Saint Nicholas

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Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker
St. Nicholas, with his crozier and miter, as he appears on a German holy card.
Bishop of Myra, Defender of Orthodoxy, Wonderworker, Holy Hierarch
Born 3rd Century, Patara
Died 6 December 343, Myra
Venerated in "All Christianity"
Major shrine St. Nicholas’s relics are held in a crypt in Bari, Italy, but his great work was done in Myra.
Feast December 6
Attributes St Nicholas is usually portrayed as a Bishop, in whatever manner is appropriate for a Bishop in that particular Church’s practices.
Patronage In the West, St. Nicholas is a patron of sailors and thieves, because his relics were stolen by sailors from his tomb and transported to Bari, Italy. In the East, he is more remembered for his defense against the Arian heresy.
An example of the Faith and a life of humility,

as a teacher of abstinence you did inspire and lead your flock,
and through the truthfulness of your deeds
were exalted by greatness;
through your humility uplifting all
and by poverty gaining wealth.
Father and Hierarch St. Nicholas,
intercede with Christ our God
that our souls may be saved.

Greek Orthodox Apolytikion

Saint Nicholas is the common name for Saint Nicholas of Myra, who lived in 4th century Byzantine Lycia (part of modern Turkey), who had a reputation for secret gift-giving. This is as much as is generally known about him in the West.

This historical character was the inspiration for a mythical figure known as Nikolaus in Germany and Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and Flanders, which in turn was the inspiration for the myth of Santa Claus. Sinterklaas (a contracted form of Sint Nicolaas) is a major celebration in the Netherlands and in Flanders (see below). Among Orthodox Christians, the historical Saint Nicholas is remembered and revered.

Saint Nicholas is revered by many as the patron saint of seamen, merchants, archers, children, students, prostitutes, pharmacists, lawyers, pawnbrokers, prisoners, the city of Amsterdam and of Russia.


Nicholas the clergyman

Nicholas of Myra (also Nikolaus) in Lycia, Asia Minor (lived c. 270 - 345/352), was a 4th century bishop and is a Christian saint. His feast day is December 6, presumably the date of his death. In the Netherlands 5 December is known as his feast: this is Sinterklaasavond, or St. Nicholas' Eve. Among Christians, he is also known as the "Wonderworker". Several acts of kindness and miracles are attributed to him. Historical accounts often confuse him with the later Nicholas of Sion.

Nicholas was born in Asia Minor during the 3rd century at Patara in the province of Lycia, at a time when the region was Hellenistic in its culture and outlook. Nicholas became bishop of the city of Myra. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. He is said to have been born to relatively affluent Christian parents in Patara, Lycia, Asia Minor, Roman Empire where he also received his early schooling. According to some sources, his parents died while he was still a child, leaving a paternal uncle to care for him. Other sources place the death of his parents at the time he was already a young adult, leading him to a period of soul-searching which finaly resulted in his uncle introducing him to christendom. Whatever the reason, as a young adult and scholar, Nicholas moved to Myra to continue his studies and there the above-mentioned uncle introduced him to the local bishop. The latter is said to have seen potential in the youth and took Nicholas under his patronage. Nicholas received his ordination as a priest at an early age.

As patron saint of the sailors, Nicholas is claimed to have been a sailor or fisherman himself. More likely, however, is that one of his family businesses involved the handling of a fishing fleet. When his parents died Nicholas still received his inheritance but is said to have given it away in charity. So was Saint Nicholas an, albeit wealthy, working man who complemented his day job with caring for his congregation, or was he a full-time bishop? The impressive list of deeds of Nicholas seems to point to the latter. This does not say, however, that his appointmrent to priest or bishop meant a complete rupture with his former life. More likely this was a gradual process.

