Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
On Friday night, my husband and I attended a local lecture by food historian Peter G. Rose entitled “Joyful Traditions: How the Dutch Brought Us Santa, Presents, and Treats.” The talk was one event among many in our region paying homage to the traditions of the early Dutch settlers and their Sinterklaas, whose celebrations span the Hudson Valley in the beginning of December to coincide with the feast day of Saint Nicholas.
Rose surmised that the conflation of Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, and Christmas Day in the contemporary U.S. is a result of American practicality—two holidays in one. Yet while many Christians take umbrage over Santa’s presence at Christmas, I wonder how much it has to do with American capitalism (itself an expression of our national practicality); where a feudal system would value many saints’ days as opportunities for peasants to work a little less and eat a little more, a capitalist system regards holidays as lost productivity, so its seems sensible to me that combining Saint Nicholas Day and Christ’s birthday is not so much an attack on religious ideologies as an expression of the almighty American dollar.
My family enjoys participating in the Sinterklaas and Saint Nicholas traditions, including a yearly visit to a local historical site where all the participants remove their shoes only to find them later, filled with gold coins. I like the way that these activities illustrate history and the changing expression of social and economic systems; also, it’s fun, and, as my younger daughter’s godmother quipped, “Jesus is not intimidated by Santa.” I agree.
Rose’s lecture, while honoring the history of the region, also questioned history, reminding us, her audience, how little we really know of Saint Nicholas, even down to details as simple as whether he was one person or several. The stories all center on his generosity and secular appeal (an insuppressible saint for the people, even during the Reformation, she said). There’s the story of Saint Nicholas providing three poor young women with gold for their dowries; and there’s the more gruesome tale (which my husband found particularly entertaining) of Saint Nicholas resurrecting three dead, mutilated boys from a murderous butcher’s pickle barrel. These stories persist through the centuries in Saint Nicholas’ iconography, including an elaborate cake-board that our speaker showed us, featuring, of course, the three boys in the barrel.
The themes of generosity and salvation (however worldly) run through the stories of Saint Nicholas, and even the gold chocolate coins in our shoes emphasize the human appetite for luxury—culinary and monetary. The Sinterklaas parades we’ve attended in the past share a similar secular quality, a kind of festival atmosphere that feels more familiar to Mardi Gras or Halloween (which also have religious connections, depending on the culture) than to contemporary American Christian notions of Christmas. But while I don’t honor the saints generally or Saint Nicholas specifically as religious figures, I see the sacred-secular mishmash of Sinterklaas and Saint Nicholas celebrations as reflective of Christ’s birthday—not necessarily antithetical to it.
Rose emphasized Saint Nicholas as a giver of gifts, and, she asserted, the best sort of giver because he remained anonymous. I agree with her point in many ways, because I see how anonymous generosity gives glory to God instead of the human givers. Yet while American culture has transformed Sinterklaas and Saint Nicholas into Santa Claus—a larger-than-life character whose legendary gift giving is anything but anonymous, Christmas too is about the giver and the gift whose name and purpose were foretold. And Jesus incarnate is the perfect embodiment of the sacred and the secular, the divine and the human, that traditions like Saint Nicholas can catch in imperfect glimpses. We fix our eyes on the manger that stands in the shadow of the cross—a tale more ghastly even than three boys in a pickle barrel, not least of all because not one human but all humanity bears the blame.
But for Christmas, we follow the star and the heavenly portents, we see the skies open up to reveal the heavenly host in song, and we see a human baby. Christ embodies the same impulse that made settlers cling to Saint Nicholas even when church authorities decried the worship of saints; God incarnate appeals to the strangely otherworldly Sinterklaas expressing living history. The Christmas story is not about the triumph of the sacred over the secular, but of the sacred incarnate as the secular—with all the messy contradictions of humanity and divinity. We long for the sweet gold coins in our shoes and the parade of legendary characters because they imperfectly reflect something truly divine—the Christ child. And so we can hang our stockings even as our hearts cry out, “Oh come, oh come Emmanuel!”