Moorish Guards for Zwarte Piet

SinterklaasI’ve written previously about the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, and the move to abolish Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) by the forces of political correctness. Although they have survived the PC onslaught, in recent years Sinterklaas and Piet — along with the St. Martin lantern parades — have been attacked and harassed by gangs of immigrant youths.

But this year Sinterklaas Central is going to try something different. Our Flemish correspondent VH has translated a couple of Dutch articles about the latest variation in the Zwarte Piet tradition.

First, from RTL Nederland (note: in the article below, the word Pieten is the plural of Piet, or “Peter”):

“The way we do it, it is reasonably controllable”

Sinterklaas brings along Moroccan “Pieten”

For security reasons Sinterklaas is assisted by Moroccan Zwarte Pieten this year in Amsterdam.

Zwarte Piet


According to chairman Van der Kroon of Amsterdam Sinterklaas Central [Sinterklaascentrale], this is the only way to keep things under control. In previous years there was often harassment by youngsters of Moroccan origin.

P*** Off

Van der Kroon says that the deployment of Moroccan Pieten works: “The Moroccan Piet then screams in Arabic to those young blokes that they must p*** off.”


In addition to the deployment of the Moroccan Pieten, the Sinterklaas Central always informs the police when a visit has to be paid to a difficult neighborhood. In order to be certain, some police officers or civil guards are keeping themselves prepared in the background.

Here’s some more detail from
– – – – – – – –

“In the past children were afraid of you”

As old and wise as Sinterklaas [Santa Claus] may be, even he is getting short on solutions. Previously he and Piet were well able to save themselves from any situation by giving out a handful of spice nuts [perpernoten].

“But that does not work anymore,” says Henk van der Kroon (66), assistant Sinterklaas and chairman of Amsterdam Sinterklaas Central.

“When Sint and Piet are harassed by Moroccan street boys and they give them some spice nuts, they only want more and more. Just a matter of time until they rip the bag out of your hands. So we are not doing that anymore.”

Van der Kroon — after more than forty “delightful evenings” [heerlijk avondje, the evening of Sinterklaas] more than generous — is astonished at the way the spirit has changed over time. As chairman of the oldest and largest Sinterklaas Central of the country he knows best. Whoever might doubt the existence of a crisis of authority in the Low Countries needs only to listen to the stories from his — ever expanding — book [Sinterklaas, like Santa Claus, has a book with the names of all children and whether they were naughty or nice in the past year].

“In the past children were afraid of you, now they put you to the test. This is the main reason why it is increasingly difficult to find good Sinterklazen. We have 24 Sinterklazen out there now and it is far from enough. Nobody responds to advertisements. But it is also a very difficult job. You must have the feeling for it, behave decently, no drinking, no taking your beard off even though it is terribly itchy, must be able to act and stand a good deal. “

Ten years ago, in De Pijp [an immigrant neighborhood in Amsterdam] a Sinterklaas was attacked, and since then there has always been close contact between the police and Central. “The police want to do everything to prevent Sinterklaas from being beaten up.”

Moreover, he has Moroccan Pieten in service now, exactly how many he does not want to say. “They can say in their own language to those guys that they should p*** off. That works, because it concerns kids of 10, 11 years old. They see Sinterklaas as a Christian feast, but he has at the most a few Christian roots. In that respect Sinterklaas is just like the Easter Bunny. And so what? They have their Suikerfeest [Eid ul-Fitr]. Let them do their best with that, but I don’t have to celebrate that, do I? Let alone that I am going to ruin it! “

Roe [straw for hitting naughty children] and bag [the bag to bring really naughty children back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives] do not impress street kids anymore. “If we call that to them, they all say: Can I come along to Spain? Then even an experienced Sinterklaas stands there with a mouth full of teeth.”

VH adds this personal note:

My grandmother wouldn’t have believed her eyes if she’d seen dressed up Moors guarding the Sint against violent Moors! The scandal!

35 thoughts on “Moorish Guards for Zwarte Piet

  1. Well, seems we’ve come full circle here. In the ancient tradition, the helpers of Saint Nicholas [Sinterklaas] were regarded as servants, representing evil vanguished by Christianity. Little blackened devils.

    It’s just a bitter twist of faith that Sinterklaas has been outfitted with teenage Islamic servants now. Little devils indeed.

    Nxt year, we need some “lure”-Sinterklazen and a small army of real black Petes, armed with perhaps a little more than just bag and roe. Let the volunteering begin.

    Kind regs from Amsterdam,

  2. Another circle is how the Dutch exported Sinterklaas to America who there became Santa Claus and then was imported back by the Dutch as “Christman”. So now, for the joy of the children, he appears twice in the calendar: Sinterklaas (6 Dec) and Christman / Santa Claus (25 Dec).

  3. CS,

    Yes, it’s sort of a loop but perhaps not a nice and full circle 😉

    Venerating Santa is seen as treason over here (Sinterklaas is holier than the national flag) and since the ’50s, bitter debates have ensued over the advance of Santa Claus in the Netherlands. He used to be considered a threat to the Christmas Child, and now it’s predominantly the “vulgar” outlook (compared to our “real” Saint) that bothers most people.

