Happy Feast of St. Nicholas!
Today, Christianity celebrates the feast of St. Nicholas. You know of the guy: jolly old St. Nick, original inspiration for that northern merrymaker, Santa Claus. Of course, this St. Nick is a guy with a real history and a story to tell in the Christian tradition. Born in what is today the nation of Turkey in the 4th century C.E., Nicholas was raised by his namesake uncle, a bishop who ordained him a priest. Later, as the bishop of Myra, our St. Nick participated in the great Council of Nicea, which codified Christian belief in a creed that we still (with slight alteration) recite today.
Pious legend has it that Nicholas was a generous soul, rescuing young girls from certain poverty and miraculously feeding his people in time of famine.
Less pious legend has it that he was so fed up with the heresies of fellow bishop Arius at Nicea that he walked across the room and punched Arius in the face.
Either way, St. Nicholas has become the symbol across Europe for generous gift giving and the joy of the holiday season. What may come as a surprise to most Americans is that his generosity to good children comes with a heavy caveat: bad children are likely to get much more than coal in their stocking. In some countries, St. Nick is accompanied by Krampus, a devilish counterpart who beats naughty children and drags them to hell. In Holland, he is accompanied by Zwarte Piet, Black Pete, six to eight of him, who beat the naughties and drag them back to Spain (which lately has been mired in a sort of economic hell). The Dutch tradition has become particularly controversial lately, although the normally progressive and welcoming Dutch fiercely defend their tradition:
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.”
The Dutch government responded by saying that it regarded the Sinterklaas tradition as a children’s celebration, that it was aware of the differences of opinion concerning Black Pete, but that it was highly committed to combating discrimination in all forms.
But if all that sounds just a little too scary–and heavy–for our post-Halloween holiday gladness, fear not. Writer and NPR contributor David Sedaris takes a wry look at the Dutch tradition of St. Nick, which he recorded live at Carnegie Hall. Here’s a tease:
While eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our Christmas story remains relatively dull…A Dutch parent has a decidedly harrier story to relate, telling his children, “Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before going to bed. The former bishop of Turkey will be coming tonight along with six to eight black men. They might stuff you into a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don’t know for sure, but we want you to be prepared.”
This is the reward for living in the Netherlands. As a child you get to hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it.
It’s very much worth listening to, and is sure to bring some cheer to your day (and don’t be confused by his set-up of gun laws in the U.S., it will all make sense about three-minutes in):
Black Pete cover image is courtesy Flickr use Pascal and can be found here.
St. Nick and Arius meme courtesy the interwebs.