THE HISTORY OF SANTA CLAUS follows a gripping tale of generosity that dates back to the fourth century and a man named Nicholas, who bestowed gifts anonymously, expecting nothing in return. The evolution of the tall, slender, dark-bearded Dutch saint into the rotund, jolly, sleigh rider we know as Santa Clause is laced with miracles and mystery—with a touch of sweet cookies and spiced wine.
Nicholas is believed to have been the Bishop of Myra (present-day Kale), on the south coast of Asia Minor between the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus. He was the son of well-to-do parents and, according to legend, already pious as a small child, and he grew up to be a pious man associated with many miracles.
The Dutch tradition of Saint Nicholas bestowing gifts anonymously at night appears to hark back to his most famous miracle, that of a poor father who had no dowries for his three daughters and so decided to sell them into prostitution. Nicholas heard the sad tale and came at night to deliver a bag or a ball of gold for the oldest daughter, then returned twice more with gold as the other girls came of age. (In medieval times, the popular story became an oft-performed, rhymed miracle play.)
In another famous story, also made into a miracle play, three boys who had been killed, butchered and packed into a barrel with salt are restored to life by Nicholas, who also punishes the evil killer. A twelfth-century song describes the grisly murder and how Nicholas resurrects the boys. The three-boys-in-a-barrel theme is frequently seen along with portrayals of the Saint Nicholas—one even found its way onto a seventeenth-century Dutch cookie mold in the collection of Historic Hudson Valley.
Nicholas is said to have died on December 6, 343ad. (The year is vague-in any case, he died sometime between 340 and 350.) Saints’ days are generally celebrated on the day of their death (and their rebirth in heaven)—”Nicholas Day,” December 6, is part of the Roman calendar.
On December 5, the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaasavond (literally “Saint Nicholas Evening”)… The celebration is all about candy and sweet treats. It simply and literally could be called a “dessert party.”
St. Nicholas’s fame was spread steadily by returning Crusaders; Christian missionaries brought tales about him to Eastern and Western Europe, and St. Nicholas churches ringed the Mediterranean and Aegean. Troubadours spread his lore as well, and he became the main character of plays and the subject of songs and hymns. He became so popular, in fact, that his remains were taken (rather, stolen) from the church in Myra and brought to Bari in the province of Apulia in Italy, where Pope Urban II dedicated a basilica to him in 1089 and where his tomb can be found today.
From the start, Nicholas was a more secular personality than most saints (unlike many saints, he was never cloistered, and he was not a martyr). Because he is seen to solve worldly problems, he came to be viewed as a folk hero—an “all-purpose” saint whose unquestioning generosity made him the patron of button makers, solicitors, sailors, firemen, merchants, florists, tanners and, above all, children, scholars and schools. His patronage of seafarers spread his fame to the Low Lands, where to this day a celebration endures on the eve of St. Nicholas’s Day. On December 5, the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaasavond (literally “Saint Nicholas Evening”).
Saint Nicholas’s fame spread to the New World via Columbus, who named Saint Nicholas Harbor and Saint Nicholas Mole (a massive stone breakwater or pier that encloses a harbor) in Haiti. A later explorer founded Saint Nicholas Ferry in Florida (now Jacksonville).
But the more important part of the story of Saint Nicholas in the New World has to do with the Dutch, who brought the celebration with them to the colony of New Netherland in the seventeenth century. Proof of the fact that the celebration continued here can be found in a baker’s account, dated March 1675, in the Rensselaer Manor Papers held at the New York State Archives. Maria van Rensselaer, a member of the Patroon’s family, purchased a variety of Saint Nicholas treats, including rusks, koeken (probably a kind of gingerbread) and white bread from local baker, Wouter Albertsz vanden Uythoff.
The transformation of Saint Nicholas into the uniquely American gift-giving figure we now know began, however, with the publication of Washington Irving’s 1809 historical spoof, A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, in which he describes Saint Nicholas “riding the rooftops and drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pocket.” It has been said that without Irving, there would not be a Santa Claus.
Sinterklaas is the Dutch contraction of the old Dutch words Sint Heer Klaas (“Saint Nicholas”); “Santa Claus” is a rough English transliteration of the Dutch Sinterklaas. Here in the West, not only did the saint’s name change, so did his visage: the tall, stern Bishop was transformed into a jolly, round, friendly Santa smoking a Dutch clay pipe. Many incarnations of Santa can be found on nineteenth-century American postcards and illustrations until the Santa we know today—complete with long white beard, red outfit, black belt and boots—finally emerged. Clement Moore’s poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (the authorship of which is sometimes contested), published in 1823, added the now-required reindeer. By 1866, illustrator Thomas Nast built on the contemporary interest in arctic explorations and created a home and workshop for Santa at the North Pole.
Though St. Nicholas has become Santa Claus in America, he remains the familiar, taller and much thinner bishop in the Netherlands and his day is celebrated with special treats prepared only during the festivities on December 5. It may be hard for many Americans to imagine, but the traditional celebration of St. Nicholas Day is a completely separate gift-giving occasion from Christmas, and it is not one for which decorations are in order. What’s more, no special commemorative or celebratory meal precedes the evening’s merriment—the celebration is all about candy and sweet treats. It simply and literally could be called a “dessert party.”
Among the treats that might be served are pepernoten, an unusual, small spiced cookie flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, anise or caraway seed and finely minced citron. The cookies are hard but soften in the mouth and are delicious to suck on.
Another favorite pastry for the occasion is the banketletter, an almond paste-filled puff pastry shaped into a letter (usually of the first or last name of the recipient). A simpler version, a straight stick made from the same ingredients, is called a banketstaaf. While children traditionally drink hot chocolate or hot anise milk that evening, adults imbibe bisschopswijn, made from red wine, oranges and spices.
It hardly needs mentioning that you may find all three recipes useful for your own American-style Christmas celebration.