The Santa Chronicles: The Rise of Sinter Klass (Part 2)
How did St. Nicholas become Santa Claus? It’s an important part of the real history of Santa Claus. In part 1, we looked at the humble beginnings of a devout Greek bishop known as Nicholas. His generous deeds were legendary. Now let’s dive into the European chapter that sets up the myths and legend we know today.
Muslim aggression into the Middle East and Asia Minor during the 11th century saved this story for us.
The tale of “St. Nick” should be as forgotten as most religious saints of that period. But it wasn’t. Nicholas’ remains were moved to Italy in 1087 AD to save them from desecration by the invading Moors. This relocation pushed his story of generosity and Faith to a new audience. There were already “midnight gift giving” traditions associated with Nick on the day of his death (December 6) in Asia Minor. Now western Europeans added “St. Nicholas Day” and his gift-giving tradition to their other “saint days” holidays.
“St. Nicholas Day” (Dec 6) quickly became a popular European Christian holiday.
One legendary story reported how Nicholas left gold coins for people in their shoes (usually kept just inside the front door). It’s still a tradition in some countries for children to leave their shoes by the doors on Christmas Eve to be filled with gifts. For the rest of us we prefer socks on the fireplace. In the Middle Ages, the “saints day” holidays began to lose their luster.
In the early 1500s Martin Luther (and his Protestant Reformation churches) eliminated “saints days”–including St. Nicholas Day.
The Protestant churches felt “saints days” removed the focus from Jesus. However, the Germans loved the gift-giving aspect of St. Nicholas Day. Consequently, the German Luther moved the Nicholas story and tradition to Christmas (December 25). He felt it better emphasized the gift of the Christ Child and gifts of the wisemen. Germans pronounced “Christ Child” as “Christkindl.” Therefore, the name Nicholas evolved into KRIS KRINGLE. The Germans also gave us the Christmas tree, advent calendars and wreaths.
But it was Dutch Christians who truly changed the St. Nicholas tradition.
According to Revelation 19-20, Jesus will one day return to the earth at the midnight hour…in judgment. He’ll ride a white horse, with the saints of heaven following him. Jesus will then remove all mankind to a Day of Judgment to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. The righteous are saved because their names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
The Dutch Christians attached this biblical idea to St. Nickolas (who they call Sinter Klass) on Christmas Eve.
The Dutch created a morality play. Like Jesus, Sinter Klass returned annually (and sometime during the night) to judge children according to his “Book of Naughty and Nice.” In this Dutch story mash-up, the angels become elves. The north star, because it’s a fixed point, becomes the North Pole, the home for Sinter Klass. And because there aren’t many horses in the Arctic, Sinter Klass’ sleigh is pulled by reindeer. One interesting twist on the Dutch “St. Nick” tradition is Sinter Class was accompanied by a Black Moor named Zwarte Piet. The “nice” children received treats and reward, but the “naughty” children were hauled off to Spain in a gunny sack and sold into Muslim slavery. It’s why Dutch boys (who tended to be more “naughty”) slept with a pocket knife on Christmas Eve (to escape from the sack of Zwarte Piet). It’s also why Santa carries his toys in a large gunny sack. A bit creepy, I know, but that’s the reason. Thank you Dutch parents.
Unlike the Dutch, the English focused less on St. Nicholas gift-giving and more on the feast of Christmas.
And nobody feasted better than King Henry VIII. During his reign the Christ Mass “holy day” devolved into Sin City and Mardi Gras combined. The Twelve Days of Christmas were for hard partying, gambling, dancing, sexual promiscuity, drinking (wassail was a spiced beer) and getting into trouble. It’s a holiday that separated the rich from the poor…a theme Charles Dickens framed in his story about Scrooge and Tiny Tim (“A Christmas Carol”).
All this Anglo bawdiness is going to create a problem for a certain group of English Christians known as the Separatists (Pilgrims) and Puritans.
In fact both of these religious parties will migrate to “New England” to create a better society. In their first order of business they’ll outlaw Christmas (as well as Halloween) in their new American home.
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