Nicholas' early activities as a priest are said to have occurred during the reign of co-ruling Roman Emperors Diocletian (reigned 284 - 305) and Maximian (reigned 286 - 305) from which comes the estimation of his age. Diocletian issued an edict in 303 authorising the systematic persecution of Christians across the Empire. Following the abdication of the two Emperors on May 1, 305 the policies of their successors towards Christians were different. In the Western part of the Empire Constantius Chlorus (reigned 305 - 306) put an end to the systematic persecution upon receiving the throne. In the Eastern part Galerius (reigned 305 - 311) continued the persecution until 311 when he issued a general edict of toleration from his deathbed. The persecution of 303 - 311 is considered to be the longest in the history of the Empire. Nicholas survived this period although his activities at the time are uncertain.

Following Galerius' death his surviving co-ruler Licinius (reigned 307 - 324) mostly tolerated Christians. As a result their community was allowed to further develop, and the various bishops who acted as their leaders managed to concentrate religious, social and political influence as well as wealth in their hands. In many cases they acted as the heads of their respective cities. It is apparently in this period that Nicholas rose to become bishop of Myra. Judging from tradition he was probably well loved and respected in his area mostly as a result of his charitable activities. As with other bishops of the time, Nicholas' popularity would serve to ensure his position and influence during and after this period.

The destruction of several pagan temples is also attributed to him, among them one temple of Artemis (also known as Diana). Because the celebration of Diana's birth is on December 6, some authors have speculated that this date was deliberately chosen for Nicholas' feast day to overshadow or replace the pagan celebrations.

Nicholas is also known for coming to the defence of the falsely accused, often preventing them from being executed, and for his prayers on behalf of sailors and other travelers. The popular veneration of Nicholas as a saint seems to have started relatively early. Justinian I, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (reigned 527 - 565) is reported to have built a temple (i.e. a church building) in Nicholas's honour in Constantinople, the Roman capital of the time.

Bishop Nicholas at the First Ecumenical Council

In 324 Licinius was defeated in a war against his Western co-ruler Constantine I of the Roman Empire (reigned 306 - 337). The end of the war found the Roman Empire unified under the rule of Constantine. In place of tolerance his policies towards Christians consisted of active support. Under his patronage the Christian church experienced an age of prosperity. But the relative peace of his reign brought to the forefront the internal conflict within contemporary Christianity. One of the apparent main reasons of this conflict was the failure to agree to a commonly accepted concept about God in general and Jesus in particular. At this time the teachings of Arius in Alexandria, Egypt were gaining popular support but also attracting great opposition. They would form the basis of Arianism. Emerging fanaticism in both opposing factions only resulted in spreading tumult across the Empire.

Deciding to address the problem as a matter of the state, Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea which also was the first Ecumenical council in 325. The number of attendants at the council is uncertain with Eusebius of Caesarea reporting as few as 250 and Athanasius of Alexandria as many as 318. In any case Nicholas is usually counted among them and was noted as an opponent of Arianism.

A later writer claimed that after Arius had presented his case against Jesus' divinity to the Council, Nicholas hit Arius in the face out of indignation. Nicholas was kicked out of the Council for this offence, and jailed as well. However, according to this account, that night the Virgin Mary appeared in a vision to many of the bishops of the Council, telling them to forgive Nicholas, for he had done it out of love for her Son. They released Nicholas and allowed him back into the process the next day.

The council lasted from May 20 to June 19, 325 and resulted in the declaration of the Nicene Creed and the formal condemnation of Arianism. The books of Arius and his followers were condemned to be burned but the execution of this decision was left at the hands of each bishop for their respective territories. To what point this decision was followed remains uncertain.

Following this apparent victory to his faction Nicholas returned to Myra. He is applauded by later Christian writers for keeping Myra free of Arianism. But the decisions of the council failed to stop the spread of Arianism. In fact the tides soon turned and in his later years Arianism managed to win favour with Constantine. In fact Constantine was baptised by Eusebius of Nicomedia, an Arian bishop who had also attended the council, shortly before his death on May 22, 337. Constantine was succeeded by his three surviving sons: Constantine II of the Roman Empire (reigned 337 - 340), Constantius II (reigned 337 - 361) and Constans (reigned 337 - 350). Constantius originally received the Eastern part of the Empire but the death of his brothers left the entire Empire under his control. During his reign he strongly favoured Arianism by seeking to place Arian bishops in most positions. There is no indication that Nicholas was affected by these policies and he remained in his position till his death. This lack of disturbance by the Arian Emperor has been seen as indicating the strong support Nicholas had gained among the people of his territory. According to this reasoning not even Constantius would risk a possible revolt by removing a popular bishop.

