Jolly old St. Nicholas, lean your ear this way
Don't you tell a single soul what I'm going to say...
THE SECRET SANTA
By Paco Taylor
Ten years ago, while conducting somewhat unrelated research on the interwebs, I got an unexpected clue from an old Russian painting (seen above) that Americans really know nothing about St. Nicholas, aka Santa Claus. And after two hundred years of Christmastime tradition in this country – and him with that deer driven sleigh having free 'rein' to fly our protected airspace – you'd think that we'd know all that there is to know about a dude who also has full access to our chimneys.
But, alas, like all the other mental mavericks who once also believed in Sarah Palin (just kidding, folks), I simply trusted that this guy's background had been thoroughly vetted. But, oh, by gosh by golly did we get our intel wrong.
Never in a million cups of sauced eggnog would I have guessed that in the older Dutch tradition, St. Nick would have an African sidekick--who's probably Muslim to boot. Even more, though, you could've knocked me over with a snowflake when I gradually discovered that in the old paintings and statues of Italy and elsewhere, even the patron saint of Christmas himself is shown as a grandfatherly-looking black man.
Today, people around the world are familiar with the popularized depiction of Santa Claus: a chubby old gnome with a snow-colored beard, eight tiny reindeer, and an army of freckle-faced elves who leap at his beck and call. In light of the multi-million dollar impact that the legend of Santa has on the American cult of retail, he is a commercial icon in this country, more powerful than Batman, Barbie, Thor, Dora the Explorer, Oprah, Optimus Prime and all of the other Transformers combined.
And though commonly thought of as an American folk legend, Santa Claus actually owes much of his existence to old religious customs that came to this country with immigrants from Europe. Interwoven in the American holiday tradition are the holiday traditions of Spain, Germany, Italy, and, above all, the Dutch Netherlands, where one of the clearest connections to the Santa tradition can be found.
Before becoming known in America as Santa Claus, this magical gift bearer was called “Sinter Claes” or “Sinterklass,” a Dutch language corruption of the name and title of Saint Nicholas, a 4th century bishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church. And as Dutch tradition tells it, Sinterklass doesn’t travel by sled or live at the North Pole. He also doesn't dress up in a red velvet suit trimmed with
According to the Dutch, Sinterklass leaves his home in Spain around mid-November, traveling by steamboat to the Netherlands to deliver gifts on December 5th, the eve of St. Nicholas’ Feast Day. Garbed in a red Episcopal robe with the pointed miter of a bishop on his head and a gold shepherd’s crook in hand, Sinterklaas' role as a high priest of the Church is on full display.
Upon his eagerly anticipated arrival, Sinterklass rides from house to house and rooftop to rooftop on the back of a white horse. Acting with impartial authority, down the chimney of every home he drops gifts for the children who were well behaved throughout the year, and single lumps of coal for those who were naughty! Then, after a long night of work, Sinterklass returns to the steamboat on the morning of December 6th and travels back home to Spain.
It isn’t exactly clear why the Dutch consider Spain to be the home of Sinterklass, not that the North Pole makes a better a locale for the toy-making racket. The actual St. Nicholas was born and raised in Patara, a city once located on the northeast coast of the Mediterranean Sea. But there are theories that suggest how Spain got the job. One of these has to do with the Moors, a northwest African people who were once viewed as the Islamic terrorists of medieval Europe.
Odd as Africa having any connection to the Santa Claus legend may sound at first, it will make perfect sense when you understand that in the Dutch tradition, Sinterklass isn’t assisted by pointy-eared elves dressed in green velvet suits, as seen on TV's animated Rudolph special. According to Dutch tradition, the helper of Sinterklaas is a colorfully dressed blackamoor.
Making a list and checking it twice to keep an accurate record of who's been naughty and who's been nice throughout the year is a monumental task, even for a magical old dude like Sinterklass. So, assisting him with his gift-giving enterprise is Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), a Moorish youth with an old school feathered cap on his head and 24-karat 'bling' in his ears.
According to tradition, Black Peter holds the book in which the names of every Dutch child is kept, as well as the records of their behavior. Spirited and strong, Peter also carries the sack of toys for the elderly saint. In some versions of the legend he also brings along a bundle of switches that parents can borrow from to heat up the hides of mischievous children.
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While the genesis of Sinterklass is generally accepted, the origin of Black Peter, though considerably more recent, is still a matter of debate. Moreover, as Europe’s relations with black populations has varied over the centuries, so too has the nature of Black Peter, whose connection to Sinterklass has ranged from devilish 'bad cop' (who tosses bad children in his sack and drags them off to a hell somewhere near Spain), to loyal sidekick, to noble servant, to clownish slave.