    As a telling example, here’s my translation of an article in a Dutch newspaper:

    “..To my regret I have seen how this Santa Claus – like office centres and McDonalds – is advancing in Holland. And here with guildersigns in his eyes. When Holland is just recovering from Sinterklaas, already roaming around in many a shoppingmall or village street is an empty spirited Santa. He even lends himself to advertising the most wide ranging products. [..] As if that isn’t bad enough already, his advance has gone at the expense of Sinterklaas. The Sint on his horse is at least a magnificent apparition who still reminds one of the religious origin of the feast. Santa Claus is a vulgar fatso [..] who undoubtedly has high cholesterol en ditto bloodpressure. Why Santa? Pure import and no good whatsoever. Send him back to the North Pole, or Florida for all I care. He has no business here. I’d rather have Sinterklaas..”
    (Tracy Metz, 1994).


  4. Thanks for sharing Sagunto. I like this sort of stuff.

    There are a couple of countries with double Christmas. The traditional celebration in Spain is centered around the three wise men, so Christmas presents are handed out on January 6 (a much more logical date). But they have imported the red “fatso” too, of course.

    Also Russia have their traditional Christmas on January 6, but for a whole different reason: they are still on the Julian calendar.

    In Sweden we have just one, and a fully merged, Christmas. Our imported Santa Claus is fully merged with, and has had to submit to our previous traditions. So first of all he’s not at all a Christ-man, but most definitely a Pagan-man, a gnome to be more precise (and we don’t even really have Christmas, we have Yule). And even though his look is identical to the American Santa, his behaviour is all different, and entirely inherited from our previous tradition of the Yule Goat Man. So he comes, like a man who’s got nothing to hide, knocking on the door, handing out the Yule presents (which we call Yule-knocks) in person in the evening of the 24th of December.

    His looks was actually first exported from Sweden to America, there merged with the Dutch Sinterklaas look, and then imported back, at which point he replaced the Yule Goat Man as the lead character for Yuletide. He belongs to the race of the garden gnomes in Sweden. The garden gnomes became associated with Christmas in Sweden in the 19th century, due to a poem by Viktor Rydberg and paintings by Jenny Nyström. So while the face of the internationalized American Santa is surely from Sinterklaas, his clothes comes from the northern European garden gnomes. Although the colour of the clothes is as of Coca Cola. A traditional Swedish garden gnome has gray clothes. Only the hat is colourful; red for Yuletide.

    The fact that the Swedish Yule-gnome hands out the presents in person causes some funny scenes in homes along the country on the 24th. Typically the father, after the dinner, suddenly remembers that he has to do some urgent (and pointless) errand, like buying a news paper. And while he is away the Yule-gnome (the Santa Claus lookalike) appears, saying “Are there any good children here?”, handing out the presents, commenting upon “such a pity your father is not here, but I have heard he’s such a fine man, so I leave his presents here on the table”.

    When the children get older they might grab the legs of their father, trying to use force to stop him from leaving to buy that news paper, thinking they are finally about to expose this whole Christmas scam. A creative father would however, when the children have reached such an age, have made a deal with the neighbour’s teenage son, who suddenly knocks on the door dressed as the Yule-gnome, and the jaws of the children drop all the way down to the floor.

  5. Hmm…

    While it is true that we only have one Christmas since the American/International Santa figure was fully incorporated in our existing traditions, and not like in Holland where you ended up having two Santas.

    Nevertheless we actually DO have two Christmases anyway, I just realized; or should I say two Yules. It’s that calendar thing again. Before the change to the Gregorian calendar our winter solstice celebration was at the 13th of December. And we still keep that day of celebration, today known as Sankta Lucia. But originally had nothing to do with this Italian saint (tacked on by the Church afterwards). It is, and has always been, a celebration of bringing light to the darkest day of the year (and I can tell you that it’s freaking dark up here at that time of the year).

    Interesting enough, the look of the Lucia with white clothes and a crown of candles apparently was inspired by the way they depicted the German Kristkind in the 19th century.

    So while our Christmas is pagan, this other truly pagan celebration has been given a more Christian appearance.

  6. Conservative Swede —

    The librarian in the small town near by is from Sweden. Over the years we’ve shared many Christmas tradition stories, Sweden’s vs. America’s.

    I love the idea of St. Lucy’s Day…perhaps because I heard it from someone who had been chosen as one of the Lucia’s. Her funny story of being afraid her hair would catch on fire made the holiday come to life for me.

    And you forgot to mention the “Lucy Cats” — I’m too lazy to google it but I did make those buns one year, even going so far as to buy saffron.

    I had no idea that Lucia was Italian. How very strange to have her end up in Sweden…

    Hmm…maybe if I’m feeling well enough I’ll make some Lucy Cats and bring them to the library on the 13th. Fortunately, it falls on a Monday this year so they’ll be open.

    Many thanks for reminding me.

  7. The Swedish Santa Claus is called Jultomten, and the name of these sort of “garden” gnomes in general is tomte.

    Here is a translation of Viktor Rydberg’s poem “Tomten”:

    Midwinternight frost is hard and deep
    The stars are sparkling bright
    In lonely farm all things sleep
    Through the murmurs of midwinters night
    The moon walks along her silent ways
    Snow shines white on pine and spruce
    Snow shines white on rooftops
    Only the gnome is awake.

    Some links with more info:

    “In nordic folklore, a tomte was a kind of – not always benevolent – vätte (local spirit or minor deity) connected to a farmstead. There is, in fact, an etymological connection to the word tomt (“piece of land, plot”).