The face of the historical saint

Whereas the importance of relics and the business associated with pilgrims and patron saints caused the remains of most saints to be spread over several churches in several countries, Saint Nicholas is unique in that most of his bones have been preserved in one spot: his grave crypt in Bari. Although jealously guarded over and kept from prying eyes of scientists, especially with the still continuing miracle of the manna, the Roman Catholic Church allowed for one scientific survey of the bones: In the late 1950's, during a restauration of the chapel, it allowed a team of their own scientists to photograph and measure the contents of the crypt grave.

In the summer of 2005, the report of this measurements was sent to a forensic laboratory in England. The review of the data revealed that the historical Saint Nicholas was barely five foot of height (while not exactly small still shorter than average, even for his time) and had a broken nose. This last may seem strange for a man of "saintly behavior", but would fit perfectly with Nicholas' sometimes violent nature as reported at the First Ecumenical Council

Deeds and miracles attributed to Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors and is often called upon by sailors who are in danger of drowning or being shipwrecked. According to one legend, the young man Nicholas went to study in Alexandria and on one of his (sea) voyages from Myra to Alexandria he is said to have saved the life of a sailor who fell from the ship's rigging in a storm. In a colorful version of this legend, Nicholas saved the man on his voyage back from Alexandria to Myra and upon his arrival took the sailor to the church. At that time the old bishop had just died and the church fathers were instructed in a dream to choose for their next bishop a "man of victory" (greek: Nikei). While the saint was praying, the loose-lipped sailor went around telling how courageously he was saved by the man Nikei-laos, upon which the church elders had no choice as to appoint Nicholas as their new bishop.

Another legend tells how a terrible famine struck the island and a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, only to kill and slaughter them and put their remains in a barel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only saw through the butchers horrific crime but also managed to resurect the three boys from the barrel.

In his most famous exploit however, a poor man had three daughters but could not affort a proper dowry for them. This ment that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment would have to become prostitutes. Hearing ot the poor man's plight, Nicholas decided to help him but too modest (or too shy) to help the man in public, he went tho his house under the cover of night and threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window opening onto the man's floor. One version has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes "of age". Invariably the third time the father lies in waiting, trying to discover their benefactor. Upon one veraion the father confronts the saint, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank but god alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor nam's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead. For his help to the poor, Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers; the three gold balls traditionally hung outside a pawnshop smbolize the three sacks of gold. People then began to suspect that he was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St. Nicholas.

It should be noted perhaps that a nearly identical story is attributed by Greek folklore to Basil of Caesarea. Basil's feast day on January 1 is also considered a time of exchanging gifts.

It is said that in Myra the bones of Saint Nicholas each year sweated out a clear watery liquid, called Manna, which of course was said to possess immense powers. As the bones were robbed and brought to Bari, they continued to do so, much to the joy of the new owners. So even up to today, a flask of manna is extracted from the tomb of Saint Nicholas every year on December 6th (the Saint's birthday). It is however worth noting that the tomb lies at sea level in a harbor town so the occurrence of watery liquid can be explained by several theories. Still, neither the church nor any scientists have ever tried to analyse the fluid, so truth still lies in the eye of the believer.

One of the most amazing feats of Saint Nicholas however was that he lived to a ripe old age and died peacefully in his own bed. At a time where most saints earned their place in heaven by dying for their faith in manners most unusual and cruel, this definitely made him stand out (together with Saint Martin, who also died of natural old age) and definitely aided to his 'popularity' in every way of the word.

Formal veneration of the saint

Among the Greeks and Italians he is a favourite of sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing. As such he has become over time the patron saint of several cities maintaining harbours. In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as "The Lord of the Sea", often described by modern Greek scholars as more or less a christianised version of Poseidon. In modern Greece, he is still easily among the most recognisable saints and December 6 finds many cities celebrating their patron saint. He is also the patron saint of all of Greece.

