This comes a little late as the feast day of Saint Nicholas is on 6th December. However, I have just received some chocolates in the shape of St Nicholas and Zwarte Piet, from a friend in Belgium.
St Nicholas was the bishop of Myra (in modern day Turkey) during the 4th century. There are various stories of him performing miracles during his lifetime, including saving a ship during a storm. He was renowned for his charitable works and secret gift giving and is the patron saint of sailors and children. Saint Nikolaos was known as Sinterklaas in Dutch, which is just a hop, skip and a jump to Santa Claus.It is traditional to give gifts on St Nicholas’ Day in many countries and a lot of folklore has been built up around this event. St Nick is represented as an elderly gentleman with flowing beard and bishop’s robes, riding a white horse and carrying a book with lists of who has been good and who has not. He is accompanied by Zwart Piet, a controversial figure. The pair were thought to represent night and day/light and dark/good and evil. Some suggest that the dark skinned Zwart Piet represented Spanish Moors, others that he was a chimney sweep. He is dressed in 16th century clothing and his role seems to be to beat naughty children while Sinterklaas hands out sweeties to good children. Protestant reformists abolished such frivolities as Saints’ feast days and gift giving, but the festivals remain in parts of Europe where Catholicism prevailed. St Nicholas is also highly revered by Eastern Orthodox Christians. However, he has clearly made a revival in many of the Christmas traditions we know today. Interestingly some people think that the St Nicholas traditions themselves can trace their origins to Pagan times. Similarities exist with the Pagan god Wodan/Odin who rode through the air on a white horse checking on whether people were behaving themselves or not. One ceremony performed on the Feast of St Nicholas was the ordaining of a Boy Bishop. The chosen boy would perform all of the ceremonies of the Bishop from 6th December until 28th December, Holy Innocents Day. In England this ceremony was abolished by Henry VIII in 1542. However, it was revived in my home town of Hereford in 1973 where Hereford Cathedral selects a Boy Bishop annually.
Oddly enough, this whole train of research was started by my purchasing this cute ratty Christmas decoration from my friend in Belgium via her website, and her kind gift of some chocolate! Some of the proceeds of the sales of her adorable figurines go towards her rat rescue.