    Rydberg’s immensly popular poem Tomten, first published in 1881, transformed him into a philosophic and fatherly guardian. Combined with the gift-giving julvätte (“Christmas vätte”) of Rydberg’s earlier story Little Vigg – and, of course, with foreign influences – he then evolved into the modern Jultomte, local version of Santa Claus.

    The young artist Jenny Nyström (1854-1946) illustrated both the poem and the story – and thus embarked on a 60-year career devoted to creating the visual image of the Swedish christmas.”

    Illustrations by Jenny Nyström

    “Lille Viggs äventyr på julafton (1871)
    Little Vigg’s Adventures on Christmas Eve

    Influenced by Dickens’ Christmas tale, by norwegian author Björnstjerne Björnsson (who advocated a “national” literature written in a simple language), and by Rydberg’s parliamentary alliance with the Peasant’s party. The element of political satire, strong in the early editions, was softened in the last revision (1895). The gift-giving julvätte (“Christmas pixie”) was to have a lasting influence on Swedish traditions.

    In 1981 … New illustrations were produced, and the julvätte had to quit smoking.”

    This julvätte was an early prototype for the Swedish jultomte, which I forgot to mention.

    “The tomtes (in Germany, kobolds) are a pre-Christian race of spirit beings well-known to the north Europeans. Generally, they are considered to be spirits of place who become familiars of a household. The tomte is a short (three feet or so) elderly man of unpredictable disposition, attired in grey woolen clothes and wearing a red cap.”

    Although jultomten is full man-size.

    “Unlike their English cousins, the gnomes, who most frequently dwell in the countryside, tomtes reside in towns, houses, barns or cellars. They live only where there is cleanliness, order and discipline. Among the earliest pictures of a tomte is in Carta Marina et Descriptio Septentrioalium (1539) a map drawn by Olaus Magnus, the last Roman Catholic Bishop of Sweden. The tomte is shown cleaning out a stable (he wears the same hat as the Russian knights).”

    Oh no, don’t mention the Russians! 😮

  8. CS,

    So much things that are/were common in folk culture all over Europe.

    You mentioned the 3 wise men in Spain and the date of januari 6th.
    In Holland that’s the Catholic feast of “Driekoningen” [Three Kings]. It’s sort of a double Saint Martin’s feast (nov. 11th), i.e. children go door to door to sing and collect sweats. But these kids don’t celebrate Saint Martin [Sinte Maarten] and vice versa.

    In Holland we have the word: Joelfeest, and people still remember that the “Joeltijd” comprises a period of twelve days, lasting ’till Januari 6th. I believe in England it’s called “Twelve Days” and in Germany, “Zwölften” (North) or “Zwölf heilige Tage” (more to the South).


    Perhaps nice to know that the 1994 comment about Santa (the fatso) was given by an American lady (Tracy Metz), who came to Holland in the ’70s.

  9. CS, Sagunto, et al. —

    We have a mish-mash of Christmas traditions in the USA, mostly compounded from English and German originals. Some of the English customs (such as, I believe, the Christmas tree) were imported into Britain from Germany relatively late, in the 18th or 19th centuries.

    We acknowledge Yule as the ancient predecessor, and speak of Yuletide, which used to run until the 6th of January, i.e. covering the Twelve Days. We also used to burn Yule Logs at Christmas.

    This whole group of similar customs centers on Northern Europe and derives from a mixture of midwinter pagan customs. So many of them concern trees — the Christmas tree, the holly, the oak, the ivy, and of course misltletoe, sacred to Balder — because much of pagan lore (especially the Druidic rites among the Celts) concerned trees, with their tutelary spirits and sacred groves.

    The death of Balder/Osiris/the Corn God at the winter solstice was fairly easy to absorb into the birth, death and resurrection of the Christ. Hence the appropriation of the cycle of appropriate pagan festivals.

    The mistletoe was cut with a golden sickle from the bough of an oak, and dropped onto a cloth held out by the priests below, so that it never touched the ground. Then the tree was cut down and burned. The old year was thus dead and destroyed, and only then could the new year begin.

  10. Dymphna,

    I had no idea that Lucia was Italian. How very strange to have her end up in Sweden…

    Well, mysterious are the ways of the Church… 🙂

    The activity of bringing light on December 13 has always been called to “lussa”. Might come from lux, but more probably from Lucifer, referring to the dark spirits that are scared away by the many candle lights. And quite expectedly the days get gradually lighter from then on.

    In 1753 Sweden changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, and as a consequence everything was shifted 11 days forward, so the 13th was no longer the darkest day, but now the 24th was. (And there is another story here about public outrage over how 11 days had been stolen from their lives.)

    However, with the change of calendar the Church took the opportunity to tack on Saint Lucia as the names day for December 13. Those sneaky priests. Thereby providing the impression that “lussa” would refer to this Italian saint. And the people eventually bought it.

    That’s how it became an Italian saint. It had to be a name that could have been the basis for the verb “lussa”.

    Hmm…maybe if I’m feeling well enough I’ll make some Lucy Cats and bring them to the library on the 13th.

    How neat, you actually bake Lussekatter. Absolutely charming!

    Anyway, considering what I said about “lussa”, they might not really be Lucy Cats, but rather Lucifer Cats 🙂

    Anyway, the intention is to celebrate the withdrawal of the dark spirits, so I think they are safe 😉

  11. Yes Baron and Sagunto, in all the places these celebrations are a mishmash, and it’s all interconnected among the countries, and things are borrowed back and forth, and then back and forth again.

