Sinterklaas - December 05, 2006
St. Nicolas and the tradition of celebrating his birthday :
Placing shoes in front of the fireplace, his horse, eating and offering speculaas (spiced cookies), the chimney, his knights and servants. A lot can be traced back into time, christianity and in Celtic mythology.
This feast has several sources and I will try to connect them all to get a picture on who Saint Nicolas is by sharing all I know about facts, myths, legends and stories.
Where did he come from and where did he live :
In the basilique in Bari, you will find Nicolas with a mocca coloured skin like a Barik sailor after a very long journey at sea. Some think he was a Moor, or an Arab, because of his tainted skin colour as if this saint got a lot of sunshine during his journey. The images and statues in old churches often get very dark and dusty during their stay inside those churches and as a result of that long stay the skin of all statues become very dark, brown sometimes even black.
The truth is we don't really how he must have looked like, but there is of course the catholic robe and clothing. Originally the Saint was Spanish - Italy was part of Spain a long time ago, and people in northern Europe thought that everyone that lived that far south was rich which explained why and how Nicolas was able to help so many poor people.
Nicolas of Myra was born in 270.
Saints are part of catholism, its culture and history.
Sinterklaas, Saint Nicolas was a special little baby child.
How children were involved.
This tradition made it possible for young men to step into adult life for a few weeks. During these weeks a young boy was assigned to do the task of an adult bishop but with the help of his friends, most of them living in religious homes and monasteries. The boys were challenged to behave like grown-ups, knowing what to do, judging what was best and to practice responsibility towards the community and to bring compassion into action.
Sinterklaas is a symbol of the historic religious figure and the teutonic hero who saved a lot of lives during winter, especially of children.
Nicolas the bishop of Myra.
Soon a lot of legends were built and created around this man. He would throw money and food and candy and gifts into the houses of those who had to live in poverty and he offered opportunities to get a education for boys and young men who were doomed to spent their lives without any prosperity. He would offer young people a chance to find love and luck by paying the dowry for the girls born in poor families so they would have a chance of marrying a good man in stead of becoming a easy pray for men with bad intentions and/or to prevent them becoming prostitutes in an attempt to escape from hunger and eventually death.
He represents generosity, humility, faithfulness, compassion.
The other figure is Wodan or Odin.
There are also other minor gods as Balder that can be considered to be helpers and servants of Wodan. Before and during the middle ages, people offered Wodan food and beer at the fire place so he could enter their homes to the fire place when all were asleep. And before food, beer and bread were introduced people of the old tradition were used to offer blood, animals and slaves. These items were sacrificed to call Wodan and the luck he would bring. Good thing of course these sacrifices were changed in time into food, water, beer, and sometimes fruits and grains for the black birds.
Past Lives and Fireplaces : Before the Middle Ages the fire place was already the centre in every house where people in their homes would sleep and get together to tell stories and find warmth and comfort. The chimney was also and always the channel where ancestors and entities good travel from one plane to another. In the very early ages passed relatives were buried under the floor in homes and shelters, so they would be around with the living.
Saint Nicolas and Wodan are important keepers of children, sailors and ships, commerce and crafts, harvests, justice and relationships.
Additive historic facts and stories :
Black More Slaves : The people saw young black Mores as slaves serving the rich when they were out there in the open with their masters and there were a lot of stories going around those young men, good and bad, but they were poor and never to allowed to talk to rich and noted people not even to their servants so the stories began that these boys from an unknown and far away place came through the chimneys and to the fireplace at night to find a substitute for the warmth of the sun they were used to before they were brought to the northern countries.
Living Brooms : Little boys living during the middle ages without a warm home to live in had to clean up the fire places and the chimneys and when they did their job they became so black and filthy you couldn't possibly rub it off or clean it with water and soap. These little boys - living brooms - were Nicolas' helpers when it was his birthday. Normally they were held responsible when the cities would burn or something caught fire, so they were very busy, very careful.
The Devil : There are drawings that show the devil with a bag on his back dragging little children away through the fire place. This was all to warn the children to behave and be nice or else the devil would come to take them away. If they were good, they could expect candy, gifts and something nice like sugar and sweets, maybe a little money.
Knowing the living brooms were always out there, but almost never to be seen let alone get a chance to talk to, made them available for educational purposes, like Wodans ravens and also the More slaves owned by the rich.
Pite - Piet : Another story tells us that Saint Nicolas bought the freedom of a young black slave called Pite - Pete in English - and that this boy decided to stay with Nicolas to help him with good deeds and later on other young children became servants also to make the Saints life a little easier when he grew older and older. Servants of noted people had special clothing that is why the boys were dressed up in colourful fancy clothes.
4 groups of helpers : The Living Brooms. The Black More slaves. The Black Ravens of Wodan. The Child-bishop and the 26 boys. This mix resulted in the figure of : Zwarte Piet. The Zwarte Pieten travel with Saint Nicolas when he comes with his ship to the Netherlands - remember he was a sailor and helped the sailors and fishermen out there at sea - and when he gets on shore, he travels with a white horse able to fly through the skies, followed by dark men running and climbing the roofs and chimneys. Stealing food and drinks and offering candy, gifts and Good Luck in return.
Dear Sinterklaas : Happy Birthday and I am thrilled to congratulate you with your 1737th birthday.