Encounter with a celebrity saint
Noordwijk is a picture postcard example of where not to go in the winter months. The North Sea coast is not the most attractive destination at the best of times and this well-to-do Dutch resort is no exception.
Besides the hordes of holidaying
locals and Germans who arrive every summer, the town’s only claim to fame is as
home to one of the European Space Agency’s facilities, where I found myself
attending an event about science and theatre.
After the gathering had packed up, I decided it was time to blaze a trail out of this dreary – if not yet ghost, then at least comatose – town. Just as I was about to get on the bus out of Noordwijk’s grey, windswept streets, I resolved that, since I was here, I should see the sea before I left this sparse wasteland for civilisation.
One immediate problem presented itself; I wasn’t entirely sure which way the sea lay. Since I was standing on a road named De Oude Zeeweg, I reasonably surmised that it ought to lead to the beach. Too long accustomed to sunnier climes, I was looking out for – despite the overcast weather – something big and blue, so I didn’t immediately notice the water up ahead. Then I noticed, beneath the gun-metal grey of the sky, the foamy white edges of splashing waves on a choppy and equally grey North Sea.
Steeling myself against the wind, I pushed on. I had expected the beach – like the town – to be largely deserted, where I would take a solitary stroll before doubling back for the next bus. But ahead there was an unidentified heaving crowd. My first thought was that the cause of the commotion was locals protesting against another sunken oil tanker or passenger liner. But as my focus sharpened, I noticed that the angry mob was actually a throng of families in excited anticipation.
I soon pieced together what it was they were so eagerly awaiting on the edge of that cold beach. Little children sitting on their parents’ shoulders were waving little banners that read ‘Welkom Sint and Piet’. So, they were waiting for Santa Claus, or Sinterklaas, as he is known in Dutch.
Sinterklaas, which falls on 6 December, is – perhaps surprisingly – a big deal in Protestant Holland. His official arrival, which shifts from one village to the next each year, is broadcast live to the nation. By sheer fortune, last year, I happened to be where the old Sint’s boat was arriving.
And, there it was, rocking sharply on the waves as it made its way to the shore. I found myself wondering how that little vessel had managed to make it here from Spain – where people in this part of the world believe he lives – along the choppy North Sea.
The Anglo-Saxons believe Santa lives in Lapland or the North Pole – perhaps because these are places they can safely assume their kids are unlikely to go to – but Iberia seems to be the choice here. This could be explained by the fact that Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas have merged in parts of the English-speaking world following the Protestant reformation, whereas, in Belgium and Holland, they remain two distinct beings.
Some might find it hard to square their image of this saintly gift giver with the notion that he may spend his summer months strutting his stuff in Ibiza but this tradition predates the clubbing era of the Stoned Age. I imagine it dates back to the days when the Spanish ruled the lowlands.
The Sint, clad in his bright red bishop’s outfit, leapt off the boat rather too youthfully for a man that, by my reckoning, is more than 1,700 years old. He was followed by his zwarte piets – his black Moorish helpers from North Africa.
Although the strong racial undertones associated with the piets is not lost on someone of my background, one gets used to them and can dismiss them as harkening back to an age that was less enlightened and didn’t know better. For their part, the young children seemed to adore them, perhaps more than the hallowed Sint, and swarmed around them for sweets.
There was no getting away from the Sint that day. I left him on the beach to greet his adoring fan club and made my way to the Hague. As I walked around the Dutch capital, I could hear excited whisperings that Sinterklaas was on his way, and television camera were everywhere. Then, I stumbled across his parade route.
Given their Protestant aversion to the saintly, the Dutch do take this particular saint very seriously. It was a turnout that would draw envy from politicians and royalty, with excited families lining the route for miles to come. You could say the ol’ Sint is an enduring pop legend!
A legion of zwarte pieten had walked past and given bystanders speculoos biscuits. Then, the Sint – looking like Gandalf after he’d taken his priestly vows in an unpublished Tolkien classic – trotted by on a magnificent white horse.
This legendary icon is no less popular in Belgium. Saint Nicholas’ name adorns some 300 churches across the land and there is an entire city – my wife’s hometown – named after him in East Flanders. In Sint Niklaas, young children apparently get the Monday of Sinterklaas off school so that they can play with their new treats.
Belgians believe that the brave Sinterklaas saved three young children from certain sausagehood at the hands of an evil butcher. All good Belgian kids write letters to the Sint explaining what good children they’ve been and what the saintly gift-giver can get them as a reward.
To say thank you to the generous Sint, young children all over the land leave treats out for him and a sugar lump for his horse. With so many great Belgian beers waiting for him at every doorstep, it’s a miracle that the old saint can find his way around from one house to the next and that he manages it without mixing up kids’ presents.
But perhaps the best part of the whole affair is the miracle of the Sint’s rebirth. In the run up to 6 December, the shops fill up with delicious Belgian chocolate incarnations of the revered saint!
As every smart child eventually learns, Santa Claus is not real. But their parents should be more precise and separate the man from the myth because, as all good historians know, Nick was very real, indeed.
Growing up as a Muslim child, my parents never felt it necessary to uphold the legend of Santa Claus. I think I was the first child in my school who knew conclusively – there was speculation but never solid fact amongst my peers – that the jolly red man was a fiction but I held my tongue.
For all you adults out there who were rudely awoken by the revelation that Saint Nicholas wasn’t real and for whom life has never been quite the same since, you can take away the consolation that, although he never climbed down your chimney or put you on his knee, the cheerful old man was very real – flesh and bone, just like you and I.
The real Nicholas (270-345) was a third-fourth century Christian born in Patara, a small town in Byzantine Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), to a wealthy family. He became bishop of Myra while he was still young and his parents died soon after. His now legendary devoutness led him to use his significant inheritance to help the poor while leading a life of austerity himself.
He is said to have been a contemporary of the co-ruling emperors Diocletian and Maximian who instigated the longest sustained period of persecution of the early Christians. Diocletian issued an edict in 303 authorising the systematic persecution of Christians across the Roman Empire, which did not end until 311 in the eastern part of the empire.
This was soon to change, under Constantine I, who refounded Byzantium as Constantinople and moved the Roman capital there from Rome. Although it is unclear whether the great emperor ever embraced the faith, his famous Edict of Milan and his endorsement of the Council of Nicaea ended Christian persecution and made Christianity the unofficial faith of the Empire.
Bishop Nicholas is believed to have attended this First Ecumenical Council which sought to sort out the controversy surrounding the nature of Jesus caused by the Arians and hammer out an orthodox dogma for the entire church.
Nicholas was well known for coming to the defence of the innocent and the falsely accused, often preventing them from being executed. He is also reputed to have prayed for sailors and other travellers which might explain why he is now their patron saint. Among orthodox Christians, he is believed to have worked miracles.
But the good bishop also had a militant side and he is attributed with destroying several pagan temples, including that of Diana, as well as slapping Arius at Nicaea for his ‘heresy’. Interestingly, Diana’s birthday is on 6 December and some historians believe that the celebration of Saint Nicholas on this date was to overshadow the ancient goddess. Some believe that 6 December was the date of Nick’s death.
But, as any child can tell you, it was Nicholas’ charitable work and his love of children for which he was most remembered. One story tells of how the goodly bishop anonymously helped an old man with the dowry for his three daughters. He is said to have tossed bags of gold through their open window which landed in stockings hanging up to dry by the hearth (sound familiar?).
With so much going for him, he was canonised within a century of his death. Over the ensuing centuries, he may have attained an odd immortality, been merged with local legends, and given strange supernatural powers to fly over chimneypots, but the real Nicholas and his spirit of giving is an example to us all.
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