In the middle ages, both Saint Nicholas and Martin of Tours were celebrated as true people's saints. Many churches were named for them and later gave their names to the vilages that emerged around them. As described above, while most contemporary saints earned their place in heaven by dying for their faith in manners most unusual and cruel, both Nicholas and Martin lived peacefully to a ripe old age. At a time of holy wars and crusades the idea that one could go to heaven, even become a saint, just by the way one lived instead of the way one died must have offered a great deal of consolidation for the medieval common folk. Therefore this time made Saint Nicholas a 'popular' saint in every way of the word, more than all his miracles combined.

(Scholars may discover some analogies to the Norse god Thor, who was also a common man's god compared to the more complex Odin. In fact many of the aspects of the Saint Nicholas' celebration can be linked to similar features of the ancient Thor worshipping.)

Today, saint Nicholas is still celebrated as a great gift-giver in several Western European countries. According to one source, medieval nuns used the night of December 6th to anonymeously deposit baskets of food and clothes at the doorsteps of the needy. According to another source, On December 6th every sailor or ex-sailor of the low countries (which at that time was virtually all of the male population) would descend to the harbor towns to participate in a church celebration for their patron saint. On the way back they would stop at one of the various Nicholas fairs to buy some hard-to-come-by goods, gifts for their loved ones and invariably some little presents for their children. While the real gifts would only be presented at christmas, the little presents for the children were given right away, by courtesy of Saint Nicholas ... or Santa Claus... This, and also his miracle of him resurecting the three butchered children, made Saint Nicholas a patron saint of children and later students as well.

Due to modern association with Christmas, Saint Nicholas is a patron saint of Christmas, as well as pawnbrokers (see above).He was also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Eastern Roman Emperors, who protected his relics in Bari.

==In iconography==
St Nicholas, the patron saint of Russian merchants. Fresco by Dionisius from the Ferapontov Monastery.

The holy person of St. Nicholas is a popular subject portrayed on countless Eastern Orthodox icons, particularly Russian ones.

"Icons are quite literally meant to be 'Windows Into Heaven' and to instill in the viewer an attitude of prayerful reflection on the Divine. In Russia icons were not only displayed in churches, but are given the place of honour in many homes, thus serving as a daily reminder to live in strict accordance with Christian virtue, values and duties." (Source: The InstaPLANET Cultural Universe).

In Catholic iconography, Saint Nicholas is depicted as a bishop, wearing all the insignia of this profession: a red bishops cloak, a red miter and a bishop's staff (crozier). Due to the episode with the three dowries, he is shown holding in his hand either three purses, three coins or three golden balls. Dependingon whether he is depicted as patron saint of children or sailors, his images will be completed by a nbackground showing ships, children or three figures climbing out of a wooden barrel (the three slaughtered children he resurected).

In a strange twist, the three golden balls referring to the dowry affair are sometimes misinterpreted as being oranges or other fruits. As in the low countries oranges are generally believed to come from Spain, this let to the belief that the Saint lives in Spain and comes to visit every winter bringing oranges and other 'wintery' fruits.

Saint Nicholas the festive gift-giver

Saint Nicholas Day is a festivity for children in much of Europe related to surviving legends of the saint, and particularly his reputation as a bringer of gifts. The American, Anglo-Canadian, and British Santa Claus derives from this festivity, the name 'Santa Claus' being a degeneration of the Dutch word Sinterklaas.

Some elements of this part of the Saint Nicholas tradition could be traced back to the Germanic god Wodan (Odin). The appearance is similar to some portrayals of this god. In the Saint Nicholas tradition in the Netherlands he rides a horse over the rooftops, and this may be derived from Odin's riding through the sky. Also his assistants, the Zwarte Pieten ('Black Peters') may be a remnant of the raven that accompanied Wodan.