    But things might come out quite differently depending on the soil where it lands. E.g. how the “red fatso” in Sweden look exactly the same as in America, but behaves differently, is of a different race, has a different story (nothing about those reindeer for example). Or how the same feature exists, but in an entirely different context. E.g. in Sweden trick-or-treat and dressing as witches is for Easter.

    I found some video clips of Swedish Lucia:

    Clip 1. A more “offical” Lucia parade.

    Clip 2. A more “folksy” one. Catching the typical spirit better. Including (almost) all the typical ingredients.

    Clip 3. Makes up for what was missing in the two previous clips: Star boys.

    There are stories of how foreigners (refugees, Nobel prize winners) have been woken up by a Lucia train — which traditionally go from house to house waking up people in/before early morning — thinking they had been invaded by Ku Klux Klan.

  12. See the following poem by John Donne (1572-1631), in which the poet reflects upon the death of his wife:

    A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being The Shortest Day

    ‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
    Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
    The sun is spent, and now his flasks
    Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
    The world’s whole sap is sunk;
    The general balm th’hydroptic earth hath drunk,
    Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
    Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
    Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

    Study me then, you who shall lovers be
    At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
    For I am every dead thing,
    In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
    For his art did express
    A quintessence even from nothingness,
    From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
    He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
    Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

    All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
    Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
    I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
    Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
    Have we two wept, and so
    Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
    To be two chaoses, when we did show
    Care to aught else; and often absences
    Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

    But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
    Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
    Were I a man, that I were one
    I needs must know; I should prefer,
    If I were any beast,
    Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
    And love; all, all some properties invest;
    If I an ordinary nothing were,
    As shadow, a light and body must be here.

    But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
    You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
    At this time to the Goat is run
    To fetch new lust, and give it you,
    Enjoy your summer all;
    Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
    Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
    This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
    Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.

  13. The Baron has only mentioned the regions he’s familiar with — those regions being the upper South of the US and northern England (no, I refuse to call it the UK).

    In the lower South there is more of a French influence.

    To name just one difference, there is the King Cake, so famous in New Orleans that you can order them online in time for Epiphany. Depending on what part of Louisiana and adjacent states you hail from the cake can be made either with yeast or without. My preference has always been the latter.

    However, New Orleans, which is pronounced “Nawlins”, has a very garish version of the raised dough variety.

    While most places consider this as strictly an Epiphany Cake, to be eaten (and the coin or baby figurine baked into it to be found by the lucky person at the party) in New Orleans, they eat King Cake from January 6th up to and including Shrove Tuesday.

    Those decadent French

  14. well, let me amend that…New Orleans not just French, it’s really Creole: French, Spanish, African, with a smidgen of Celtic influence thrown in when a few of the Scots Irish migrated down from the highlands of Tennessee.

    That polyglot makes for the most wonderful food in the world.


    No one has mentioned the Christmas stocking tradition. Is that only English or Irish (and definitely American)?

    In the orphanage, we had the best Christmas stockings of anyone. Long, thick, black stockings that had been darned and re-darned till the nuns couldn’t wear them anymore were put to one final use: the nuns would stuff those old hose with all sorts of goodies.

    Now that I think of it, they must’ve gotten donations from parishioners to be able to fill so many with a surprising amount of little-kid–treasures.

    We would come into the dining hall from Mass on Christmas morning to find a stocking hung on each girl’s chair. Those things were so long that even stuffed full of goodies they dragged the floor a bit. We would be served a Christmas breakfast which — for once, at least — was not burned oatmeal, cooked by whichever of the Big Girls who’d been on kitchen duty that week.

    And while we ate this feast we were — ah, blesséd day — permitted to talk while we plunged our hands further and further down those long black treasure troves.

    When it was all over, the sight of so many empty, baggy items of intimate nuns’ apparel was somehow embarrassing. But by then our sense of discomfiture had been dulled. Sated with good food, the novelty of conversation in the dining hall and the ingestion of far too much candy we were oblivious to much beyond our sense of contentment.

    The strictures and anticipations of Advent had been worth the wait.

    I still love that tradition. Even the Baron gets a stocking most years, or at least he did until I went Christmas Simple.

    PS I like Donne, but that poem is like an icy rain, putting out all the lights of St. Lucy.

  15. Dymphna,

    No one has mentioned the Christmas stocking tradition. Is that only English or Irish (and definitely American)?

    Well, the Zwarte Piets are supposedly not only black for coming from Africa, but through climbing down the chimneys with presents. If I remember it correctly the old Dutch tradition was to put the presents in shoes (and maybe socks, but not stockings), but it’s the same sort of concept anyhow.

    Sagunto and some of our Brits should be able to sort it out who might have been first with this.

  16. Dymphna,

    the stocking tradition? That’s easy.

    Ultimately, like so many rich traditions, it stems from an ancient Dutch custom, of course 😉

    Originally the stockings were shoes. And these shoes were put near the fireplace, filled with some food (usually a carrot) for the horse “Amerigo” of Sinterklaas.

    Throughout the centuries, people placed their shoes and received presents in it the other day. Oftentimes it was money, real or chocolate (in modern days). Refers back to the 4th cent legend around Saint Nicholas who threw money through an open window of a house were three maidens lived in poverty. They found the money in their shoes and so they didn’t have to sell themselves for cash.

