St Nicholas’ helpers
In Europe St Nicholas is often accompanied by a young man or boy with black skin. His most spread names are:
Black Peter, Zwarte Piet, Swart Peter (in Holland, Germany, Belgium), Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, Pelzebock (in Germany, Austria), Schmutzli (in Switzerland), Père Fouettard (in France). He is usually dressed in colourful clothing of the medieval Moor and he knows about all children who was good and who was bad the previous year. In some traditions, he would take the naughty children away in his big sack, in others he gives a rod for their future punishment.
Picture: Sinterklaas bij een snoeper. Illustration by Jan Schenkman, from St. Nikolaas en zijn knecht. G. Theod. Bom, Amsterdam z.j. 1850.
Taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:08_St._Nikolaas_bij_een%27_Snoeper.gif
The roots of Black Peter’s image go back to ancient times, though there exist several explanations about his origin and the colour of his skin. During the Middle Ages “Zwarte Piet” was a name for the devil. On St Nicholas eve the devil was defeated, shackled and made Nicholas’ slave. According to the theory of pagan origin of the feast in Holland, this character is associated with the black ravens, helpers of pagan god Odin. In some places there is a folk belief that the evil butcher, who had killed little children to sell as meat, became the eternal follower of Nicholas.
Later appeared a tale about Black Peter’s African origin. They say St Nicholas bought freedom for an Ethiopian slave boy called Piter, and the boy was so grateful that decided to stay with the saint and assist him. With time, to avoid the racial context of Black Peter’s image, they spread a simple explanation of the black colour of his skin - a chimneysweep as his profession.
In Czech, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, as well as in some areas in Austria, St Nicholas has usually two attendants – the devil (with the role similar to Black Peter) and an angel who acts as a counterweight.
The Netherlands: Sinterklaas tradition
In Netherlands the Saint is known under the name Sinterklaas, or Sint Nikolaas. The tradition of gift-giving is implemented usually on St Nicholas’ Eve (December 5), so-called “presents evening”.
In the folk traditions Sinterklaas is an elderly, stately and serious man with white hair and a long beard. He is dressed in a traditional bishop’s alb, sometimes with a red toga, has a red mitre on his head and holds a gold-coloured crosier. He also carries a big book which tells him about each child’s behaviour over the past year. From original Nicholas’ portraits he differs mainly by coming on a flying horse instead of a donkey (roots of this lay in ancient pagan belief in God Odin who possessed a flying horse Sleipnir). Black Peter walks along with Sinterklaas, dressed in animal skins or colourful Moorish clothing.
Picture: St. Nikolaas op de schoorsteen. Illustration by Jan Schenkman, from St. Nikolaas en zijn knecht. G. Theod. Bom, Amsterdam z.j.
Taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St._Nikolaas_op_de_schoorsteen.jpg
Dutch children were told that Sinterklaas sailed from Spain. This tradition is possibly explained by the fact that Bari, where the relics of the Saint were brought, was under Spanish control at that time.
Children used to fill their shoes with hay and sugar for the horse of Sinterklaas, and in the morning they found nuts and candies in exchange.
A history lesson: Sinterklaas
Santa Claus traditions (American origin)
On the left – the image of St Nicholas (painting by Francesco Guardi: Segnender Hl. Nicolaus, 1745-1750; source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Francesco_Guardi_047.jpg)
On the right – the image of Santa Claus (Christmas postcard, 1911; source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Workshop_02.jpg)
The story of the spread of Sinterklaas tradition in America was given in the previous section. Today people can hardly recognize in American Santa Claus the great miracle creator St Nicholas, whose image has actually given birth to Santa’s tradition. Santa was at first associated with a thick bellied Dutch sailor dressed in a green winter coat and holding a pipe. Gradually red colour or Santa’s clothes became more and more popular. So, nowadays Santa is portrayed as a plump, jolly and kind fellow, with long white beard, wearing a red and white costume and a broad brimmed Santa hat. The popular story was born about Santa Claus, who lives at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus, his wife, and prepares Christmas gifts throughout the year, together with his helpers – little Christmas Elves. Then at Christmas Eve he rides in his flying sleigh with eight flying reindeers and at midnight leaves presents for the children in socks hanged by their beds or near the Christmas tree. He enters and leaves the house by the chimney.