Whatever his exact origin, today Black Peter clearly represents the Islamic tide that once swept out of Africa and threatened to overtake medieval Europe. The fact that he is most often described as a Moor, and therefore a Muslim, firmly places Peter into the historical timeline when armies from northwest Africa advanced into southern Europe to secure a foothold that allowed the spread of Islam across portions of its then Christian and pagan lands.
It was in 711 AD when the Moors crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach what is modern-day Portugal and Spain. Within a decade they controlled nearly the entire region. Nine years later, they crossed the Pyrenees Mountains that divide France from Spain, taking parts of southern France. It would take three long decades of battle before France succeeded in driving the Moors back through the Pyrenees. Their occupation of Spain, however, would last nearly 800 years.
Around 827, the Moors also took the Mediterranean Island of Corsica and then secured control of Sicily, which they held for more than 260 years. In 846 Muslim armies of Moors and Arabs sacked the Christian holy city of Rome and then occupied several cities along the northern and southern coasts of Italy. These captured areas included cities like Taranto, Brindisi and Bari, the place where the skeletal remains of St. Nicholas would later come to be enshrined.
It is this lesser-known history of Africa's Moors, as well as Dutch involvement in the African Slave Trade, that factor largely into the figure of Black Peter. Once the ultimate bogeyman of nightmares and parental threats, the ever-adolescent Moor mostly serves now in the neutered capacity of comic relief: A black fool set against a white and godly St. Nicholas with silly pranks and mumbling mouthfuls of quasi Afro-Dutch Creole.
Throughout the Netherlands at holiday, it is traditional to have one person dressed up as St. Nicholas and one, two, or as many as a dozen others dressed up as Black Peter. However, over the past two decades discussions about whether Peter is a not-so-subtle racial stereotype have come to divide the Dutch. The crude blackface makeovers and the acts of buffoonery used to portray the character are disturbing to many.
In the mid 1990s, Dutch activists began to demand that Black Peter be removed from the festivities, or replaced by a White Peter. In response, attempts were made to also feature yellow, red, green and blue-faced Peters, which met with even louder public outcry. And so, despite continuing controversy, Black Peter remains a prominent figure in the holiday traditions of the Netherlands.
“Saint Nicholas, on whom the character Santa Claus is based, was of Northern European descent,” says Monica Suraci, an acting spokesperson for the US Postal Service. For nearly half a century, stamps that commemorate the Christmas season have been issued by the Post Office, and dozens have featured the popular, blue-eyed image of Santa Claus.
Suraci’s statement echoes the long-held belief of most Americans: Saint Nicholas was of Northern European decent. The fact is, though, he actually wasn’t. As with many of the religious figures who are today revered throughout Europe and America, the birthplace of Nicholas was Asia, the western peninsula that was once known as Asiana or Asia Minor, to be exact.
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After reaching adulthood and believing that he was called to a life of service, Nicholas donated his inheritance to the poor and joined the monastery. Following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, he traveled the pilgrimage routes to Palestine and Egypt. Some time later, after a triumphant return to Patara, Nicholas was appointed to serve as a bishop in the nearby city of Myra.
In Nicholas’ day, Myra ("myrrh") was a major port city of the Eastern Roman Empire, located just opposite of Egypt on the far side of the Mediterranean. In the Bible, Myra is mentioned as a stopping point where the Apostle Paul, who was under arrest for inciting a riot in Jerusalem, was transferred to a ship bound for Rome.
According to legend, Nicholas once saved Myra from a famine when he took grain from a ship with goods being sent from Egypt to the Greek city of Byzantium. Miraculously, the appropriated cargo was never missed. Because of that daring deed, Nicholas would eventually come to be viewed as the protector or patron saint of clerks...and thieves.
Another legend says that while on a voyage across the Mediterranean, Nicholas calmed a violent storm with a prayer, thus making him the patron saint of sailors and travelers. In yet another tale, he miraculously brought back to life three children who were killed by a madman and pickled in a tub of brine, thus making him the patron saint of children.
The very best known legend associated with Nicholas laid the ancient foundation upon which the modern Santa Claus legend is based. It tells of a poor man who had three beautiful teenage daughters. This man had once been a noble but, through a series of misfortunes, he'd become nearly destitute. So much so that he considered selling his daughters into prostitution, since he could not provide the dowries that were necessary for them to become acceptable brides.
