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Friday, December 5, 2014
Tomorrow is Saint Nicholas Day/Santa's Day
How Santa Got His Name
Almost four hundred years ago, in 1625, the Dutch built a trading settlement on the tip of the island of Manhattan. Because of where it sat, it became a major export center from the New World to the Old. Trappers along the Hudson River and places north sold or traded their goods to Dutch merchants, who in turn sent the goods across the Atlantic by ship for resale. Beaver pelts, in particular, were a favorite back in the Netherlands. Their under fur was perfect for making the felt used in the hats popular throughout Europe at the time.
The settlement quickly grew into a town. The Dutch called the town New Amsterdam. More settlements followed, as well as farms, places with names like Breukelen, Jonas Broncks’ plantation, and Van der Donck’s plantation, familiar to us now as Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Yonkers.
Although New Amsterdam belonged to the Dutch, everyone was welcome. Due to the variety of people coming in to trade and sell, the town had an international flair. Among those who settled were Swedes, Brits, a few Frenchmen, some Native Americans and even an occasional former slave.
The Dutch settlers brought their own traditions along with them. Among these was the Feast of Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was Bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey. He is the patron saint of children and of the Netherlands. Celebrating his feast day on December 6 became an important tradition among the Dutch.
One feature of the celebration asks all children to put one of their shoes outside the door on the night of December 5. According to Dutch legend, Saint Nicholas and Old Black Pete, a Moor whom Nicholas met in Spain and who traveled with the Saint, would go from house to house. On the morning of the 6th, if a child was good, he or she would get candy and small gifts in their shoe. If bad, they would find twigs or lumps of coal.
One version of the story has Nicholas and Pete flying over the rooftops on their horses. The Dutch would leave something for the horses to eat, since they were doing all the hard work.
During the Seventeenth Century the Dutch and the British fought several wars. By the year 1674 the British took control of New Amsterdam and renamed it New York, after the Duke of York, the English King‘s brother. The Dutch who lived there were allowed to stay. Many of them chose to do so. They already thought they were separate from native Holland, but they kept their traditions active, including the feast day of Saint Nicholas and the good child-bad child ritual.
During the Revolutionary War citizens of New York adopted Saint Nicholas as their battle standard, in opposition to England’s Saint George. After Independence New Yorkers began to look back at their Dutch roots. Some tried to make Saint Nicholas the patron saint of their city and of the New York Historical Society. Along the way the image of Saint Nicholas changed into someone more closely resembling a Dutch burgher, or merchant, who was round and jolly and smoked a clay pipe. This was how Washington Irving portrayed him in the fictional book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York. The poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” thought to be written by Clement Clark Moore, made this new image of Saint Nicholas a part of American tradition.
Instead of shoes, we use stockings “hung by the chimney with care.” Instead of putting them out on December 5, we put them out on the 24th. On Christmas morning we rush to find what was left for us. We hope to find that the cookies and milk we set out for the nighttime visitor were consumed, like the hay the Dutch left for Sinterklass’s horses. For us, exchanging gifts on Christmas honors the birthday of Jesus, but the gifts and treats in our stockings remain the magical work of Saint Nicholas.
The Dutch call Saint Nicholas “Sint Nikolaas,“ which became “Sinterklass.” By the time the American New Yorkers rediscovered their Dutch heritage, Sinterklass became “Santa Claus.” And that’s why we call him Santa Claus to this day, and sometimes Jolly Old Saint Nick.
My son Nikolas adds this tidbit: the original Nicholas of Myra was a very generous man who tried to help anyone and everyone in need. One particular family was too proud to take charity, so Nicholas pit some coins in a bag and snuck by their house. He threw the bag of coins over the wall. The bag landed in the shoe of one of the members of the family. And that is why children put shoes out on December 5.
I was born in Holland in 1950. My parents immigrated to the US when I was two. I have many close friends and family on both continents. My wife Diane and I have been happily married since 1974. I have four children and one grandchild (two more are on the way). I love writing and sharing what I wrote most of all..