    During the protestant (attempt at) reformation, the placing of shoes was forbidden in some cities in the Netherlands, but old customs have deep roots. The calvinists didn’t succeed. Nor did they reckon with the huge “Children’s Revolt” in the 17th century, when they tried to ban the feast of Sinterklaas altogether.

    Kind regs from Amsterdam (city that has Saint Nicholas as patron Saint, of course),

    Hey CS, you beat me to the punch (only saw your reply when I previewed, and you’re right, again 😉

  17. Sagunto,

    Do you have any idea of how far back the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition goes?

    Found this btw:

    Mentions the shoes, and also the “cheating” of the evening of the 5th, of not using the chimney that you hinted at before. But you don’t ever have a guy dressed as Sinterklaas stepping into the house , handing out the presents, reading the small verses on the packages, as we do it in Sweden, do you? (yes I know you have verses also as part of your tradition, but that’s a different thing involving “heckling”).

    Wikipedia on the Swedish tomte:

    The tomte was in ancient times believed to be the “soul” of the first inhabitor of the farm.

    The tomte was not always a popular figure: Like most creatures of folklore he would be seen as heathen and become connected to the Devil. Farmers believing in the house tomte could be seen as worshipping false gods; in a famous 14th century decree Saint Birgitta warns against the worship of tompta gudhi, “tomte gods” (Revelationes, book VI, ch. 78).

    In the 1840s the farm’s “nisse” became the bearer of Christmas presents in Denmark, and was then called julenisse (Yule Nisse).

    So it was the Danes who started it!

    Gradually, commercialism has made him look more and more like the American Santa Claus, but the Swedish jultomte, the Norwegian julenisse, the Danish nisse and the Finnish joulupukki (in Finland he is still called the “Yule Goat”, although his animal features have disappeared) still has features and traditions that are rooted in the local culture. He doesn’t live on the North Pole, but perhaps in a forest nearby, or in Denmark he lives on Greenland, and in Finland he lives in Lapland; he doesn’t come down the chimney at night, but through the front door, delivering the presents directly to the children, just like the Yule Goat did; he is not overweight; and even if he nowadays sometimes rides in a sleigh drawn by reindeer, instead of just walking around with his sack, his reindeer don’t fly – and in Sweden, Denmark and Norway some still put out a bowl of porridge for him on Christmas Eve.

    That last thing is an age old tradition.

  18. If I remember it correctly the old Dutch tradition was to put the presents in shoes (and maybe socks, but not stockings), but it’s the same sort of concept anyhow.

    Sagunto and some of our Brits should be able to sort it out who might have been first with this.

    This tradition is a very old one also in Romania – children receive gifts in shoes on the night before Saint Nicholas (5th – 6th of December). Actually it existed long before Santa Claus/Christmas Man was adopted: St. Nicholas was the only one responsible with the gifts for children. Since this tradition exists both in Catholic and Orthodox countries, I suppose it was widespread before the separation of the Church, since St. Nicholas (and the legends attached to him) was one of the most popular saints in the first millennium of Christianity.

    There is a legend behind this tradition:
    When St. Nicholas of Myra was a priest, in his parish lived a poor noble man who had three daughters at the marriage age. When the older daughter found a fiance, she was very sad because she didn’t have any dowry for her future husband. In the night before the wedding, St. Nicholas let a little bag with gold in the front door of her house. The same happened when the second daughter was about to get married.
    When the youngest of the girls found a husband, the father decided to stay in front of the door to find out who is the benefactor. St. Nicholas wanted to hide his identity again, so he climbed the roof and let the little bag to slip through the chimney. The bag reached inside a shoe that was laid to dry near the fireplace. The next morning, the youngest girl found her dowry in the shoe.

    Children are told to clean and polish their shoes and let them in front of the door. They receive candies and fruits. In some parts of the country, the gifts are attached to small branches of trees. It is said that children who were naughty during the year are supposed to receive only the branches, but practically the parents don’t have the courage to play such a trick.

  19. On the other hand, as always, I guess behind St. Nicholas might be an older pagan deity who was transformed by the Church. I wonder who he might be.

  20. Armance,

    Before Sinterklaas rode with his white steed on rooftops in Holland, it was Wodan who galopped across the sky on his white horse.


    On the animosity between Sint and Santa in Holland: Santa held hostage

    Ok, it’s a silly clip, but from a good heart. These SoS, i.e. “Soldiers of Sint”, vigilantes can be heard shouting at the end of this clip: “Wie is hier de baas?! Sinterklaas!!!” [lit.: Who is here the boss? Saint Nicholos!!]. Also notice the “nationalistic” symbols associated with Sinterklaas, ergo: Sint = Holland.


  21. Ow @CS,

    Forgot to read your last post.
    How far back? Well, very far. Written proof exists from the earliest days that Saint Nicholas was venerated in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. In Holland records from the 14th cent. exist (13..something). The placing of shoes was a custom that first took place in Utrecht, 15th cent (shoes were originally placed in churches to collect money for the poor).

    “..But you don’t ever have a guy dressed as Sinterklaas stepping into the house , handing out the presents, reading the small verses on the packages, as we do it in Sweden, do you?..”

