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St NicholasThe feast day of St Nicholas is on December 6.

This famous saint, revered around the world by Catholics and many Protestants, led a fascinating life of faith which also included persecution.

(Photo credit: St Nicholas Center)

Life events

Nicholas was born on March 15, 270 in Asia Minor, then known as Greek Anatolia. Today we call it Turkey.

He grew up in a wealthy Christian family and inherited a lot of money at a young age when his parents died of an epidemic which swept through the region.

Epiphanius and Johanna — sometimes referred to as Theophanes and Nonna — raised Nicholas in faith and holiness. Nicholas also willingly observed the canonical fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays. When his parents died, Nicholas went to live with his eponymous uncle who was the Bishop of Patara. There, Nicholas was tonsured and pursued theological studies. His uncle appointed him a reader and, when the time came, ordained him as a presbyter — a priest.

In 312, Nicholas went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to better understand our Lord’s life. He ended up staying three years, living with the monks of the monastery dedicated to the Great Martyr George — St George. They lived at Beit Jala, a mountain overlooking Bethlehem. Whilst visiting the great shrines commemorating events and places in the life of Christ, Nicholas prayed regularly. Then, one day, he felt the necessity to return to his homeland, specifically Myra.

He arrived in Myra in 317 as the people of city were in the process of deciding whom to elect as a bishop. They decided to elect Nicholas.

This was a time of intense persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. The emperor Diocletian ordered the young Bishop of Myra to be exiled and imprisoned. Diocletian did not bother filling prisons with criminals, only Christians. Nicholas met a great many other bishops — as well as deacons and priests — during his time in captivity. When Constantine became emperor, he freed the Christian prisoners and Nicholas was able to return to Myra.

The false teachings of the heretic Arius were making the rounds of the Christian world at that time. St Methodius wrote:

thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as death-dealing poison.

In 325, the Council of Nicaea formally declared Arianism a heresy and, to guard against present and future generations adopting it, wrote the Nicene Creed.

Although Methodius did not say whether Nicholas attended the Council, another account maintains that he was present. That account claims Nicholas was so angry that he slapped Arius in the face. The other clergy present found this un-Christian behaviour and took away not only his episcopal insignia but also sent him to prison. Tradition says that our Lord and Mary appeared. Nicholas was released and reinstated as Bishop of Myra.

Orthodox Christians believe that Nicholas was one of the signers of the Nicene Creed.

In Myra, Nicholas guarded his people against paganism. He destroyed several temples, including the main one of Artemis. It is said that when he destroyed it, the evil spirits fled, howling.

Nicholas felt responsible not only for his flock’s spiritual welfare but also for their material welfare. Many were needy. Others were innocent people falsely charged with crime. Nicholas was their tireless defender and helper.

Nicholas died in Myra on December 6, 343. He was buried there. By the time the emperor Justinian came to power, a basilica had been built in Constantinople to honour the new St Nicholas. The Church did not have formal canonisation procedures until the 10th century.

During the next several centuries, devotion to St Nicholas spread across all lands and among all ages. One Greek living in the 10th century wrote:

the West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, in the country and the town, in the villages, in the isles, in the furthest parts of the earth, his name is revered and churches are built in his honor. Images of him are set up, panegyrics preached and festivals celebrated. All Christians, young and old, men and women, boys and girls, reverence his memory and call upon his protection. And his favors, which know no limit of time and continue from age to age, are poured out over all the earth; the Scythians know them, as do the Indians and the barbarians, the Africans as well as the Italians.

The relics

Nicholas’s relics have continued to exude manna — a watery substance that smells like roses — from his death in Myra to the present day. This occurs only once a year, on December 6.

During the Saracen invasion in the 11th century, the shrine dedicated to him in Myra eventually fell to the Muslims.

The great Italian cities of the time decided to rescue the saint’s relics. Venice and Bari ended up being the two most powerful contenders. Bari was successful.

A group of men from the city set sail for Myra and were able to load the saint’s relics onto their ship. They returned home on May 9, 1087. That part of the country — Apulia — had maintained many Greek colonies, a factor that might have been an added incentive for the men. A new church (now a basilica) was built in St Nicholas’s honour and the then-Pope — now Blessed — Urban II was present for the installation of the relics. They remain there today. There is also a Greek Orthodox church close by.

Priests continue to extract one flask of Nicholas’s manna a year and will do so on Sunday, December 6, 2015. The manna is poured into small vials which can be purchased from the basilica.

