Being Canadian, naturally I’ve grown up with the jolly Santa Claus of North America. Although I’d heard some about the Dutch Sinterklaas, this week’s largely unfamiliar festivities have encouraged me to take a deeper look at the tradition. Many westerners have their own regional version of an old, bearded, gift-giving man (Santa, Father Christmas, Samichlaus, etc.), all of which have roots in the celebration of St Nicholas’ Feast Day on December 6. Sinterklaas himself began giving gifts to children in Utrecht as early as 1163, and French nuns left treats for poor children in his memory around the same time. As a medievalist, I had to wonder what this popular and long-honoured saint was up to during the middle ages.
Who was St Nicholas? In short, he was a Turkish Bishop (d. 343) with a reputation of anonymously providing for the needy during his lifetime. As his cult grew over the centuries following his death, he added savior of murdered children, tamer of wild seas, liberator of the falsely accused (and other deeds befitting a miracle worker) to his resume. Nicholas became hugely popular in the Byzantine Church and his relics in Myra continued to attract pilgrims throughout the early middle ages.
At the end of the 11th century the Byzantine Empire lost most of Asia Minor to the Seljuk Turks. Perhaps fearing their fate under Islamic rule, and/or seeing an excellent opportunity to curry favor with the saint and income from his pilgrims, sailors from Bari snatched half of Nicholas’ relics from his church, and translated them to Bari in 1087. During the first Crusade Venetian sailors grabbed the remainder of Nicholas’ bones left behind in Myra, and housed them in the church of San Nicolò al Lido. (Modern scientists have confirmed that the bones at Bari and Lido are indeed from the same body. In 2009 the Turkish Government formally requested that Italy return his relics.)
St Nicholas quickly became a Western favorite. He was named patron of numerous towns, cities, and regions (truly a favorite in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands), resulting in a large medieval record in church art, miracle plays, liturgical commemoration and hagiographical manuscripts. Nicholas is visible in countless church-sponsored cultural artifacts spanning a vast period. However, an aspect of his medieval record that I find especially interesting (and appealingly accessible) is his enormous popularity within almost every social strata of the laity. From bankers to thieves, infants to embalmers, St Nicholas heard the hopeful prayers of just about everyone.
At a quick glance (or Google search, if you will) one can quickly get a feel for St Nicholas’ prominent place in the worship of the wealthy late-medieval devout; his visage appears in countless Books of Hours. As a wealthy man himself who gave his gold willingly to the poor, he would have seemed an excellent subject for upper-class imitation. However, to the modern person unfamiliar with the miracles of the Saint, he’s virtually unrecognizable.
Two prominent stories in St Nicholas’ medieval repertoire (seemingly the most depicted in Books of Hours) are linked to our modern vision of his gift-giving and love of children. The older legend is that of The Three Impoverished Maidens: A poor man in Myra has three marriageable daughters, but cannot afford their dowries. Unable to provide for their futures, he must sell them into slavery. Upon hearing this, Nicholas comes in the night to anonymously toss coins through their window (landing in a stocking or shoe by the fireplace) on three occasions, thus providing enough for all three dowries (hence the Dutch tradition of his three visits and treat-stuffed shoes.)
Another commonly depicted story is that of The Evil Butcher. In this legend three young children lose their way and are lured into the home of a butcher during a great famine. He chops the children to bits and hides them away in a pickling barrel, planning to sell them as ham. St Nicholas intervenes by praying over the barrel, thus restoring the children to life, and confirming his special care for the young. (In an earlier version of this story the children are university students, lured by a murderous inn-keeper. Late medieval images, such as those in Books of Hours, instead tend to depict the children; medieval university students don’t have a particularly endearing or innocent reputation in most contemporary sources!)
While today we might associate Saint Nicholas with the fondest winter-time memories of our youth, to the rich late-medieval lay person his images in their Books of Hours were meant to aid holy meditation. Songs and prayers found in medieval sources (such as the earlier monastic antiphon from St-Lambrecht depicted below) directed towards Saint Nicholas weren’t seeking candy or toys, but intercession. St Nicholas, like many other popular saints, could be a regular figure in the daily devotional practice of medieval persons, sought for assistance with both the greatest and most mundane concerns.
There are of course diverse contributors (religious and secular) to the countless nuanced practices surrounding the modern St. Nicholas/Sinterklaas/Santa Claus/What-Have-You customs we might follow. Attempting to trace obscured (or sometimes completely buried) roots of our holiday traditions through a medieval past might be almost as fun as the holiday itself.