Herald Journal Columns
Dec. 22, 2003 Herald Journal
Pastor's Column

A look at the history of 'Sinterklaas' - St. Nicholas around the world

By Father Robert Mraz, Holy Family Catholic Church, Silver Lake

One of the most famous sidelights of Advent-Christmas is St. Nicholas, better know in this country as "Santa Claus" from the Dutch who came to New York (originally New Amsterdam), and brought their custom of "Sinterklaas" = St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas was born around 300 in the city of Parara of Lycia in what is now Turkey. In his youth he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine after which he was made Bishop of Myra.

He was imprisoned during the persecution of Diocletian and was released after Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Emperor) took the throne as Roman Emperor.

Constantine called the Council of Nicaea to settle the argument raised by the Priest Arius that Jesus was only a man. It is said that at the Council, Bishop Nicholas "punched him out" for denying the divinity of Jesus.

The council condemned Arius and wrote the Nicene Creed, used since to show Jesus' divinity as well as humanity.

St. Nicholas is best known for his faith and charity. There is the famous story of the three daughters of the poor man who were coming of age for marriage. Without a dowry they could not get married and it was feared that they would have to become prostitutes.

As this was totally unacceptable for Nicholas, before the marriageable age of each one, Nicholas would come in the middle of the night and drop a bag of gold coins through the window for the dowry and then run away so no one would know who performed the kind deed.

Finally the father of the girls was watching when the third bag of gold was dropped through the window and caught Nicholas in the act. Thus we have Santa Claus coming down the chimney with gifts in the middle of the night when all are asleep.

St. Nicholas was also known for raising three boys from the dead.

The story is that as he was traveling, he was going through a county with a famine. He stopped at an inn to see if he could get something to eat.

Surprisingly a bowl of soup was brought to him with meat in it. Realizing something was wrong he checked the kitchen in the back and found the bodies of three boys cut up by the butcher in a barrel of salt brine. He blessed the barrel and the three boys jumped out alive.

St. Nicholas died Dec. 6 of 345 or 352 A.D. and was buried in Myra. In 1087 Italian merchants stole his body and took it to Bari in Italy where it has remained.

His tomb has been known as a place of miracles, and from his tomb to the present day an oily substance comes forth known as "Manna di S. Nicola" which is valued for its medicial powers.

St. Nicholas is celebrated in many countries as the patron of charitable fraternities and guilds, sailors, merchants, bakers, travellers, unmarried girls, pawnbrokers (the three balls = the three bags of gold coins) and children.

In Austria he comes Dec. 5 eve or Dec. 6 dressed as a bishop, carrying a big book and a Bishop's crosier (staff). During the year the angels, who sometimes accompany him, write the good and bad deeds in his book.

In Austria a strange and frightening creature "Krampus" is with St. Nicholas, a devil figure often in chains dressed in fur with a scary mask who threatens children who misbehave and do not know their lessons.

When children promise to be good and study hard, St. Nicholas rewards them with a treat. Children leave shoes on the windowsill or outside their bedroom doors and they find chocolates, cookies and breads decorated like the saint.

In the Czech Republic St. Nicholas "Svaty Mikulas" is lowered by angels from heaven by a golden cord and comes with a basket of apples, nuts, and candies.

St. Nicholas forms a procession Dec. 6, which goes through the town. St. Nicholas comes with gifts for children, a devil comes to take away the bad children, and an angel comes to plead on their behalf.

St. Nicholas quizzes the children on their prayers and on the Bible. The angel records the results in a large book. The children sing or say a poem to the saint. The devil rattles his chains threatening to carry away the bad children, and the angel with a gold star on her forehead dressed in white protects the children.

The good children receive stockings with tangerines, nuts, chocolate and small gifts. The bad children get old potatoes and coal in theirs.

In Poland St. Nicholas "Sw. Mikolaj" comes Dec. 6 as a bishop descending from heaven with an angel helper and travels on foot or in a sleigh pulled with a white horse as he visits homes in the countryside. Children recite their catechism and prayers.

St. Nicholas rebukes or praises, and then gives holy pictures, red apples, or oranges and saint cookies. If he doesn't come in person, the treats are put under the children's pillows or in polished shoes.

St. Nicholas encourages the children to behave ­ there are switches as well for naughty children.

In Germany St. Nicholas "Sankt Nikolaus" comes Dec. 6 as a bishop with a flowing beard. Children polish their shoes and put out letters for the good saint, along with carrots or other food for his white horse or donkey on a plate or in their shoes left outside, under the bed or beside the windowsill in hopes of finding goodies from St. Nicholas the next morning.

During the night St. Nicholas carries a big book in which all the children's deeds are written. If they have been good he fills their plates or shoes with fruits, nuts and candies. If not they find potatoes, coal or twigs.

Sometimes "Ruprecht" the dark devil figure comes along with him for the bad children. If he visits the homes in the evening, the family is up awaiting him. They light the candles of the advent wreath as well as have the nativity scene in the middle of the room.

He comes with a sack and his gold bishops staff, and asks the children "If they behaved themselves, if they did their homework, if their room is tidy and if they helped their parents."

If the answers are favorable he gives them presents and candies and the children give him little presents they have made for him. In some parts of Germany he comes with the Christ Child or "Christkindl" at Christmas.

"Christkindl" said quickly slurs into "Kris Kringle," another name he is known by. St. Nicholas lets us know that as we celebrate Christ's birth that we also need to act like Christ to others.

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