Sailors from Bari will also process from the basilica on Sunday carrying St Nicholas’s statue. They have been doing this for centuries in the hope that he will keep them safe on the sea (see next section).

Stories and legends

The faithful quickly established a cult — devotion — of St Nicholas which spread across Christendom.

Many legends, no doubt some of which are true stories, spread about his goodness and generosity.

The following were to have happened during his lifetime.

The three imperial officers

In St Methodius’s time only one story circulated about Nicholas. That concerned the ill fate of three imperial officers travelling on duty to Phyrgia. When they returned from their assignment to Constantinople, the prefect Ablavius imprisoned them on false charges. It is said that Ablavius was a jealous man. Ablavius went further and appealed to Constantine to issue a death warrant for the three men. Constantine duly did.

When the imprisoned officers found out about their ultimate fate, they remembered the holy example of the Bishop of Myra. They prayed to God that Nicholas might somehow intercede on their behalf.

That night, Nicholas appeared in a dream to Constantine and to Ablavius. The next day, Constantine and Ablavius told each other of their dreams. They sent for the three officers who told them of their prayers for Nicholas’s intervention. Afraid and awestruck, Constantine freed the men and wrote to the Bishop of Myra asking him to pray for the peace of the world. That is how much spiritual power Constantine thought Nicholas had.

The sailors

A group of mariners encountered a storm off the coast of Lycia. Frightened, yet faithful, they asked for help from the Bishop of Myra. He appeared before them and guided their vessel back to port. Sailors travelling in the Aegean and Ionian seas often remembered St Nicholas. They:

wore their “star of St. Nicholas” and wished one another a good voyage in the phrase “May St. Nicholas hold the tiller.”

The poor man with three daughters

A poor man had three daughters whom he hoped would marry. However, he could not afford to pay the required dowries to their bridegrooms — a custom that continues in various cultures today.

He was beside himself with worry.

One night, unbeknownst to the poor father, Nicholas crept onto the man’s chimney and dropped a bag of gold into a stocking that was hanging by the fire to dry. This meant that the man’s eldest daughter was now able to marry.

Some time later, a second bag of gold arrived in a stocking hanging by the fire. It was for the second daughter.

Intrigued, the man stayed up late at night by the fire to discover who was leaving him dowry money.

Finally, one night, he saw that the mysterious benefactor — with the third bag of gold — was Nicholas, who begged him not to tell anyone.

It is difficult to maintain silence in such circumstances, and it was not long before several people knew. After that, word spread quickly that anonymous gifts came from Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra.

The three bags of gold translated into three balls of gold — hence the saint’s protection of pawnbrokers — and also into satsumas or oranges for children’s stockings, suggesting gold. These fruits, until recently, were expensive; children considered them highly valued treats.

The theological students; children and the butcher

Three theological students were on their way to study in Athens.

They stopped at a local inn, where the evil innkeeper murdered them. He hid their remains in a pickling vat.

Some time later, Nicholas was travelling along the same route. He stayed at the same inn. That night, he dreamt about the murders. He awoke and immediately summoned the innkeeper. Nicholas prayed fervently. When he had finished, the students had been resurrected in full health.

In France, the story involves three children who got lost and fell prey to an evil butcher. St Nicholas appeared and appealed to God to resurrect them and return them to their families. God heard and fulfilled the prayer. This is one legend linking the saint to children.

The Arab pirates and the boy from Myra

This is another which also relates to children.

I have separated this story from the others. It could be relevant to the next section.

Some years after Nicholas’s death, the people from Myra were celebrating his feast day. However, their joy was short-lived as a gang of Arab pirates arrived from Crete. They looted the Church of Saint Nicholas and, before they sailed home, kidnapped a young boy, Basilios, an only child.

The emir wanted Basilios to be his cup-bearing slave.

For the next year, the boy’s parents were understandably gripped by anxiety. Meanwhile, Basilios brought the emir his wine in a golden cup every day.

When the next St Nicholas Day arrived, Basilios’s mother was too grief-stricken to join in the celebrations. She stayed home and prayed.

The story goes that, as Basilios was about his duties for the emir, he was suddenly whisked up, up and away. St Nicholas appeared to the boy, calmed him down, blessed him and set him back down at his home in Myra.

Basilios was said to have appeared before his parents with the emir’s golden cup in his hands.

This is the first legend that circulated about Nicholas’s protection of children.

This legend illustrates why we have the association of St Nicholas-Father Christmas travelling across the sky.

