Saint Nicholas Day: Remember the bishop who was the ‘real’ Santa Claus

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 6: Whether he’s known as Sinterklaas, San Nicola or St. Nicholas in your part of the world, keep watch for the white-bearded man in the red suit, as Christians across the globe celebrate Saint Nicholas Day. In European countries, today’s festival means heaps of sweets, small toys and exciting surprises left by the famed fourth-century saint, as he makes his rounds with Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). By receiving gifts—or coal—on St. Nicholas Day, children can focus on the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day.

ADVENT SEASON FOR WESTERN CHRISTIANS: Learn about this special season for more than a billion Western Christians in our December 1 column about Advent.

NATIVITY FAST FOR EASTERN CHRISTIANS: Families who belong to Orthodox churches began their annual fast in November.


The “real” story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, a man born in the 3rd century in modern-day Turkey. Orphaned at a young age, Nicholas took to heart the words of Jesus and sold what his wealthy parents had left to him. Nicholas gave his profits to the poor, and was soon made bishop of Myra. His reputation for compassion and generosity continued. (Learn more from St. Nicholas Center.)

With the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, Christians—included Bishop Nicholas—were imprisoned and exiled. Following his release, Nicholas’s passion for helping others persisted. Stories of his deeds rapidly spun into legends, and many of those legends are still told on St. Nicholas Day today.

In 343 CE, Nicholas died in Myra, and was buried beneath his cathedral church. (Wikipedia has details.) A relic known as manna formed in his grave, and the sweet-smelling liquid was rumored to have healing powers. This manna posthumously increased the popularity of the saint, and the anniversary of his death became a feast day in the Christian Church. Today, St. Nicholas is the patron of children, sailors and a number of regions around the world, as well.


In stark contrast to the secular figure of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas bears religious connotations in many of the countries that grandly celebrate his feast day. In Germany and Poland, boys dress as bishops and beg for alms for the poor; in the Netherlands and Belgium, it’s legend that St. Nicholas arrives by steamship and rides a white horse. French children often hear the tales of St. Nicholas from grandparents and elders, while gingerbread cookies and mannala (a brioche shaped like the bishop) are prepared in kitchens and bakeries. In Italy, the Fiera di San Nicola (St. Nicholas Fair) is celebrated during the first weeks of December.


Children young and old can get into the spirit of St. Nicholas with help from the St. Nicholas Center, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting his life. Visitors can find everything from printable candy bar wrappers and paper bag puppets to recipes for St. Nicholas cookies and chocolate initial cookies. Men dressing up as St. Nicholas can join the St. Nicholas Directory, and churches can find inspiration from a new devotional: “From the Holly Jolly to the Holy: Reclaiming the Sacred during Advent and Christmas.”

Across the web, Women for Faith and Family provides a recipe for traditional speculaas ginger cookies, which are often made in Europe for St. Nicholas Day. Sycamore Stirrings suggests ideas for St. Nicholas spoon puppets.


A faithful-if-mischievous servant of St. Nicholas, Black Peter, is well known in the Netherlands and parts of Belgium. He also shows up in communities with Dutch roots in cities including New York City. While Sinterklaas, the Dutch St. Nicholas, gives out gifts—Black Peter may give a spanking with a bunch of twigs. Some in the Netherlands claim he is black, because he is a chimney-sweep who prepares the way for Sinterklaas. In any case, Black Pete wasn’t a cause of much concern until this year.

Now, Black Pete is a serious issue both in New York and in Europe. Critics are calling for an end to this traditional character—and are encountering significant resistance from millions of men and women who live in the Netherlands. A commentary in the New York Times by Dutch journalist and a author Arnon Grunberg is the best overview we’ve seen of this cultural conflict.

Grunberg explains how deeply the Dutch are clinging to vestiges of their traditional culture, including Black Pete as part of December festivities. “But just as the defense of traditions has grown stronger, so has the criticism that Black Pete is a racist holdover from the Netherlands’s colonial past. In January, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights sent a letter to the Dutch government stating that Black Pete perpetuated the image of people of African descent as second-class citizens and constituted a ‘living trace of past slavery.'”

As December 2013 rolls around, many in the Netherlands continue to defend the custom—but activists around the world also seem to be gaining ground in criticizing the figure. While some Dutch are suggesting the nation adopt “Green Pete” as a compromise, others reject that as giving in to international pressure. The global conversation continues to unfold. Stay tuned.


Last year, the popular VeggieTales animated DVD series released a fanciful children’s version of the life of the “real” St. Nicholas, called: St. Nicholas: A Story of Joyful Giving. That tale bent the actual history into a child-shaped pretzel, combining legend with the usual vegetable-shaped silliness and songs. Nevertheless, the video remains an inexpensive and delightful tale for the whole family.

THIS YEAR, VeggieTales is back with a second Christian-specific holiday story. We have a new review of Merry Larry and the True Light of Christmas, written by ReadTheSpirit Editor (and big Christmas-movie fan) David Crumm.

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