory of Saint Nicholas, who had made the crossing to America along with the early colonists. Many authentic details had been forgotten, and the influence of the English Father Christmas had already had its impact. The result was a mishmash in which the name, at any rate, remained recognizable. But when he finally returned to the Old Country he was wearing boots and sitting in a horse-drawn sleigh. The pedagogical principle had been thoroughly done away with. The kerstman is just plain fun—fun and laziness.
Are we supposed to take this lying down? Shouldn’t we protest the arrival of this kerstman? Or is his appearance just another chapter in the development of a thoroughly interesting tradition?
For children the choice isn’t all that difficult. The more presents the better, and as far as the strange transformation is concerned they couldn’t care less. For the adults the matter is somewhat more complicated. They’re the ones mainly responsible for organizing the festivities. Life is much easier when all you have to do is buy a fancy gift-wrapped present. No more bother about coming up with a surprise, no more last-minute composing of poems while everyone sits and waits around the basket of gifts. And yet, whether anyone would call this a gain in the long run is by no means obvious.
By Eugenia Boer, translated by Nancy Forest-Flier, Ons Erfdeel - The Low Countries, 1999-2000 Yearbook. Ons Erfdeel vzw is the Flemish-Netherlands association that aims to promote cultural cooperation among all speakers of the Dutch language and to increase awareness of Flemish and Dutch culture abroad. Permission pending.