We lived for two years in The Hague (Den Haag), the seat of the Dutch Parliament and the third largest city in The Netherlands. My wife and I worked in Royal Dutch Shell’s Head Office and lived in a nearby house. Located next to the North Sea, we experienced wet windy weather and little sunshine. In contrast to the harsh weather, our Dutch neighbors were warm and welcoming to Americans. They regularly expressed their gratitude for freeing and rebuilding their war-torn country.
We spent two Christmas seasons in The Netherlands which began with the Amsterdam arrival of Sinterklaus (Saint Nicholas) by boat from Spain. It occurred this year on Sunday, 17 November. Sinterklaus then travels the country with Zwerte Piet, a black-faced youth in Moorish attired clothing, who passes out candy and cookies (kruidnootjes) to children.
Saint Nicholas is the origin of our jolly Santa Claus (St. Nick, Kris Kringle). Judith Flanders, Victorian historian and author, wrote Christmas: A Biography (Thomas Dunne Books, New York City, NY, 2017) and gives a short history of this early Christian saint:
St. Nicholas of Myra [270 – 343 CE] was bishop of the Lycian Greek town of Myra (now Demre, in Turkey [on the southeast coast]) in the fourth century, although it was The Golden Legend, a compilation of the lives of the saints written by a Genoese churchman around 1260, that established most of his story. In that telling, the bishop is said to have tossed three bags of gold through an impoverished nobleman’s window to provide dowries for his three daughters so that they would not be sold into prostitution. … St. Nicholas over time became the patron saint of sailors, and particularly, of children. His saint’s day, 6 December, became the day on which schoolchildren were rewarded or punished for their year’s work. (pages 98-99)
Today, on the eve of St. Nicholas’ day, Dutch families gather in the evening. The children put their wooden shoes by the fireplace with a carrot or hay for Sinterklaus’ horse. Friends of the family deposit a sack of presents at the door, knock, and scamper away. The children open the door and find the toys. Family members compose and read clever poems to each other. It is a festive evening and my Dutch work colleagues would leave work early to celebrate as a family. After 6 December, Christmas trees would go on sale and the holiday festivities began.
I asked my Dutch neighbor what they did on Christmas Day since Americans open gifts while the Dutch children had already received their gifts on 5 December. She looked at me with a puzzled expression. “It is a religious day. We go to church.” I felt a tinge of remorse for asking the question. I was a Christian and connected Christmas Day with secular traditions of opening gifts and eating holiday foods. However, I did worship on Christmas Eve, while Dutch Christians kept Christmas Day as a religious event.
Saint Nicolas is also associated with the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea (325 CE). This was the church council that developed the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one God …” This creed is still recited today by the majority of Christian denominations. My church recites it on World Communion Sunday in October. Perhaps the Dutch have found the right balance between secular and religious holidays. Connecting the giving of gifts to the early church saint, Bishop Nicholas of Myra, ecumenically unifies Christian believers to an earlier time when the Church wrote their first confession of faith (Nicene Creed): “who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man.” It is a common bond that unites all Christians during this season of hope, peace, love, and joy.