2016 summer holidays: off to the magnificent south coast of Turkey. My wife Kim and I stayed a week in Patara, a candidate UNESCO world heritage site, a major port city 2,500 years ago, a center of the Luwian civilisation and home to the first representational assembly in the world. Today, what remains of Patara are partly uncovered ruins with access to a beautiful beach that is also a breeding ground for the endangered Caretta Caretta turtles.
Patara is also the place where Sint-Nicolaas (Sinterklaas) is said to be born, around 270 AD. Then its port was still functioning, although battling and ultimately losing the fight against silting. There are many legends surrounding Sint-Nicolaas, like the one in which he helped a poor father with no money for the bridal gift for his three daughters. Sint-Nicolaas secretly entered the house, leaving gold for the oldest daughter, thus preventing her from having to work as a prostitute. Later, when he wished to help the other girls, he could not enter the house, so he dropped gold coins through the chimney.
With such a noble nature, it should not surprise us that he became the bishop of Myra, these days known as Demre, a Turkish city 86 km east of Patara. During our visit men and women stood in line, some with tears in their eyes, to touch and kiss the feet of the sculpture of Sint-Nicloaas. He was buried there, but later his remains were taken by Italian sailors to Bari in the 11th century, when the Seljuks were attacking the Byzantine Empire and approaching Myra. His relics are still in Italy, in spite of repeated requests by the Turkish authorities to send them back.
The several dimensions of Sint-Nicolaas
On 6 December 343, Sint-Nicolaas died in Myra, leaving behind an important legacy “of unselfish love and sacrifice to anonymously alleviate problems of other people”. No surprise he became a highly venerated saint, in the first place among Eastern-Orthodox Christians, but also in a country like Iceland where 39 churches are dedicated to Sint-Nicolaas. As a saint he takes care of those in need like children and unmarried women but also of sailors, pharmacists and interestingly (and rather liberal) even prostitutes, thieves, bankers and pirates.
I had not realized all of this. For me Sinterklaas was ‘just’ a Dutch tradition focussing on children, but it is already an important day in some 25 countries. And let us not forget Santa Claus, the modern interpretation of Sint-Nicolaas, who in a short time became an almost global phenomenon. Centuries ago the Dutch embraced his name day of 6th of December (but honor it on the evening of the 5th) to such an extent that it has become our most beloved celebration and included in the Dutch tentative UNESCO immaterial heritage list.
Writing about Sinterklaas makes me realize once again that The Netherlands is not your standard country. We mention in our national anthem that we are of German blood, that we have always honored the King of Spain; we teach our children that their best friend (Sinterklaas) arrives every year on an old steam boat from Spain, that he rides on a white horse on slippery roof tops to give children candies and presents, but also threatens to put naughty children in a bag and take them with him to Spain, never to see their parents again (I assume).
The Netherlands might look like an emotionally stable country, but discussions about Sinterklaas get very heated. Actually it’s not about Sinterklaas, but all about his entourage, the so-called “Zwarte Pieten”. It is unclear how these black servants became part of the Dutch interpretation of Sinterklaas. Perhaps because he originally came from Turkey, also home to ‘moors’ (black slaves), perhaps because of the link with Spain, or most likely because in 1850 a Dutch school teacher introduced them into his version of the Sinterklaas story.
Are the “Zwarte Pieten” relevant to the central Sint-Nicolaas philosophy? Not at all. What matters is that we recognise Sint-Nicolaas for who he really was: a kind man, an inspiration already in the 3rd and 4th century, and still today, in the 21st century, a man who used chimneys to drop his gifts, to the young of age and heart, wishing to remain unseen, as the only reward he needed was knowing that he brought others happiness. As he is not able to do all this alone, he needs help, help that we all can give.