Black Pete — Zwarte Piet

I put Basilios’s story above because I theorise it relates to the Dutch Zwarte Piet, St Nicholas’s mythical helper.

St Nicholas Day was a feast for everyone. It is unclear how or where the custom arose, but putting shoes out for a gift from the saint appears in Utrecht’s St Nicholas Church records in 1427. Even adults participated.Not a Zwarte Piet here

Children were given more particular gifts. Bad children were given lumps of coal or switches for whippings. Good children were given fruit, biscuits or a toy.

Jan Steen’s The Feast of St Nicholas (1665-1668), pictured — courtesy of Netherlands by Numbers — shows a typical scene. The boy who is crying has a switch in his shoe.

Although countries of the Reformation banned celebrating saints’ feasts, the Netherlands continued to observe St Nicholas Day.

For most of the centuries when the Dutch celebrated this feast, St Nicholas always operated alone.

History

Then, in the 18th century, the saint somehow acquired a helper, Zwarte Piet — Black Pete.

A century later, one Dutchman later would codify Black Pete into every one’s mind.

Before going into his story, please consider the aforementioned legend of Basilios, whom St Nicholas rescued, and The Netherlands’ place in history from the 17th century.

History Extra reminds us that, at the time, the Lowlands — of which The Netherlands was part — were ruled by Spain under the Hapsburgs. The Dutch would have seen Spanish soldiers.

In the run-up to St Nicholas Day, children were often told that if they were very, very bad, a man named Black Pete might bundle them in a bag and take them to Spain.

These days, being bundled off to Spain sounds pretty good. However, that wasn’t always the case.

In fact, I had an ex-colleague from The Netherlands whose parents used to threaten him with kidnap to Spain in the 1960s. It scared him into being good! Spain was, even then, far away and foreign.

So, how did Black Pete come into the picture? History Extra gives us two possible reasons.

One concerns history. All of the listed possibilities reminded me of the aforementioned Basilios:

Black Pete’s origins are … problematic. There are suggestions that he started life as a Moorish servant from Spain, a Turkish orphan rescued by St Nick, or an Ethiopian slave freed by him.

The other concerns the spiritual element as well as colour symbolism of good and evil from paganism to Christianity:

Among his miracles and good deeds St Nicholas also had time to combat the devil and medieval pictures show him with Satan in chains. The devil is often painted black, but it’s possible Pete is pre-Christian. One of his jobs is to look after Sleipnir, Santa’s horse. He’s an elegant but normal nag and has the same name as Norse god Odin’s eight-legged steed. Odin is often portrayed taking dead souls back to the underworld. Guess what colour they are? Black.

In any event, in the popular mind, the Turkish bishop somehow ended up in Spain. He and his servant Pete would make the trip to arrive in the Netherlands every December 5-6 and punish or reward children accordingly. St Nicholas — Sinterklaas (St Klaas — St ‘Claus)) to the Dutch, in the same way we say St Nick — gave the instruction for the gift. Pete fulfilled his bidding.

The story that changed everything

In 1850, Dutch schoolteacher Jan Schenkman published a wildly imaginative and equally inaccurate story of St Nicholas and Black Pete.

Sinterklaas and his Servant has the two sailing to the Netherlands from Spain by steam ship. It was meant as just a bit of fun, no doubt. But there might also have been some excitement for young minds of the day. Steam ships were a new and technologically advanced form of transport at the time. Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe was also a popular novel. It tells the story of a Knight Templar who returns from Palestine with two black Saracen servants. Schenkman must have had his finger on the pulse, because his story took off.

Slaves on horseback?Black Pete was dressed in Saracen attire whilst Nicholas wore his episcopal robes. The postcard ‘St Nicholas and his Servant’ (same root as ‘knight’) — courtesy of The Netherlands by numbers — shows a scene from a St Nicholas Day celebration of the era.

Despite the mild mischief he engaged in, Pete was always a force for good. However, this does not come without complications today.

Present day controversy rages

Over the past few years, people of colour in the Netherlands have been both sad and angry about Black Pete. Some are sad because they have been called Pete — this includes women, too — whilst others are angry that an annual national celebration includes a reminder of slavery. Others are offended to see some Petes acting like buffoons.

However, Pete continues to be an even better guy these days; he no longer hands out punishment gifts or kidnaps children.

In fact, whilst Nicholas is on his horse, Pete’s the chap who’s busy handing out sweets to children eagerly lining the streets of Dutch towns and cities.