The history of the festive Saint Nicholas celebration is complex and reflects conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism. Since Nicholas was a canonised saint, Martin Luther replaced the festival that had become associated with the Papacy with a "Christkind" (Christ child) celebration on Christmas Eve. The Nicholas celebrations still remain a part of tradition among many Protestants, albeit on a much lower scale than Christmas. The Protestant Netherlands, however, retain a much larger Saint Nicholas tradition. Many Catholics, on the other hand, have adopted Luther's Christkind.

Celebration in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary and Luxembourg

In Germany, Nikolaus is usually celebrated on a small scale. Many children put a boot, called Nikolaus-Stiefel, outside their front doors on the night of December 5 to December 6. St. Nicholas fills the boot with gifts, and at the same time checks up on the children to see if they were good. If they were not, they will have charcoal in their boots instead. Sometimes a disguised Nikolaus also visits the children at school or in their homes and asks them if they "have been good" (sometimes ostensibly checking a book for their record), handing out presents on a per-behaviour basis. This has become more lenient in recent decades.

But for many children, Nikolaus also elicited fear, as he was often accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, who would threaten to beat, or sometimes actually eat the children for misbehaviour. Knecht Rupert furthermore was equipped with goatlegs. In Switzerland, where he is called Schmutzli, he would threaten to put bad children in a sack and take them back to the Black Forest. In other accounts he would throw the sack into the river, drowning the naughty children within. These traditions were implemented more rigidly in Catholic countries such as Austria. In highly Catholic regions, the local priest was informed by the parents about their children's behaviour and would then personally visit the homes in the traditional Christian garment and threaten them with rod-beatings. In parts of Austria, Krampusse, whom local tradition says are Nikolaus's helpers (in reality, typically children of poor families), roamed the streets during the festival. They wore masks and dragged chains behind them, even occasionally hurling them towards children in their way. These Krampusläufe (Krampus runs) still exist, although perhaps less violent than in the past. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Mikuláš is often also accompanied by an angel who acts as a counterbalance to the ominous Knecht Ruprecht (čert). In Slovenia Saint Nikolaus (Miklavž) is accompanied by an angel and a devil (parkelj) corresponding Austrian Krampuss. In Luxembourg "Kleeschen" is accompanied by the "Houseker" a frightening helper wearing a brown monk's habit.

Celebration in the Netherlands

The Dutch St. Nicholas at his arrival in the town of Sneek in November 2005

In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' eve is the present-giving occasion, when his alleged birthday is celebrated. In this case, roles are reversed, though, in that Sinterklaas is the one who gives the presents.

In recent years, Christmas (along with Santa Claus) has been pushed by shopkeepers as another present-giving festival, with some success, although, especially for young children, Saint Nicholas' eve is still much more important than Christmas.

On the evening of December 5, Sinterklaas brings presents to every child that has been good in the past year (in practice to all children). Sinterklaas wears a red bishop's dress including a red mitre, rides a white horse (called Amerigo) over the rooftops and is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dresses, dating back two centuries. These helpers are called 'Zwarte Pieten' (black Petes). During the Middle-ages Zwarte Piet was a name for the devil. Having triumphed over evil, it was said that on Saint Nicholas eve the devil was shackled and made his slave. Although the character of Black Peter later came to acquire racial connotations, his origins were in the devil figure. This racialization is reflected in the reworking of the character’s mythos. Their blackness was racial, with Pete being an imported African servant of Saint Nicholas since 1850 (though some people say Pete was a slave who, when Sinterklaas bought him his freedom, was so grateful that he stayed to assist him). Today however, the more politically correct explanation that Pete's face is "black from soot" (as Pete has to climb through chimneys to deliver his gifts) is used. Traditionally Saint Nicholas only had one helper, whose name varied wildly. "Piet(er)" the name in use now can be traced back to a book from 1891. The frame shift to multiple Petes was more or less a direct result of the assistance provided by the Canadian army to the reception of the saint in 1945 Amsterdam.

Sinterklaas has a long white beard, holds a long gold coloured staff with a fancy curled top in his hand (a crozier) and carries a big book with all the children's names in it, and whether they have been good or bad.