    Well, we have a guy – mostly an elder man of impeccable reputation and great virtue (*cough*) – who descends from his horse, aided by a host of Pieten, and steps into whatever building where children (great and small) might be found: schools, shopping areas, and of course homes. The ritual then prescribes that the Sint opens his great big book to see how the kids have behaved during the past year. Kids are called forward and a short interview is held, mostly ending with an order to one of the Pieten to hand out some “pepernoten” (edible, ancient Germanic fertility symbols). Bad kids are to be put in a big bag, to be taken aboard the boat back to Spain, when the Sint leaves Holland (dec 6th).

    The writing of poems is twofold: children write poems for Sinterklaas to be put in their shoes (with carrots for Amerigo, the horse of Sint), together with a short list of things they hope to get as a present. This is from the moment the Sint arrives in Holland, somewhere mid November each year.
    Adults write poems for each other, and in those poems they take the opportunity to really set things straight and let off steam (or simply tell each other, in veiled terms, how much love they feel).
    This is the tradition of “surprises” (elaborate packaged presents) that adults give one another on dec 5th, together with a Sinterklaas-poem.


  22. I had no idea that Lucia was Italian. How very strange to have her end up in Sweden…

    Well, mysterious are the ways of the Church… 🙂

    Not mysterious at all. People forget how “international” and united medieval Christendom was in many ways, from England to Greece, from Spain to Sweden.

  23. @Erich

    Not mysterious at all. People forget how “international” and united medieval Christendom was in many ways, from England to Greece, from Spain to Sweden

    Greece wasn’t and still isn’t part of the Latin Church, though the others you mention are.

    And despite the thin layer of “globalism” that the Roman Church conveyed over from the Roman Empire, strong regional differences always existed. In that sense, the Church learned from the mistakes of the Empire, which didn’t allow for the flexibility of local rule and thus eventually failed (simplistic, yeah, but that’s essentially Gibbon’s idea on Rome’s fall).

    The Latin Church was never able to make the theological accomodations to the Orthodox Ecclesia that would have been necessary to make the Christian Church truly univeral.

  24. Erich,

    Not mysterious at all. People forget how “international” and united medieval Christendom was in many ways, from England to Greece, from Spain to Sweden.

    Except that the Saint Lucia connection was invented in the 1750s.

  25. Armance,

    Thanks for your answer, and you solved all of our questions with it. So St. Nicholas Day, when children receive gifts, is more than a thousand years old. And the idea of putting shoes by the fire place might be just as old.

    So when did the shoes turn into stockings? When the gifts had grown too big for the shoes I reckon.

  26. Sintergunto,

    Yes I have seen the Sinterklaas parades and all that. But the question is whether Sinterklaas ever comes in person to deliver the presents?

    A new question for you. I just read this:

    The history of the festive Saint Nicholas celebration is complex and reflects conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism. Since Nicholas was a canonised saint, Martin Luther replaced the festival that had become associated with the Papacy with a Christkind (“Christ child”) celebration on Christmas Eve. The Nicholas celebrations still remain a part of tradition among many Protestants, albeit on a much smaller scale than Christmas. The Protestant Netherlands, however, retain a much larger Saint Nicholas tradition. Many Dutch Catholics, on the other hand, have adopted Luther’s Christkind.

    There are so many fascinating sides of this. And it’s all St. Nicholas or inspired by him one way or the other.

    Any comments Sagunto to what they say about Holland above? Is it really so?

  27. 😀 Sintergunto.. sounds pleasantly militant (pic. of Sintergunto)

    Q: “..But the question is whether Sinterklaas ever comes in person to deliver the presents?”

    A: Well, yes and no. Look, Sinterklaas is a very, very old Saint and the presents these days are sometimes huge. That means that his Pieten actually deliver them on the doorstep (that’s the use of helpers). Then the Sint announces himself by knocking with his staff on the doorpost (he doesn’t ring the doorbel!). Then the whole company enters the house while the children are singing “Sinterklaasje kom maar binnen met je knecht” [lit: little Saint Nicholas please enter with your servant”]. You know the rest by now.
    This ritual is an adaptation to the times in which chimneys and fireplaces are disappearing, replaced as they are by central heating (that suddenly reminds me of an article by Chesterton, or was it Belloc, against central heating. Morbidly ironical that Belloc should die burning in his fireplace). Tradition has it that presents are delivered by Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet through the chimney. So then the Sint doesn’t enter the building, because he’s on the roof on his horse (like Wodan). What happens then is that adults create a diversion for the kids. Somewhere in the back of the house a window opens and someone (probably another Piet) cries, “Zijn hier nog stoute kinderen?” [Are there any naughty children here?], and a fistful of pepernoten and other sweets are thrown inside. That will make the kiddos dive to the floor and give the parents the opportunity to place a big basket full of presents near the fireplace.

    Now for the Wiki-piece. The first part probably reflects the situation in large parts of today’s Germany. The second part about the Dutch Saint Nicholas tradition is correct in the sense that even among protestants, Sinterklaas has survived the onslaught of Calvinism (Luther never was that much of an influence in Holland as he was in Germany and Scandinavia). It is inaccurate when it speaks in the present tense about “the Protestant Netherlands”. It should say “protestants in the Netherlands”. And furthermore, very few – if any – catholics have adopted Luther’s idea of the Christkind bringing gifts instead of Sinterklaas. Not even many protestants have adopted Luther’s Christkind that way.
    So the picture differs indeed. In Germany you see the competition between the Christkind and Santa Klaus and in Holland the competition is between Santa Klaus and Sinterklaas. In Holland Sinterklaas has really become a “national Saint”.
    But another thing that actually was adopted remarkably quickly during the 20th century, was the “German” chistmas tree (it was seen as German, not Lutheran). It was resisted as something foreign, but in the end adopted when the more “cosy” version of the German Christmas was introduced through education in schools. It was a bit “sweet” and homely perhaps, but it helped in the struggle against public drunkenness and such. Nowadays it has even entered catholic churches.
    Then of course there is the Christmas stable, both indoors and outdoors (reintroduced from Flanders as live performances. There the outdoor introduction of the live stable was used as a post WW-II counter-offensive against Santa Claus), with baby Jesus in a manger and all. But that’s another story.

