Today, December 6th, is the feast of Saint Nicholas.
Of course, here in the UK we ignore it completely, as we do all saints’ days, with the possible exception of Saint Patrick’s day, when masses of people go bonkers, dress in green and get as drunk as possible.
And we must not forget Saint Valentine’s Day, although most people don’t associate it with a saint and just call it Valentine’s Day, sometimes without the apostrophe. Nowadays the anonymous aspect of Valentine’s Day (Valentines’ Day) has largely been forgotten. Nobody sends anonymous valentines (no capital letter, as you have no doubt spotted) but lots of people expect to receive cards and expensive and romantic gifts from their acknowledged partner in life, be it boyfriend/girlfriend, fiancé(e) or spouse.
But other saints are mostly ignored, probably because of good old Henry VIII declaring us all Anglicans and therefore having no truck with papist traditions such as saints’ days.
Be that as it may, today is the Feast of Saint Nicholas. In other parts of the world the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day is an important part of the run-up to Christmas.
In Germany, it’s traditional to leave out your slippers on the evening of the 5th December and, if you’ve been good, “der Heilige Nikolaus“ will visit and pop some treats in them for you. Some children leave boots out and receive small toys. In some parts of the country Saint Nicholas is accompanied by Krampus, a devil-like creature who decides whether or not children have been good.
According to the Dutch, Sinterklass lives in Madrid, Spain, (probably warmer than the North Pole, although in winter I’m not so sure) and travels to the Netherlands by boat. He is accompanied by his servants, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters) who, like Krampus, have kept a record of children’s behaviour over the year.
Sometimes children are told that the Zwarte Pieten keep a record of all the things they have done in the past year in a big book. Good children will get presents from Sinterklaas, but bad children will be put in a sack and the Zwarte Pieten take them to Spain for a year to teach then how to behave! How to traumatise your children! Or give them an opportunity to become fluent in Spanish!
Mostly, however, it’s a matter of a parade through the town and lots of sweets being distributed. Obviously this is to punish the parents as the children will all get a sugar high and refuse to go to bed!
In France Saint Nick is accompanied le Père Fouettard, a chap with a whip who punishes bad children, or leaves them lumps of coal instead of treats. One explanatory story goes that three children wandered away and got lost. A butcher lured them into his shop where he killed them and salted them away in a large tub. According to legend, St. Nicholas revived the boys and brought them home to their families. The butcher became le Père Fouettard and now works for Saint Nick, delivering lumps of coal and occasional whippings!
There seems to be a bit of a judgemental theme here. And I thought it was the Protestants who were supposed to be puritanical!
In Greece (as well as Albania, Serbia, and Bulgaria), St. Nicholas’ day is known as Shen’Kolli i Dimnit (Saint Nicholas of Winter). In these cultures, this day is one of fasting, not gift giving. In fact, on this day, most people abstain from meat or fast completely or prepare a feast to eat just after midnight. That all sounds a lot more serious!
The real man behind the fictitious modern day Santa Claus was apparently St. Nicholas of Myra. Born in 280 A.D. in Asia Minor, he lost his parents at an early age, though they left him great wealth when they died. He was known for giving anonymous gifts to help those in need and was eventually made a bishop. And so a legend was created.
And no doubt it got all mixed up with all sorts of older traditions and possible pagan celebrations.
All of that nowadays, cynics might say, has become a great feast of consumerism!
Time to go out and buy some more presents!