St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Santa Claus: a history of saints, entrepreneurs, and colonial icons

Translated from Italian

After his triumphant arrival in cities about two weeks ago, now Sinterklaas is ready to return to Spain with his servants Pieten in tow, of course making sure to leave substantial gifts to Dutch children.

But where does this tradition come from?

It is now in the public knowledge that Santa Claus has origins related to St. Nicholas of Bari. In the version of the Dutch myth, this origin is even more evident if we think that Sinterklaas is nothing more than the version of Sint-Nicolaas, with clear accessories such as the pastoral staff and the tiara.

What not many people know, however, is that the original Saint from Bari has nothing to do with Bari. Saint Nicholas was born in Turkey in the third century after Christ and was bishop of Myra, the present Demre, where he died on 6 December 343.

His historical figure, in the Church, is that of the protector of Catholic orthodoxy imprisoned under the persecutions of Diocletian. It is not known if he was actually present during the Council of Nicaea, but legends tell that his position against Arianism, a current considered heretical, led him to literally slap the same Arius.

In Bari, St. Nicholas arrived years after his death in what was a real marketing operation. Falling into decline after losing its role as Byzantine capital following the Norman invasion, Bari had to find a way to reassess itself and attract pilgrims. It was therefore decided, in 1087, to organize an expedition to go and recover the remains of the saint. In a hurry, the people of Bari were satisfied with the larger pieces, a few years later the Venetians would come to pick up the smaller ones, which is why parts of St. Nicholas also rest in Venice.

How did you get to the bearded Santa Claus, bearer of gifts?

The figure of St. Nicholas is linked to two legends. The first, a bit macabre, tells of an innkeeper who, to create special treats for his customers, had killed and torn up three children. The Saint, however, would have resurrected them, thus guaranteeing his reputation as the protector of children. In the second legend, instead, one can glimpse the element of gifts delivered at night. A nobleman who had fallen into disgrace because he could not pay for his daughters’ dowry was preparing to start them on the road to prostitution. Saint Nicholas, then, for three nights, let money slip through the window or, in some versions of the myth, three balls of gold.

The cult of St. Nicholas as a bearer of gifts then began to spread in Europe, becoming Nikolaus in Germany or Sint Nikolaas in the Netherlands. Santa Claus was born directly from the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (New York) who were the first to export this tradition to the new world.

With the Protestant reform in some parts of Europe, an attempt was made to change this tradition, trying to attribute to the Child Jesus the task of bringing gifts. This created the link with Saint Nicholas and Christmas. However, the tradition of the Saint survived the attempt to de catholicize the feast, also because the figure of the Child Jesus was deprived of the “threatening” aspect of legend because, in many traditions of northern Europe, the Saint was accompanied by a demon or monster, for example the Krampus in the Alpine areas, whose task was to kidnap children by putting them in a bag. To return to the Dutch tradition, this was also the task that Zwarte Piet carried out about a century ago, the bad children ended up in a sack and were brought back to Spain (by the way: Bari has long been Spanish domination, that’s why Sinterklaas has an Iberian residence).

In 1800, Clement Clarke wrote a poem in which Santa Claus was depicted as the modern Santa Claus, thus beginning the process of de-Christianization of the character, a process that Coca-Cola in 1931 will make final with the illustration depicting the Santa Claus that globalization has taught us to know. The figure of the peaceful white-bearded gentleman is a synthesis between the traditional figure of Sinterklaas and the representation of the Christmas spirit present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

In any case, if Saint Nicholas, in his various forms and different clothes, seems very busy in December, the rest of the year has no time to rest as he is the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, pharmacists, perfumers, coopers, children, schoolchildren, lawyers, prostitutes, and victims of miscarriages of justice.


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