Sinterklaas or Nikolaus, San Nicola etc. in European countries is based on the legendary figure of St Nicholas. Born in 271 AD to a rich Greek family in Asia Minor in in the city of Patara (Lycia et Pamphylia), he was very religious from an early age. His parents died by an epidemic while Nicholas was still very young and he was raised by his uncle (also named Nicholas), the bishop of Patara. ” He tonsured the young Nicholas as a reader and later ordained him a presbyter (priest). “(wikipedia) Nicholas decided to distribute his wealth to the poor and become a priest. Later he became the Arch Bishop of Myra, a place near the city of Anatolia in Turkey.
He had the reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him and became the model for Santa Claus (celebrated on 24th or 25th December), whose modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas in turn comes from a series of elisions and corruptions of the transliteration of “Saint Nikolaos”.
The fame of St Nicholas’ good deeds began to spread across the Mediterranean and he became known as a patron saint of children, sailors, merchants, archors, travellers and of the city of Amsterdam. Therefore this figure has a special meaning to the Dutch and to the children.
There are many legends about St Nicholas. One tells how a terrible famine struck the island and a malicious butcher lured three little children to his house, killed them and placed their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, saw through this horrible crime and resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers. In another version (from the 11th Century), the butcher’s victims were three clerks who wished to stay the night. The man murdered them and intended to turn them into meat pies. Saint Nicholas saw through this and brought the men back to life. – These kind of legends seem to have originated some of the well known helpers of St Nicholas in many European countries.
The legends with the most likely historical basis are those with St Nicholas being the helper or being the secret benefactor:
Nicholas heard about a man who had lost all his money. He had three daughters who were old enough to get married but had no dowry.
This family was so poor they had nothing left to eat. The daughters were going to be sold as slaves because they couldn’t live at home any longer. They were very sad. They wouldn’t be able to have families of their own. And they would have to be slaves—no longer able to decide where they would live or what they would do.
The night before the oldest daughter was to be sold, she washed her stockings and put them in front of the fire to dry. Then all of them went to sleep—the father and the three daughters.
In the morning the daughter saw a lump in her stocking. Reaching in, she found a small, heavy bag. It had gold inside! Enough to provide food for the family and money for her dowry. Oh, how happy they were!
The next morning, another bag with gold was found. Imagine! Two of the daughters would now be saved. Such joy!
And the next night, the father planned to stay awake to find out who was helping his daughters. He dozed off, but heard a small “clink” as another bag landed in the room. Quickly he jumped up and ran out the door. Who did he catch ducking around the corner? – Nicholas, the young man who lived with his uncle. “Nicholas, it is you! Thank you for helping us—I hardly know what to say!” Nicholas said, “Please, do not thank me—thank God that your prayers have been answered. Do not tell others about me.”
Nicholas continued helping people. He always tried to help secretly. He didn’t want any attention or thanks. Years passed and he was chosen to be a bishop. Bishops look after their people as shepherds look after their sheep. And that is what Nicholas did. When there wasn’t any food, he found wheat; so no one went hungry. He always helped people in trouble. All his life Nicholas showed people how to love God and care for each other.
Everyone loved Nicholas. After he died, they told stories of the good and kind things Nicholas had done. Sailors took these stories about Nicholas everywhere they went. Some of the stories were about his special care for children—helping and protecting them when danger threatened. And so more and more people learned about good, kind Nicholas. They wanted to be like him. He is an example of how we should live. And that is why he became a saint. (Carol Myers)
- St Nicholas and his helpers Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, Père Fouettard and Zwarte Piet (expatsincebirth.com)
- Sinterklaas celebration in The Netherlands