I love St. Nicholas’ day. Come December, I will happily hum Zie ginds komt de stoomboot in the shower. I’ll chop ginger and pulverize cardamom to make the whole house smell of speculaas and I own an embarrassing number of St. Nick paraphernalia. It’s my favorite holiday and, unlike Christmas or New Year’s Eve, one I embrace wholeheartedly and without a trace of sarcasm.
It’s also a day imbued with adults’ nostalgia for a childhood of the past that seems so much simpler, purer and more authentic than that of the smartphone-toting, videogame-playing children of today. We imagine St. Nicholas day as the one time when real life resembles an Enid Blyton book, and rosy-cheeked boys and girls sweetly gather to sing cute songs, showing their wide-eyed adoration for a respectable yet friendly old man.
Having grown up in a house where St. Nicholas day very much resembled this almost Victorian image of shoes around the fireplace and carefully crafted innocent letters to de Sint, I share many adults’ nostalgic perspective on the proceedings of 6 December. And I understand parents’ (or teachers’, grandparents’, aunts’, uncles’, godparents’) motivation for holding on to what they describe as the “tradition” of St. Nicholas. We would all like to offer the sense of wonder and excitement we seem to remember from the winters of our own youth to the young children we love and cherish – and replicating the practices and images of those days seems like the way to do it. (Quite a lot of us also seem to desperately need rather disturbing pictures of toddlers with St. Nick to post on facebook, but that’s another matter).
Nostalgia and tradition are not the same thing, however, and confusing them makes most people sound like cantankerous old farts. “In my days, children weren’t swamped with useless toys”; “When I was young, we had a real hearth. So much cozier than central heating”. Or, increasingly the last few years, “We didn’t have all this inane talk about racism when I was a kid. You can’t touch Zwarte Piet – it’s tradition!”.
It is understandable, of course, that those who have invested so much in the creation of the fuzzy warm nostalgic feeling of St. Nicholas do not want to mar their picture-perfect holiday with complex issues such as white male privilege. But in ‘protecting’ our own childhood memories under the guise of being true to tradition, we may very well be ruining St. Nicholas for generations to come.
Looking back at the last two centuries of Saint Nicholas visits in Flanders and the Netherlands, the only constant factor in this ‘tradition’ is its constant change. Most exemplary of this is perhaps St. Nicholas’ embrace of new technologies: the nineteenth century saw St. Nick arriving on a donkey, a horse, a ship, a hot air balloon and a steamer. In the twentieth century, children were invited to marvel at transportation technology’s progress at the arrival of the Saint. Archival pictures show him driving a moped and a car, stepping out of a plane and riding an elephant. The novelty and exoticism of these vehicles contributed to the magic of the moment: every year, he brought something new and unseen to young children. (His exotic helpmate, Zwarte Piet was also one of the wonderful novelties he brought along at the end of the nineteenth century, around the same time he started carrying oranges as his signature treat). Allowing the story of Saint Nicholas to breathe, and to remain current and relevant to children is what has kept the ‘tradition’ alive for such a long time.
During the last two decades, however, the room for change has become much more narrow. TV shows such as the Pietenjournaal or Dag Sinterklaas have created a canonical narrative for St. Nicholas’ arrival in the Low Countries and the celebration of his passage. These programs are wonderfully crafted, written and acted, and they reach an enormous audience. My love for all things Nicholas easily extends to his televised versions: they present a perfect atmosphere of giggly excitement about the impending arrival of St. Nick and Zwarte Piet.
The narrative they produce is, however, surprisingly directive and strict as well: the roles of the Saint and his helper are clearly defined, and the show encourages children to acquire ‘knowledge’ about St. Nicholas (the name of his horse, for example). It thereby playfully incites children’s curiosity, but also suggests that there is such a thing as a ‘true’ tradition, or a final story, of St. Nicholas. When Dag Sinterklaas appeared in the early nineties, it did a fantastic job of rewriting the St. Nicholas tradition: it presented a less authoritarian bishop, gave Zwarte Piet a less subservient role, and showed less-than-perfectly obedient children. In doing so, however, it also seems to have prevented further rewriting of the story. There is no room for St. Nicholas in a solar-panel car: we have been exhaustively instructed about his horse and steamer. Crucially, the image of Zwarte Piet has been canonized as well: he’s a white man in black face, with a ‘moorish’ costume.
The narrative is so pervasive that most adults have woven it into their own memories of the St. Nicholas visits of their own childhood. Parents and teachers who grew up well before the nineties are now nostalgic for habits that were introduced in TV shows aimed at children of a younger generation – and are convinced that this is a reflection of authenticity and tradition. Within this world of rigid narratives, any attempt to change parts of the story, and most notably the call to abolish black face, seems to threaten the integrity of the tradition as a whole and is greeted with fear and hostility. The much more long-standing ‘tradition’ of continually changing and tweaking St. Nicholas’ story seems to be entirely forgotten.
It’s a shame to reduce St. Nicholas to his new incarnation, however. His history in the Low Countries is an extremely long and rich one, and the different songs, artifacts, poems and stories associated with him throughout the centuries provide us with a wealth of material to craft a perfectly inclusive holiday. By focusing exclusively on the white horse, the black helper and the steamer from Spain, we’re missing out on equally exciting parts of St. Nick’s history. Why aren’t we including the sailors that were saved in a storm by St. Nick, for example? Why aren’t we celebrating his Turkish origins? Where are the old shoemaker, who is supposedly at the basis of the practice of leaving a shoe at the fireplace, and his three beautiful and tragic daughters? And how did we ever forget that Saint Nicholas saved them from prostitution?
If we’re going to insist on ‘traditional’ habits, stories and songs…why not consider this one? The “Pleasant Song for Saint Nicholas”, uncovered by nineteenth-century folklorists, is one of the older texts we have documenting the tradition of the feast of Saint Nicholas. It mimics a letter to the Saint, written by a young girl who asks for a very specific present: all she wants is a lover,
not too old, not too young either,
And experienced in the art of lovemaking
(“Niet te oud of jonk van Jaren
En in minnekunst ervaren”)
The song has all we pretend to want in the St. Nicholas tradition: it’s ‘authentic’, rooted in our local past and exudes a real belief in the powers of the Saint – there’s also no trace of racial tension.
So this year, I urge you to have a real, traditional St. Nicholas celebration. Find yourself a truly satisfying partner for the night (or, alternatively, rescue a prostitute). And do take your shoes off. It’s tradition.