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 investigated the humble beginnings of a devout bishop from southern Turkey 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 protect them from desecration by the invading Moors. This relocation spread his story of generosity and Faith to a new audience. There were already “midnight gift giving” traditions on the day of Nicholas’ death (December 6) in Asia Minor. Now western Europeans added “St. Nicholas Day” and his gift-giving tradition to their “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 (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 the world, the tradition preferred socks on the fireplace.
In the Middle Ages, especially after the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church divided in 1050 A.D., the “saints day” holidays began to lose their luster. Many western leaders wanted to refocus December celebrations on the “Christ Mass” (December 25). It’s why St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 AD creatively put together the first “Nativity” scene to visually explain the holy day.

However, it was the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther in the 1500s the early 1500s that radically transformed St. Nicholas Day.

Like some in earlier Middle Ages Christianity, Protestant churches felt “saints days” removed the focus from Jesus. But there was a problem. The Germans loved the gift-giving aspect of St. Nicholas Day. And Germany was the heart and soul of the Lutheran Protestant Churches.
Consequently, the German Martin Luther fixed the problem by moving the Nicholas traditions (December 6) to Christmas (December 25). He felt Nicholas’ story better fit the gift of the Christ Child and gifts of the wisemen. Germans pronounced “Christ Child” as “Christkindl.” Therefore, the name Nicholas evolved into a new name for St. Nick: Kris Kringle. The Germans also introduced to the December 25  holiday the Christmas tree, advent calendars and wreaths.

In the Netherlands, Dutch Christians putting their own spin on the St. Nicholas story.

According to their end-time views and Revelation 19-20, the Dutch believed Jesus would return at the midnight hour…in judgment. He’d ride a white horse, with the saints of heaven following him. At that time, Jesus will subject mankind to a Day of Judgment to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. The righteous are preserved because their names were written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Most Christians today believe this idea too.

But the Dutch Christians reimagined this biblical idea for St. Nickolas (or Sinter Klass).

The Dutch created an annual morality play to remind children (and all people) that Jesus was going to come (like St.Nick) at midnight to judge children according to his “Book of Naughty and Nice.” In this Dutch story mash-up, however, the angels in heaven are the elves at Santa’s workshop. The north star, because it’s a fixed point, is the North Pole, the home for Santa or, in Dutch: Sinter Klass. And because there weren’t many horses in the Arctic, Sinter Klass’ sleigh was pulled by reindeer.
But there’s an interesting and sordid twist on the Dutch “St. Nick” tradition. It’s that Sinter Class was accompanied by a Black Moor named Zwarte Piet. When Sinter Klass visited the “nice” children, they received treats and reward. However, when he came to the homes of “naughty” children , they were kidnapped and removed to Spain (by Zwarte Piet) in a gunny sack, then sold into Muslim slavery.
It’s why Dutch boys (who obviously were more “naughty”) slept with a pocket knife on Christmas Eve. It was their only way to escape from the sack of Zwarte Piet. But it’s also why Santa carries his toys in a large sack. As the “treats” were removed for the good children, it created room for the “naughty” ones to be whisked away to slavery. A bit creepy, I know, but that’s the reason. Thank you Dutch parents.

Thankfully, the English focused less on St. Nicholas gift-giving and more on the feasting of Christmas.

The Anglo-Saxon Christmas was about pleasure…particularly feasting on food. And nobody feasted better than King Henry VIII. During his reign the Christ Mass “holy day” devolved into a Mardi Gras that completely lost the reason for the season. The Twelve Days of Christmas were for hard partying, gambling, dancing, sexual promiscuity, drinking (wassail was a spiced beer) and getting into trouble. It still retained a gift-giving aspect (as the traditional carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” indicates) but there was little to no religious factor.
This English holiday also separated the rich from the poor…a theme Charles Dickens framed in his story about Scrooge and Tiny Tim (“A Christmas Carol”). It’s a theme that a hundred years later will find a new twist in the 1947 Frank Capra movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” If you don’t have wealth, you might as well be dead.

All this Anglo bawdiness, however, created a problem for a certain group of English Christians known as the Separatists  and Puritans.

When these religious parties migrated to “New England” to create a better society, their first order of business was to outlaw Christmas (as well as Halloween) in their new American home. In 1659, the Puritans levied a five shilling fine to anyone caught celebrating Christmas. Even though many old English Christmas traditions had been transported to their “New England” home, the Puritans weren’t going to let them root. On Christmas Day in 1712, the Rev. Cotton Mather preached there was no place for the English Christmas, any more than there was room for a Greek orgy or a Muslim holy day:

Can you in your conscience think, that our Holy Savior is honored by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling; by a Mass fit for none but a Saturn or a Bacchus, or the Night of a Mahometan (Muslim) Ramadan? You cannot possibly think so!
The Puritan ethic was strong in early America. Consequently, both Christmas and Halloween celebrations were suppressed until the mid-1800s. It would take other Europeans from different countries and traditions to breathe new life into both holidays. The Irish were primarily responsible for rescuing Halloween (a shortened Irish way to say “Hallowed Evening”) and the Dutch were the ones who kept Christmas alive in America.

America will eventually prove the great melting pot for all St. Nicholas (Kris Kringle, Sinter Klass) traditions.

However, a new American “Santa Claus” would emerge in the 1800s. And this new Kris Kringle was a marketing genius, Hollywood star and mall icon by the end of the 20th century. America was going to create its own spin on old St. Nick…and thanks to movies, radio television, cartoons, and Coca-Cola…it might be enough to make the original St. Nicholas roll over in his grave.



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