Pages

Thursday, December 6, 2012

ST. NICHOLAS | "German"??

Hilda van Stockum's Kersti
December 6, 2012–I love to listen to Garrison Keillor's radio program, "The Prairie Home Companion", on NPR. He serves up a piece of it as a daily email, under the name "The Writer's Almanac".

It includes his reading of a poem and highlights of the lives of writers or other historical figures whose birthdays are celebrated that day. It is usually well researched and for me it is the Fifth (and funniest) Gospel.

But today it takes note of St. Nicholas Day by describing it as a holiday "celebrated in Germany and other European countries, as well as many American cities with German roots."

No, sir. I cannot let that pass. My late mother, Hilda van Stockum, would not want me to less this slide by. She was a huge fan of the saint and wrote a whole book about St. Nicholas, Kersti and St. Nicholas. I grew up revering this saintly Greek bishop who came from what is now part of Turkey.

The implication that St. Nicholas was primarily a German-venerated saint is untrue. St. Nicholas did not come to the United States from Germany, even though there are today more German-Americans than Dutch-Americans in the USA.

St. Nicholas came via Holland. When Englishman Henry Hudson sailed over in 1609 to what is now New York City on the "Half Moon" he was in the employ of the the Dutch East Indies Company.  He went back to Holland with news of the fertile river valley going north from the port that he called New Amsterdam. Within five years Dutch settlers had made a small city on the southern end of the island we call today Manhattan.

Thomas Nast Drew This Iconic Picture of
Sinterklaas Based on Moore's Poem.
The Dutch settlers brought with them their St. Nicholas, venerated by both the Protestants and Catholics in Holland. He was the patron saint of Amsterdam and sailors and children and became also the patron saint of New York City. Clement Clark Moore, an Englishman who owned a farm in what is now the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, is credited with the poem "'Twas the Night before Christmas" about a visit from St. Nicholas, "Sinterclaas" in Dutch, who was transformed from an angular bishop to a jolly elf driven by reindeer and a sleigh. Cartoonist Thomas Nast finished the picture of what we have come to know as Santa Claus.

The Dutch tradition includes two key elements:
  • On St. Nicholas Eve (December 5), children sing songs about the arrival of the saint and partake of special St. Nicholas treats, including the Speculaas almond-ginger cookies. At St. Nicholas parties the saint arrives with his bishop's miter and crozier, and presents are distributed. 
  • Whether or not there is a party on St. Nicholas Eve, children leave out a shoe in front of the fireplace and put carrots in them for St. Nick's white horse. On the morning of December 6, St. Nicholas is supposed to have arrived during the night on the rooftop with presents for good children. The carrots are gone and the good children get sweets and toys, whereas the bad children get just a lump of coal from the fireplace as the saint goes back up the chimney..
Most Germans emigrated to the United States much later than the Dutch. The German immigrants were mostly farmers and less likely to move than the Dutch, who were traders. The new Germans settled inland, in Ohio and Wisconsin and Minnesota. They have big populations in cities like Cincinnati and Milwaukee. Keillor's Lake Wobegon celebrates the Lutheran émigrés from Scandinavia and Germany. These farmers brought with them the Christmas tree (Tennenbaum), and the feast day that is celebrated is Christmas.

Children leave out a shoe in the German tradition, but the appearance of St. Nicholas is rare and the December 6 feast day is nothing like as important as in Holland, where traditionally has been more important than Christmas.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting! St. Nicholas Day is certainly a big deal here in Milwaukee where it is celebrated almost universally (though to greater or lesser extents).

    ReplyDelete
  2. The German version of St. Nicholas includes a switch filled with candies. It is featured in the song "Oh My Papa" where the boy's "tears are turned to laughter" when the switch breaks open. We did not have anything like that in the Dutch version of St. Nicholas Day.

    ReplyDelete