Each year in November Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat 'from Spain', and is then paraded through the streets of the town he arrives in (actually in every town of the Netherlands), welcomed by cheering and singing children. His Zwarte Pieten throw candy and small, round gingerbread like cookies (Pepernoten) into the crowd. The children welcome him by singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. Sinterklaas also visits schools, hospitals and shopping malls. His official arrival in a different town each year is televised on public television. Over the years media attention has grown, while Sinterklaas is in the country the 'Sinterklaasjournaal' is aired every day, discussing his activities and any major 'problems' (which occur every year). Also, on the main day of celebration (traditionally December 5th) the Dutch version of Sesame Street the inhabitants of Sesame Street are visited by Sinterklaas as well. All Dutch national television companies have agreed to use the same actor to portray Sinterklaas; currently, the role is played by Bram van der Vlugt.

Traditionally, in the weeks between his arrival and the 5th of December, before going to bed, children put their shoes next to chimney of the coal fired stove or fireplace, with a carrot or some hay in it "for Sinterklaas's horse", sing a Sinterklaas song, and will find some candy in the form of a chocolate, marzipan frog in their shoes the next day, supposedly thrown down the chimney by a Zwarte Piet or Sinterklaas himself. However, with the advance of central heating children will put their shoes near the boiler or even just next to the front door.

Children are told that Black Peter enters the house through the chimney, which also explained his black face and hands, and would leave a bundle of sticks or a small bag with salt in the shoe instead of candy when the child had been bad. In recent years some people have engaged in a recurring debate about racial aspects of the black Peter character: the Peter character may have been inspired by black slaves. The usual reply is that his face is black of soot. Some have actually gone so far as to replace black Peter by "green Peter" (a man in a Moorish dress with a green face). Given that the fictitious Sinterklaas comes from Spain, the Moorish dress of his helpers is noteworthy since Moors ruled over most of Spain for centuries.

Children are also told that in the worst case they would be put in the gunny bag that black Peter carries the presents in, and would be taken back to Madrid in Spain, where Sinterklaas spends the rest of the year. This practice however has been condemned by Sinterklaas, in his more recent television appearances, as something of the past.

Traditionally Saint Nicholas brings his gifts in the night and Belgian children still find their presents on the morning of December 6th. Later in The Netherlands adults started to give each other presents on the evening of the 5th; then older children were included and today in that country even the youngest take part in 'Sinterklaasavond' or 'Pakjesavond': children at home sing Sinterklaas songs and suddenly somebody will knock on the door very loudly, and when they go to the door a gunny sack full of presents is found on the doorstep. Alternatively - some improvisation is often called for - the parents 'hear a sound coming from the attic' and then the bag with presents is 'found' there. Some parents manage to 'convince' Sinterklaas to come to their home personally.

Typical presents include the first letter of the child's name made out of chocolate, a figurine of Sinterklaas made out of chocolate and wrapped in painted aluminium foil, coloured marzipan shaped into fruit, an animal or some other object. These presents are often accompanied by a simple poem, saying something about the child or with a hint to the nature of the present. Also popular are coins and cigarettes made out of chocolate. However, the European Parliament has issued a recommendation to ban chocolate cigarettes since they might promote future real smoking.

But the presents may be too big or too many, so they have to be sneaked into the house while the kids are distracted.


The children, up to an age of usually seven or eight years, almost religiously believe in Sinterklaas. They think that he actually lives forever and that he comes from Spain, that he knows everything about the children and that his Zwarte Pieten do come down through chimneys. The period between his arrival and December 5 is therefore very exciting.

When children ask their parents how it is possible that Sinterklaas is at so many places, they tell them that those are assistant Sinterklazen. At family gatherings where a stand in Sinterklaas in a rented suit appears, parents have reported in advance to this Sinterklaas what the children have done good and bad and make it look like he knows everything about the children when the 'Goedheiligman' ('Good Holy Man') looks in his big book.

Most children do suspect that Sinterklaas may not truly exist. The atmosphere during celebrations can be very enchanting though, and many children really want to believe. Also, most children can't think of a reason why their parents would lie to them.