Eventually bishop Nicholas came to hear whispers of the despairing man’s plight and took it upon himself to devise a more saintly solution. In the dead of night, Nicholas crept over to the man’s house and quietly climbed up onto the roof. Upon reaching the top of his precarious destination, he dropped three small bags containing gold coins down the chimney.
Now, earlier that evening the man's daughters had done the laundry and their wet stockings were hung at the fireplace to dry. Each bag of gold that Nicholas dropped down the chimney was miraculously deposited into one of the stockings belonging to each of the girls. Or so the famous legend goes.
When the family awoke the next morning, they promptly discovered the gifts that some anonymous benefactor had delivered to them. And due to the generosity of Nicholas (whose identity they later discovered), the man and his daughters went on to live the “happily ever after” life.
For centuries after the death of Nicholas, recorded as December 6th, 343 AD, legends of his miraculous acts and charitable deeds continued to spread. By the 9th century in Asia, and the 11th century in Europe, the bishop had become one of Christianity's most revered figures. His tomb at Myra became a popular pilgrimage site, and visitors often claimed to have received healing from sickness there.
For the early Church of Europe, religious relics from Asia – including the skeletal remains of its holy men – were of immense value. Thus, churches were all about the business of acquiring relics. So much so that on May 9, 1087, a group of men from the Italian port city of Bari raided Nicholas’ tomb at Myra and stole the bishop’s bones. Back in Bari, a basilica named for Nicholas was built to shelter his remains. They lie beneath the altar in the crypt to this day.
On a wall above a 17th century altar in a side chapel at the Bari basilica hangs a painted portrait of the bishop of Myra. It is called “San Nicola Nero,” which translates from the Italian as “St. Nicholas the Black.” Positioned at the center of this very surprising image is the much-heralded bishop of Myra, rendered as a bushy-bearded black man.
The identity of the painter who created the image, dated to between the 17th and 18th century, appears to have been lost to history. But for centuries now his art has been a spiritual focal point for regular parishioners of, and visiting pilgrims to the Bari Basilica.
Out of the painting, Nicholas’ eyes stare forward. The saint’s head is surrounded by a golden halo, which is symbolic of divine light. He is dressed in blue Eucharistic vestments, probably woven of velvet or silk, as is customary in the Eastern Church. His tunic is richly accented with an iridescent check pattern and a wide trim of gold brocade.
Nicholas’ right hand is raised in the gesture of benediction, while his left hand holds up the Book of Scriptures. Atop the scriptures rest three gold coins, which symbolize the legendary act that redeemed the lives of a poor man and his daughters.
On all four sides Nicholas is flanked by various figures. Christ and Mary hover in the clouds above his shoulders. To his left is the tub of brine with the three children who, according to tradition, were restored to life by the saint. Standing on the right of Nicholas is an alter boy who holds up a silver plate and a wine cruet, items that represent the ritual Communion of Saints.
To say the least, the San Nicola Nero painting is a surprising image, rich with reverence and religious meaning. Much less surprising is the lack of documentation anywhere that details how, in addition to popular images of St. Nicholas with a European countenance, for untold centuries images like this have depicted him with characteristics of African or Asiatic black populations.
Also located in Bari, tucked inside the chapel at the 11th century Norman Castle of Sannicandro, an old statue of San Nicola Nero looks out over the faithful. And elsewhere in Southern Italy, in the churches of Maglie, Mileto, Picerno, and Volturara Irpino, similar images of the Moorish-looking St. Nicholas are treasured.
Beyond Italy, in Spain and Russia, where St. Nicholas is one of the most revered of all the saints, images depicting him in a similar fashion are revered. As far away as South America, at the Cathedral of San Nicolas de Bari in La Rioja, Argentina, a life-sized statue of "San Nicholas Negro" (Black St. Nicholas) has been a celebrated icon of the church since 1640.
Despite their surprisingly widespread presence, though, almost nowhere is the existence of images such as these mentioned. One cryptic sentence in the Catholic Encyclopedia will only go as far as to say that depictions of St. Nicholas in art “are as various as his alleged miracles.” And met with an old-time secret so guardedly kept, this maverick writer cannot help but wonder if there are still other places left in the world where the old image of St. Nicholas with a warm, chestnut complexion yet lingers.
“The Secret Santa: How a Black Bishop from Asia Became America’s Favorite White Saint” © St. Paco (Paco D. Taylor, aka Professor XXL) 2006 – 2012, Year of the Dragon edition