St. Nicholas and Santa Claus: A ‘good’ Story

The Story of Saint Nicholas

St Nicholas is called Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and Belgium. Who was that good ‘Saint’? Sint Nicholas was born in the year 270 in Patara – Lycië in the Eastern Roman Empire, now in Antalya in Turkey. When he was nineteen years old, he became a priest. He died on December 6, 342. In the Netherlands and Belgium it is claimed that St Nicholas comes from Spain. This is probably because his skeleton was transferred to Italy later after his death. This place was in Spanish hands for a long time. In many other countries across Europe the children’s party of St Nicholas is also celebrated, but the interpretation of the folklore varies by country and region.

Saint Nicholas was a bishop and caused many miracles. He helped people to survive if they were poor. He did this by throwing food and precious stones into the houses. Because Saint Nicholas provided so many wonders during his life, he was declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. In the 13th century his name day was established on 6 December. So on December 5, people celebrate his ‘birthday’ to commemorate the good man. He will then receive no presents, as befits a saintly man, he then gives them away.

Because the Saint was declared holy, many legends went around. The following story has left many traditions, such as spreading the candy and the unexpected giving, also the golden chocolate coins come from here. A nobleman from Myra was so poor that he could no longer pay a dowry for his three daughters. And where there is no dowry, there are no men to marry. The girls threatened to remain unmarried and worse: for their maintenance the girls would be dependent on prostitution. Then Bishop Nicholas decided to intervene. At night he went, along with the light of the moon, to the house of the poor girls. Several times he threw coins in until there was enough money to provide a dowry for the three girls.

Sinterklaas
St Nicholas on the rooftops at night

In ancient times the god Wodan was a kind of St Nicholas. Wodan was ‘transformed’ by the Catholic Church into St Nicholas. This, because the church of Rome could not get the image of Wodan from the faithful. The church was able to reverse the image by giving Wodan a ‘facelift’: with a bishop’s coat over his hairy skin and a Miter on his head. Instead of a lightning bolt, Wodan’s replacement got a staff with a curvature at the top. The black horse became a fungus. His name was St Nicholas and was declared a friend of the children. A Dutch Sinterklaas will be accompanied by his helpers “Pieten”. There is no clarity about the origin of the people. But it is probably an Ethiopian orphan who has stayed with the Saint as thanks. The miter probably originated from an Oriental head covering “a Phrygian cap” that is normally only worn by the Pope. Sinterklaas always runs over the roof at night. This is because he does not want to be seen and this way he and his helper Piet can throw all presents through the chimneys.


The story of Santa Claus

American Santa Claus is actually the same as St Nicholas in Western Europe. Santa Claus has the same character as St Nicholas. Only now he has the help from little Elfs and travels on a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. This sleigh is full of presents, such as toys, just like St Nicholas. He slides with his sleigh through the air from chimney to chimney. Through the chimney, he descends to fill the hung socks of the children. In Scandinavia there is a similar person: the Joelman. This also uses a sleigh with reindeer for it. He brings fertility and gifts around. Santa Claus originated in the United States in 1626 when a Dutch ship arrived there with the figurehead ‘Sinterklaas’. That is because Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors. The crew wanted to establish a colony, this colony became New Amsterdam: what is now New York. The sailors brought with them the Dutch customs and thus a generous character was introduced in ‘the new world’.

Santa Claus
Santa Claus drinks Coca Cola

Santa Claus was first presented as a scary person, but luckily he became friendlier over time. Because of Coca-Cola, Santa has only really changed into a sweet and kind man. Coca-Cola wanted to sell the sweet drink more to children in 1931. Because of the law, no advertising images could be made with children in it. Commissioned by Coca-Cola, Haddon Sundblom visualized a friendly Santa. He drew a cheerful man in the well-known bright red suit and the white fur collar. The eight reindeer of Santa Claus were all named in 1822: Blitzen, Comet, Cupid, Dancer, Dasher, Donner, Prancer and Vixen. The reindeer immediately thinks Rudolf the red nose reindeer of the famous song. This Rudolf only came into the picture in 1939. Then Robert L. May created the ninth reindeer. Children look forward to Santa every year because of the presents. These presents must be made and packed. This work is done by the Elfs of Santa Claus. These Elfs live in his house and make gifts for children in all countries throughout the year.

So there is a big comparison between Santa and Sinterklaas: they actually originated from the same man: Nicolaas of Myra.

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