For some children, gradually losing their magic view of the world as they grow older and getting more and more suspicious about what their parents are telling them, it still may be their first big traumatic experience in life when their parents admit that Sinterklaas does not really exist....

Therefore some parents tell their children from the start that all this Sinterklaas is just a fantasy, a game that people play, as they consider it an inappropriately bad example about telling the truth. Others, looking back on their own experience with Sinterklaas as a child, consider that the enjoyment the children get is greater than a 'small' discomfort. Some Christians fear that if their children discover them lying about the existence of Sinterklaas, the children may believe that they are lying about the existence of God himself.

Dutch and Flemish media, especially television stations, abide by a kind of informal rule never to deny Sinterklaas's existence, or at least not in programs broadcast before children's bedtime.


After kids stop believing, families often continue to celebrate the holiday. Also secondary school classes and colleagues at work sometimes celebrate it together.

The poem and the wrapping, called surprise, usually become more important than the gift itself. There may be instructions about where the gift is hidden, the parcel may act strange when handled, there may be several layers of wrapping, with syrup smeared in between and ultimately there may be no gift in the parcel at all. The possibilities are endless and preparations may start weeks (or months) in advance. But no worries, there are always real gifts, the biggest of which are sometimes, a remnant of the original tradition, reserved for the next morning, spread out on a big table and buried under walnuts and mandarins ('from Spain'). The poems may also be more like small pieces of art, often ridiculing things the receiver did in the past year. Since the poem is signed by Sinterklaas, the poems can be pleasantly sharp and things can be said which one would not usually say directly, even though it is usually clear who wrote the poem. The quality of such poetry varies strongly, from crooked rhymes to reasonably well written poems of several pages.

Celebration in Belgium

Originally Sinterklaas or Sint-Nikolaas was only celebrated in Flanders and the Netherlands the way described above, but now he is celebrated in Wallonia in the same way. The celebrating of Saint-Nicholas is mostly the same as in the Netherlands, but in Belgium the children receive their presents on the 6th of December. Children have to put their shoes at the stove the evening of the 5th of December and the next morning, they find their presents. This tradition was still alive thirty years ago in the Catholic south of The Netherlands.

Note that Saint Nicholas has been celebrated in Belgium for centuries - there is even a city called Sint-Niklaas - but, like every folkloristic thing in Belgium, there might be small differences, and generally in the eastern part of the provinces West Flanders and East Flanders Saint Nicholas is not celebrated, but instead children receive presents from Sint Maarten (Saint Martin) on the 11th of November.

Saint Nicholas is also celebrated by the university students in the city of Liège.

Celebration in France

In France, Saint Nicolas is only celebrated this way in the eastern part of the country (Alsace, Lorraine regions) and less strongly in the northern part of the country (Nord département). He is accompanied by "Père Fouettard", carrying a bunch of sticks with which naughty children are beaten.

Celebration in Portugal

In Portugal, St. Nicholas (São Nicolau) is celebrated since the Middle Ages in Guimarães as the patron saint of high-school students, in the so called Nicolinas, a group of festivities that occur from November 29th to December 7th each year.

Other celebrations

See Santa Claus for information about St. Nicholas in English speaking countries. See Christmas around the world for other information.

Benjamin Britten cantata

Benjamin Britten wrote a Christmas cantata commisioned by three public schools. This tells the story of Saint Nicholas and his Christian exploits. This is for small orchestra, three choirs, a tenor soloist (St. Nicholas), and a treble (young Saint Nicholas).

See also

External links

ca:Sant Nicolau da:Julemanden de:Nikolaus von Myra eo:Sankta Nikolaoes:San_Nicolás_de_Bari fr:Saint Nicolas fi:Joulupukki he:סיינט ניקולאס ja:ミラのニコラオス la:Nicolaus lb:Kleeschen nl:Sint Nicolaas no:St. Nikolas av Myra pl:Święty Mikołaj ro:Sfântul Nicolae ru:Николай Угодник sk:Svätý Mikuláš sr:Свети Никола sv:Nikolaus (helgon)

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