    Kind regs from Amsterdam,

    Did I say Santa Klaus? Probably German influences.

  28. OK, now I have dug deeper into this whole thing, and it’s all sort of fascinating.

    So St. Nicolaus has been with us, as gift giver to children, probably as least as long as Western Civilization has existed. And all the different present givers in December are incarnations of him (Santa Claus, Weihnachtsmann, Father Christmas, etc.) or inspired by him, like the Christkind, and of course the Scandinavian Yule Gnome was inspired by him too.

    But what about the Scandinavian Yule Goat that preceded the Yule Gnome? Was this an old pagan tradition?

    Now you will hear. I read in a Swedish encyclopedia: “The Yule Goat is most closely connected to the Nicolas spectacles, which originally took place on December 6”. Oh, who could that Nicolas guy be?

    “…but after the reformation it was moved to the Yule (December 24). Lutheran activism against the adoration of saints excluded the Nicolas figure, by which the with him following devil, Beelsebub, Beelsebock in Sweden survived as the julbock (Yule Goat), and could thereby keep Nicolas role as the gift giver.”

    The Yule Gnome entered our tradition, replacing the Yule Goat in the 19th century. Scandinavians seeing pictures of St. Nicolaus handing out presents, thought he looked like a nordic gnome with his long white beard (St. Nicolas himself having been erased from our collective memory by the Lutherans), and the rest is history.

    So it’s all that Nicolas fellow again. So this leaves us with Spain being the only country with a Christmas gift giving tradition that is not influenced in any way by St. Nicolaus; they have the three wise men giving the presents.

    However, in spite of neither the Yule Goat nor the Yule Gnome being any age old pagan traditions, I still find it characteristic of Scandinavia how first a devilish goat is accepted as replacement for the gift giving saint, and then a heathen gnome. It’s highly ironic too how it was the Lutheran Scandinavian Churches that caused this reintroduction of paganry by the banning of saints like St. Nicolas.

    Btw, regarding Sankta Lucia. I found a quote from the 17th century referring to the “S. Luciae night”. So that Christian saint was part of the story earlier than I suggested before, which makes the whole thing a lot more complex. And of course St. Lucy died on December 13 too.

    The strangest thing with this tradition is that it’s not even properly Scandinavian. Traditionally it belongs only in south western Sweden. It spread to the rest of Sweden late, and to Finland and Denmark only after WWII.

    The regional character suggests the tradition came from below, from the people themselves. And they wouldn’t have any idea of an Italian saint. But St. Lucy, who fits very nicely into the idea of a light festival, must have been integrated into these celebrations quite far back, and if we add two and two together from the things I have written in this comment, it must have been before the reformation, i.e. 15th century or earlier (I mean those Lutherans wouldn’t have introduced any saint would they 🙂

  29. Sag,

    Thanks for the clarifications. And as I suspected that Wiki piece had faulty bits in it.

    Suddenly for the difference in behaviour between our Yule Gnome and St. Nicolaus is less interesting to me, now that I have concluded that our Yule Gnome is a branch on the very same Nicolaus tree. Surely our Christmas man does not behave as Santa Claus or Sinterklaas, but that can probably be accounted for by the fact that he was sent in exile by zealous Lutherans, and his reign had to be carried on by his “vice president” the devilish goat. So his behaviour was changed from the fact of having been, in essence, a devilish goat for some hundred years up here, eventually returning reincarnated as gnome.

    Or maybe it’s just the Scandinavian custom of taking the shoes off in the hallway. It’s not “kosher” with shoes inside a house. So maybe the whole chimney thing went out of the door by that?

    What remains of Scandinavian influence to the internationalized American Santa are his clothes. He’s dressed as a nordic garden gnome. Concept by the Danes. But I think the actual look comes from the Swedes. First of all the illustrations by Jenny Nyström. And then it was an American-Swede, Haddon Sundblom, who back in the ’30s merged the images of the “fatso” Santa drawn by the American Thomas Nast, putting Scandinavian gnome clothes on him (probably inspired by Jenny Nyström’s images), and then colouring the whole suit red for the purpose of the Coca Cola advertising.

  30. CS,

    I don’t know for sure, but I think the red-nosed reindeer, Rudy, was the result of a 1939 US marketing campaign.

    That Joelgeit or Yule goat on the other hand, is a remarkable and interesting detail that made me grab for Frazer’s Golden Bough again. And on page 569, the goat appears as an old pagan representative of the Corn-Spirit (that’s spirit as in ghost). Here’s a link to the goat.

    When you read on a bit, it says:
    “..But the idea of the corn-spirit as embodied in pig form is nowhere more clearly expressed than in the Scandinavian custom of the Yule Boar. In Sweden and Denmark at Yule (Christmas) it is the custom to bake a loaf in the form of a boar-pig. This is called the Yule Boar. The corn of the last sheaf is often used to make it..”