Yet, he’s still a troublesome character.

History Extra says:

Earlier I deliberately wrote of Zwart Pete’s “darker” side. It is this unthinking western link between evil, death, colour and coarse caricature that so worries some. Others point out that it is Pete who is really loved by the kids, not the stuffy Bishop, and they always add that it’s a bit of harmless fun. Here, it’s a debate that is as seasonal as Christmas itself.

VQR Online has an excellent article by a black American who lives in The Netherlands. In some St Nicholas parades, Black Pete also holds the bridle of St Nicholas’s horse, suggesting servitude. The author, Emily Raboteau, writes:

In this last posture, he reminded me a little of a lawn jockey, that American holdover from the days of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Clearly, this was why Zwarte Piet haunted and sickened me in Amsterdam.

At the Amsterdam procession she attended, Raboteau made these observations:

“Piet, Piet!” the children cried. It seemed they loved him more than Sinterklaas, who carried a miter and never smiled …

While I munched on those little Euro-​coin-​sized cookies made soggy by the rain, one particular child captured my attention. She was older than the others, maybe ten or eleven. Her makeup was unevenly applied, as if she’d smudged her face with dirt. In her ear was a cochlear implant, and when she shouted Piet’s name you could hear the deafness in her voice, but also the joy. Her mother stood directly behind her, happy to see her daughter made so happy. I couldn’t be angry with that girl, who was guileless, nor with her mother, who had grown up with the tradition. One Piet stopped clowning long enough to give the girl cookies. I must admit it made me feel good to see that girl smiling. I felt my baby quickening inside me and looked forward to future Christmases: eggnog, “Silent Night,” midnight mass, the smell of the tree. I remembered my felt stocking stuffed with walnuts, tangerines, and candy canes, and choosing the biggest present to open on Christmas Eve. I knew I would gladly lie about Santa Claus to make my kid’s childhood more magical, just as my parents had done for me. Was there an ingredient of love in all this Zwarte Piet stuff?

She illustrated her article with a number of representations of Black Pete.

I studied the photo of the Jumbo brand chocolate boxes. One can buy a box of St Nicholas chocolates or two different kinds of Black Pete.

That alone tells one something: Black Pete is more popular. His representations also look super-friendly whereas St Nicholas’s is just creepy.

Some supermarkets have withdrawn these chocolates from sale after protests from Dutch blacks and those born in former colonies, such as Surinam. In fact, when short motion pictures became affordable, a few St Nicholas Day processions were recorded on film. The Netherlands by numbers says that one was made in Amsterdam in 1934 or 1935:

Sinterklaas was accompanied by a lot of white heralds in outfits very similar to today’s Zwarte Piet. And, according to Sinterklaas expert Marie-Jose Wouters, the procession also included six Surinamese sailors whose boat was in the harbour at the time. They are, alas, not on the film. But it could just be that the very first Zwarte Piets in the procession were Surinamese.

However, in 2012, Amsterdam city council took a local survey:

39% of people of Surinamese origin don’t like the idea of Zwarte Piet being at their children’s school, nor do 28% of Ghanians, 24% of Antilleans and 17% of English speakers. However the survey found no people of Moroccan origin thought Zwarte Piet was an issue. A survey in October 2013 for television programme EditieNL found 96% of the Dutch think the Zwarte Piet character should stay.

Oddly, although technically Caucasian, St Nicholas was from Asia Minor. It is unclear whether he would have owned a slave and we do not know what his circumstances were with regard to having servants. Schenkman’s story — rather than actual history — might be what is stoking people’s objections today.

It is interesting to discover that all the objection started in 1968 — that fateful year which gave rise to a twisted era in much of Europe and North America that continues today. A woman named M C Grünbauer said:

it no longer appropriate to continue to celebrate our dear old Saint Nicholas feast in its actual form.

Conclusion

Perhaps one solution would be to go back to the real story of St Nicholas in as far as people know it. Black Pete’s not part of that history, certainly not as represented.

I’ve run on quite a bit here. I’ll be back next year with more information on St Nicholas and Black Pete references, including how the saint became part of Christmas.

For now, here is another story about St Nicholas by Margaret Meyerkort, Wynstones School, Whaddon, Gloucester, England. The last two sentences sum up this feast perfectly:

The earth is wide and great. There, where St. Nicholas cannot go himself, he asks a good and pious person to go to the children and take them apples and nuts and tell the children of the coming of the Christ Child.

And that’s all that matters.

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