995: this celebration is about a faith in the capacity of people to find pleasure in their lives
Day 995: Tuesday, December 6, 2022
this celebration is not about belief or non-belief, but about a faith in the capacity of people to find pleasure in each other and in their lives
SAINT NICHOLAS DAY
For the past few years, there have been letters on the Internet from agnostic Dutch college students defending the celebration of St. Nicholas Day. For Christians in the Netherlands, especially those in the tradition of the Dutch Reform Church, December 25 is a solemn day for church services and family dinners.
But most Dutch people approach December 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas, with a very different attitude. Any attempt from either religious or secular fundamentalists to change tradition will be opposed. For this celebration is not about belief or non-belief, but about a faith in the capacity of people to find pleasure in each other and in their lives. We outside the Netherlands can learn something from how St. Nicholas Day is celebrated. It has to do with sharing our deep feelings about those we love.
Of all the characters associated with winter, few can equal St. Nicholas. His legend is probably mixed up with stories about the principal Norse god, Odin, who, like Nicholas, flew around on a great white horse and popped gifts down chimneys. But it really doesn’t matter where it started. For a long time now, it has been all about St. Nicholas.
The Dutch are very tolerant of the St. Nicholas Day celebrations in the rest of Northern Europe, but they know full well that the real St. Nicholas, Sinterklass, lives in Spain, and he arrives at a Dutch seaport in mid-November with a big red book that he promptly opens in order to publicly discuss (these days on national television) the misdeeds of the mayor’s blushing children.
Sinterklass’s little helper has been gathering data on everyone’s conduct all year; Odin had two ravens who listened at chimneys. With that ritual of gentle confrontation, the Sinterklass season begins. This little drama of Nicholas’s visit will be enacted in almost every household in the Netherlands, Christian and non-Christian alike, before December 6. It is not just a celebration for small children. All ages revel in the festivities.
Who was this fellow? Nicholas did exist. He was born around 271 CE and was bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. Many legends of good deeds surround him. He secretly tossed dowries for poor maidens down chimneys or through windows, saved falsely imprisoned people, and delivered children from all manner of harm. Somehow he even became the patron of pawnbrokers. But what made him so popular in maritime-centered Holland was that he befriended sailors, whom he protected from storms and other disasters. At times Nicholas admonished the rescued sailors to go and help others, and they were perhaps the first of what the Dutch now call hulp-Sinterklazen or “Helpers of St. Nicholas”, a very worthy profession from teens to centenarians.
Despite all the excitement, the celebrations remain simple. Literally taking a leaf from St. Nicholas’s big red book of human foibles, this is a time for gentle humor and teasing. There are gifts, but they are usually inexpensive and must be camouflaged in some way. Often a treasure hunt is involved. And a clever poem is always attached. The poem is anonymous and hints at some shortcoming of the recipient. The signature is always “Sinterklass,” and the required response, no matter what one’s age, is “Thank you, Sinterklass.”
On the evening of December 5, everyone heads home. There are many traditional foods and often large chocolate letters, one for each person’s first initial, serve as place cards at the table. A basket of presents, with poems attached, is the center of attention. Each person in turn must read out the poem tied to her or his gift, which is then opened to the pleasure of all. The emphasis is not on commercial value, but on creativity. I once delivered a St. Nicholas Day gift of chocolate to a chocoholic Scotswoman who had performed in the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra for a number of years before moving to California. Her instant response to my gift was, “Where’s the poem?” That was what she truly prized. On the days before St. Nicholas Day, poems appear everywhere in the Netherlands - schools, offices, the media, churches, and Parliament.
As we reach out to each other at this time of the year, we could consider something like a St. Nicholas poem. But it is not easy. Many years ago I accepted a hulp-Sinterklazen role, in our very American home, of seeing that the stockings were filled on Christmas Eve. Somehow I found the time to write to each person and, for me, this was the most important part of the job. I could be clever and impressive with the little gifts and treats, but the letter meant more than all the rest. As the years rolled on it seemed there was less and less time in December and the letters faded away.
If I were to undertake them again, I would have to begin them long before December 24. There are so many questions that need time for reflection before I put my thoughts into a letter. What has the person faced this year? What have they contributed to others? How do I put into words my love for them? What has life been like because of them? And there are the memories that need to be shared. These often do not surface without a lot of quiet space. But they are essential. If there are tensions in our relationships, it is important to share memories of times when busyness and conflict didn’t matter - only love did.
If individual Christmas letters are begun early they can grow and mature as the season goes through its phases. The sixth of December, St. Nicholas Day, seems a good time to begin the process.
- Brother Toby