Friday, December 7, 2012

Saint Nicholas - Sinterklaas

There is a very fine tradition from my youth that I rather miss. It is the tradition in Holland of celebrating the feast day of St. Nicholas on December 6th. The early memories from anyone who grew in that part of the world are as fondly recalled during this time as are your own memories from Christmas times past.

St. Nicholas was a Greek Bishop in Myra (present day Turkey) in the 4th century who gained a wide reputation for kindness and charity, especially in regard to children. There are a host of wonderful legends and stories around his life, many of which have been retold over the centuries simply for the pleasure of relating something about the goodness of human nature.

Here is the one that I like best. Saint Nicholas (or “Sinterklaas” in Dutch, which eventually became “Santa Claus” when brought over to the U.S. by the early immigrants) learned that a poor man had three daughters. But because they were poor, they had no dowry and therefore would not be able to find a good husband. He found out that one of the daughters was hoping to get married to a fine young man but despaired of ever gaining a dowry. Therefore, St. Nicholas had one of his servants go to the poor man’s house at night, place a bag of gold in front of the door, knock on the door, and run away to hide to make sure that they received the gold. (Hence a Dutch tradition of going to relatives and friends homes around this time, placing a parcel on their front step, ringing the door bell, and running away to watch them from a hidden location.)

When the second daughter was about to be married, he again found out and sent another servant with a bag of gold. But this time, they were watching the door because they had anticipated that this might happen and wanted to thank you the secret donor. So instead the servant saw a partially open window in the house, pushed aside the curtain and threw the bag into the room before fleeing. (Hence a Dutch tradition that for several days prior to December 6th, a family with young children may be at dinner and suddenly toward the end of dinner, a hand reaches into the room from a previously closed window and throws candies and small hard cookies all over the room, but to the delight and screams of the semi-frightened children.)

Finally, the third daughter was to get married, and the poor man’s family watched the door and the windows for several nights. This time, the servant saw what was going on from some distance away, climbed up to the roof of a neighboring house, and made his way to the chimney where he dropped the bag of gold down the chimney. The daughter happened to be drying her socks inside the fireplace, where a very small fire was burning. The gold bag fell and dropped right into one the socks, where she found it the next morning.

The tradition from these stories, of course, is the giving of gifts on the saint’s feast day, and subsequently on Christmas Day from Santa Claus. But there is one other interesting tradition that comes from the fact that St. Nicholas is also the patron of pawn shops. From the Middle Ages forward, the symbol above every pawn shop has been three golden balls, symbolizing the three bags of gold that St. Nicholas had provided for the three daughters. Merry Christmas.