    So now we have a Yule Boar thrown in 🙂

    Goat, Boar, Rooster, Hare, Wolf: all manifestations of the forest/corn spirit.

    [Quote: CS]
    “..I still find it characteristic of Scandinavia how first a devilish goat is accepted as replacement for the gift giving saint, and then a heathen gnome. It’s highly ironic too how it was the Lutheran Scandinavian Churches that caused this reintroduction of paganry by the banning of saints like St. Nicolas..”

    Yep, highly ironic for sure, and “pagan” seems to be in the eye of the beholder. For Luther, who wanted to abolish all the Saints, the veneration of these “middle-men” (m/f), some like the demigods of ancient Roman civilization, was like a semi-pagan custom. It is like Dymphna said, that the Latin Church of early medieval times never really rooted out old folk traditions and customs, partly because it didn’t succeed or indeed wanted to, and partly because it wasn’t deemed the right strategy. In contrast, part of the protestant mindset has always been fixed on “pure” (biblical) Christianity, and so the protestant reformation was also a war on ancient folk customs (at least in the Netherlands). Did I say war? I meant “re-education” of course 😉 [See: Keith Thomas: Religion and the decline of Magic].


  31. It seems that St. Nicholas indeed received some characteristics from Odin/Wodan. A detailed account here:

    A few short excerpts:

    However, the most important development was probably the addition of several elements from ancient Germanic paganism. The ancients had believed that their bearded god Wodan (or Odin) rode over the white clouds on his white horse Sleipnir, carrying a lance, and judging which people were worthy warriors to be allowed to enter the hallowed halls of the Walhalla. The Germanic tribesmen appear to have exchanged presents in December.

    This saga was now christianized. As a bishop, Nicholas could easily be represented as a horseman with a bishop’s staff. From now on, it was believed that he was judging children’s behavior, awarding good children and punishing the bad ones. In Holland it was said that during the night of 5/6 December, the bearded Saint Nicholas and his white horse rode over the snow-covered roofs and threw presents through the chimneys, which the children would find early in the morning, often hid in shoes

  32. Armance,

    Fascinating. So our Scandinavian Jultomten (the Yule Gnome) is like a Russian doll (don’t mention the Cold War!).

    We open him once and we find the Yule Goat (Julbocken), whose behaviour he inherited. And if we open again, we find St. Nicolaus, the origin for all these traditions. But even he can be opened up, and we find a little Odin too.


    The Yule Boar is unknown to me. But yule pigs are all over the place, e.g. ginger bread in pig shape, and of course as the centerpiece of the Christmas table (no turkeys here).

    The Yule Goat is in Swedish called Julbocken, i.e. the Yule Buck to be more accurate. The buck also symbolizes the devil, and so also in this case. So there’s most probably no corn-spirit in this fellow. In Sweden, before the Lutherans threw out St. Nicolas Day, St. Nicolas was accompanied by this goat figure, symbolizing Satan, quite as yours is accompanied by Black Peters.

    Black Peter btw, we have that too (Svarte Petter). Maybe he came into our folklore by St. Nicolas too?

  33. CS,

    [Quote: CS]
    “Black Peter btw, we have that too (Svarte Petter). Maybe he came into our folklore by St. Nicolas too?”

    I wouldn’t be surprised, and – as you said – the tradition doesn’t stop at Sinterklaas. It’s just a good example of how the early Latin Church adapted to pagan customs for spreading the faith.
    So you bet that when Zwarte Piet is called the vanguished devil that it doesn’t refer to the biblical Satan, but to the old pagan gods that were granted sort of a second life in the person of an old Saint and his helper(s). Wodan/Thor and Loki/Nörwi become Sint and Piet. Zwarte Piet = Svarte Petter one way or the other. He’s also called Pieterman, Hansje Pik/Pek (black tar from Hell), Pietje Pek and in Germany he’s known as Hans Muff, Nickel, Krampus, Ruprecht. All pretty devilish figures. Another German name for Black Pete even brings back the goat: Peltzenbock, which refers to Beëlzebub, the devil.

    Sometimes this devilish aspect even rubs off on the Sint himself and so it is that in Belgium another name for Sinterklaas is “Klaai den Duivele” i.e., “Klaas the Devil”. In England one of the names of the devil is “Old Nick”, and in Germany Niklo or Nickel. During the Middle Ages, whenever his name (Sinterklaas) was heard, some people cursed which is kinda odd for a holy man. Some experts even go so far as to see in Ruprecht the old epitheton of Wodan: Hruod Perath. In this interpretation, the figures of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Svarte Petter) are two aspects of one and the same pagan god: Nicholas as the christianized Wodan and his servant as the demonized, vanguished Wodan.

    To get back to where we started, with the newly found Moorish (Islamic) servants of today’s Sint in Multiculturisthan: it is certain that in medieval times the depictions of Zwarte Pieten didn’t look like Moors at all. The Dutch connection of Sinterklaas with Spain is very unclear, but there’s no Moorish connection as far as the historical record shows. But that don’t matter, ’cause some far fetched elements are good for traditional rituals to stand the test of time. No logic, no “function” and therefore still here. The ancient tradition of Saint Nicholas has a lot of sources and layers, the more the better and that’s why he’s here to stay, and so is Svarte Petter 🙂


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