Domestic Heroes: Saint Nicholas and the Catholic Family Father in the Nineteenth Century

Article excerpt

Suddenly, as if on its own, the door opens widely: the holy man "in his Sunday best," with mitre and crosier, stately enters; the headmistress follows with two little angels who carry, besides a basket full of goodies in the middle, a book with locks on the one side and a rod on the other. (Rudolfsz, 1868, p. 548) (1)

In 1868, this scene is described in a Belgian teachers' journal as an old, disappearing custom in schools. The "stateliness" and purity of the tradition surrounding Saint Nicholas, so the author stated, were in decline in the "unchildly" times of the late nineteenth century and Saint Nicholas was slowly disappearing from children's lives.

He could not have been more wrong. It is true that the ritual of Saint Nicholas' Day has gone on changing ever since: the Saint no longer delivers sermons to children, he stopped citing the bible and--as many of the quoted authors' successors have lamented--became "commercial". Nevertheless, Saint Nicholas remains, especially in the southern Low Countries, one of (if not the) most important and best-known "Catholic" figure in children's lives. The Saint still visits numerous schools, appearing in his Episcopal garb and flanked by playful figures (no white angels but, since the turn of the century, black Moors (2)). The night before the Saint's visit, children still sing the songs that originated in the nineteenth century, hoping that Nicholas will bring them candy and toys, and parents still make great efforts to keep Saint Nicholas alive and hidden from children's eyes.

It is therefore surprising that so little has been written on the cultural history of this tradition. Apart from a handful of studies on the protestant, Northern Low Countries (Van Leer, 1995), the history of Saint Nicholas has remained in the hands of various folklorists. (3) Looking for the "origin" of the Saint, these studies have uncovered much of the changing habits and practices regarding Nicholas and along the way, have constructed their own Saint Nicholas story. The older folklorist work, especially, forms a chronicle of the invention of Saint Nicholas' tradition. The first "scientific" work on Nicholas started to appear in the 1830s. From the middle-ages onward, Saint Nicholas of Myra / Bari (4) had been venerated and celebrated as the patron saint of sailors, merchants, students and many others, but in the nineteenth century the holy bishop started to act as the ultimate children's friend. He became (and remains to be) one of the most popular religious figures appearing in households of the Low Countries. In the Netherlands, he turned into a vehicle of middle-class domesticity and family values as he offered an unambiguous model of child-rearing for the entire nation (Van Leer, 1995, p. 67). Simultaneously, various folklorists started to publish on the origins of Saint Nicholas and the development of the traditions accompanying the yearly visitor. (5) Authors such as Eelco Verwijs and Joseph Schrijnen locked many newly invented "traditions" into a perceived national past, (6) thus engaging in the activity of creating a powerful cultural symbol of Dutch society.

For the American Santa Claus, a parallel story can be told. His feast-- and especially the "physical" image of Santa--became part of popular practice at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But his middle-class antiquarian inventors immediately propelled him into public memory, thus creating the illusion that Saint Nicholas had traveled from Holland to New Amsterdam with the first migrants (Nissenbaum, 1997, p. 49). In America, too, the child-loving bringer of sweets and gifts went on to act as a quintessentially domestic "Victorian" sentimental symbol of family structures, much in the way that Father Christmas came to embody British family values (Tosh, 1999, p. 146). Significantly, all these mysterious guests lose much--if not all--of their religious connotations throughout the nineteenth century. …