After the Reformation Saint Nicholas became forgotten in protestant countries of Europe except Holland.
There he became Sinterklaas; a kind and wise old man with a white beard, white dress, red cloak, a crosier and rides the skies and roofs of houses on his white horse. Sinterklaas would visit on his birthday December 5 or 6 and donate gifts.
This image became popular in the 19th century with influences such as the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas“. The image has been maintained and reinforced through song, radio, television, children’s books, films, and advertising.
In the 19th Century; Zwarte Piet (plural Zwarte Pieten) was a companion of Sinterklaas, usually portrayed by a man in blackface, black curly hair, dressed up like a 17th-century page in colourful attire, often sporting a lace collar and a feathered cap. He first appears in print as the nameless servant of Saint Nicholas in Sint-Nikolaas en zijn knecht (“St. Nicholas and His Servant”), published in 1850 by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman; but the tradition appears to date back to the early 19th Century.
Over the years many stories have been added, and Zwarte Piet has developed from a rather unintelligent helper into a valuable assistant to the absent-minded saint. Traditionally Zwarte Piet’s face is said to be black because he is a Moor from Spain. Today, some prefer to say that his face is blackened with soot, as he has to climb through chimneys to deliver his gifts. The figure of Zwarte Piet is considered by some to be racist and the character has become increasingly controversial.
Parallels have been drawn between the legend of Sinterklaas and the figure of Odin, a major god among the Germanic peoples, who was worshipped in Northern and Western Europe prior to Christianisation.
Since some elements of the Sinterklaas celebration are unrelated to Christianity, there are theories regarding the pagan origins of various customs of the holiday stemming from areas where the Germanic peoples were Christianised and retained elements of their indigenous traditions, surviving in various forms into modern depictions of Sinterklaas. Non-Christian elements in Sinterklaas that arguably could have been of pagan origin:
- Sinterklaas rides the rooftops on his white horse which has various names; Odin rides the sky with his grey horse Sleipnir.
- Sinterklaas gives chocolate letters to children, like Odin gave the rune letters to man.
- Sinterklaas carries a staff and has mischievous helpers with black faces, who listen at chimneys to find out whether children are bad or good and report to Sinterklaas; Odin has a spear and his black ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who report what happens in the world to Odin.
Among early Germanic tribes, one of the major deities was Odin, the ruler of Asgard. The story begins in the northern regions of Europe where the supreme god Odin, also known as Wodan among the German tribes, reigned. (He still lives among us in Wednesday, which is Wodan’s day). It is attested in primary sources that sacrifices were made to Odin during blóts, Norse pagan sacrifices to the Norse gods land spirits. Adam of Bremen relates that every ninth year, people assembled from all over Sweden to sacrifice at the Temple at Uppsala. Male slaves and males of each species were sacrificed and hung from the branches of the trees.
In addition to the influence of Odin, in the Roman empire between December 17 and 24 the pagan Saturnalia were celebrated, a big feasts with a lot of merrymaking, dancing, gambling, sensuality and the exchange of gifts. This festival was meant to celebrate the return of the sun on the shortest days of the year and to counteract the depression due to lack of sunlight.
A number of similarities exist between some of Odin’s escapades and those of the figure who would become Santa Claus. Odin was often depicted as leading a hunting party through the skies, during which he rode his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir.
In the 13th-century Poetic Edda, Sleipnir is described as being able to leap great distances, which some scholars have compared to the legends of Santa’s reindeer.
Odin was typically portrayed as an old man with a long, white beard, much like St. Nicholas himself. Kids would leave out food for Odin’s flying, eight-legged horse Sleipnir. When Odin flew by, he rewarded the little ones by leaving gifts in their boots. In several Germanic countries, this practice survived despite the adoption of Christianity. As a result, gift-giving became associated with St. Nicholas, only nowadays, stockings are hung rather than leaving boots by the chimney!
The gift-giver; St Nicholas (Sinterklaas), merged with the English character Father Christmas to create the character known as “Santa Claus” (a phonetic derivation of “Sinterklaas”). In the English and British colonies versions of the gift-giver merged further.
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