Saint Nick

December 10, 2012 by your editor

More holiday blather! This time, however, it is meant to enlighten, as there is substantial confusion about the person of St. Nicholas and his associated holiday(s). In The Netherlands, both St. Nicholas Day (December 6) and Christmas (December 25 and 26–leave it to the Dutch to take an extra day off, which, by the way, is something they also do for Easter and Pentecost) are celebrated. They are two distinct holidays and each comes with its own nonsensical story.

Many Americans have become acquainted with at least some aspects of the St. Nicholas celebration courtesy of David Sedaris and his short story Six to Eight Black MenIf you aren’t familiar, the pointy-clicky provided will take you to a reading of the story as well as some visuals. It’s in three parts and you must listen to all three. While the story is hilarious, and holds some truth, it also contains inaccuracies (most importantly, it is not Christmas) and, perhaps thankfully, glosses over the downright embarrassment of being Dutch in December. Allow me to set the record straight.

Yes, Dutch children do put their shoes by the fireplace (or whatever modern heating element their residence may contain) on the evening of December 5th. Yes, on the morning of December 6th they typically find presents there, delivered by St. Nick overnight. And yes, he is accompanied by Black men. These days, anyway. While the holiday has been around since, I dunno, the middle ages or something, the Black men did not make their entrance until the 19th century. You know, when the Dutch were heavily implicated in the slave trade? Well, we’ll get to that. The headcount in the title of the story is unreliable. The saint who would visit my elementary school would have fewer than the six to eight on which Sedaris insists. I’d say two to four. But then again, I went to a ghetto school. (Side note: in the year 1978, one of the Black men was my own mother, in blackface. Yes, you heard me. We’ll get to that too.) The televised saint typically comes with several dozens of “helpers”, a term I shall have something to say about in a bit as well.

Also correct are the saint’s attire, his roots in Turkey, and his arrival on a ship from Spain. (Although that last part is not historically correct.) If anyone is wrong here, it is those who would have a catholic saint dress like a garden gnome and live on the North freaking’ Pole, of all places. And be married! Here’s the origin story. One Nicholas, to be sainted after his death, was born around 280 AD in the small town of Patara, close to the larger town of Myra, which is now Demre, located in present day Turkey. Young Nicholas was a pious child, given to fasting (hence skinny), and as an adult became somewhat of a do-gooder. He is said to have anonymously donated large sums of money to a local widower, in order to prevent the man’s daughters from being sold into slavery. Or prostitution, maybe, there’s some dispute about that. In addition, he is said to have miraculously saved several sailors, which landed him the job as bishop of Myra.

So far, so good, the man was a bishop in the Byzantine empire. But this is where it gets weird: it isn’t until after his death that he starts performing his more spectacular miracles. He delivers children to previously barren women. He brings back to life three young theology students (maybe monks) who were dismembered, salted, pickled and barreled by an evil innkeeper. These feats built the saint’s reputation as a protector of the young, but he quickly became the patron saint of many, including, but not limited to, infertile women, traveling students, infants, pawnbrokers, thieves and financiers (same thing?), pirating vandals, and what is intriguingly described as “yearning virgins.” Sexy!

In 1087, then, Nicholas’s remains were taken from Myra to Bari, in modern day Italy. My guess is that the Dutch just really didn’t know, or care about, the difference between Italy and Spain when they started celebrating the saint’s day, and that this is where the Spain connection comes from. The more baffling part is how a man who has been dead for over 1500 years, whose bones are actually on display in Bari, can still manage to make annual trips to northern Europe. With his slaves. Because yes, Dutch people, don’t give me any of that “helper” shit. They’re slaves.

So much in denial are the Dutch about the utterly offensive subtext inherent in this celebration that an alternative myth has started circulating: the Black men are not actually Black black, they’re black from the soot in the chimneys through which they deposit the presents. Sounds legit! Totally explains why so many of them are in brown face and wear afro wigs. Or have exaggerated red lips. Or speak with silly accents designed to mimic those of the African-descended population from the former Dutch colony of Suriname. (Also slaves, by the way.) To point any of this out to Dutch people does not go over too well most of the time. Many will get outraged, yell about tradition, or will start pot-kettling about slavery in the US. This is why I am not proud to be Dutch. Well, that’s part of it, anyway.

(For a more measured critique of the racial implications, go here. Or here. These folks have actually done some homework. We are all making the same points, in the end.)

lookit my awesome heritage!

St. Nicholas and one of his slaves. How I wish I were kidding about this.

Speaking of the US, what about Christmas, and Santa Claus, who is also, more or less, Saint Nicholas? How did that happen? Apparently, in New York, in the 18th century, Dutch immigrants brought St. Nicholas Day with them. This is where the man began his transformation. He started out as a slightly scary authority figure in bishop’s garb, with a troupe of potentially violent Black men (if you have been naughty, the story goes, you get the crap beaten out of you with a switch, or even put into a burlap sack and taken back to Spain where, presumably, you will spend the year getting gang-raped by the darks). Eventually, he became a rosy-cheeked family man, backed up by an army of elves (!), and riding a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer (!!), instead of a riding horse, like everybody else. It is hypothesized that the flying and the reindeer are borrowed from Norse mythology, but nothing is certain in this sordid tale.

While initially St. Nicholas Day was only celebrated by the Dutch in New York, in a fit of anti-British sentiment folks outside the Dutch community took on the saint in the late 17th or early 18th century. The final morphing of Saint Nicholas into Father Christmas/Santa Claus/Kris Kringle is usually dated to 1822, when a Clement Clarke Moore published a poem entitled A Visit from Saint Nicholas. (FYI, his authorship is contested.) The poem was inspired by two other pieces of writing, Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History (1809) and an 1821 Christmas poem called The Children’s Friend. The former was a satire on the customs of the Dutch and while it described St. Nicholas Day festivities, Moore’s version of Santa is based on the image of the fat, jolly Dutchmen in the book. The latter introduces the reindeer. Moore’s poem is still well-known today, especially the opening lines starting with, ‘Twas the night before Christmas... I suppose with some poetic license, December 5th is the night before December 25th? Either way, as of that moment, American Christmas took on many of the characteristics of Dutch St. Nicholas Day, and Santa became a fat man. Dutch Christmas? Lights, trees, overeating, birth of Jebus. The end.

Whatever you wish to celebrate, I hope it works out for you. May your Hannukah be happy! Your Kwanzaa blessed! Your Festivus filled with grievances! Try not to lie to your children too much!

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