Domestic Heroes: Saint Nicholas and the Catholic Family Father in the Nineteenth Century
Hoegaerts, Josephine, Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality
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. Santa was, in the words of Stephen Nissenbaum, "defrocked" in the course of the nineteenth century (1997, p. 78). Father Christmas lost his reputation as a stern punisher and his patriarchal authority to replace it with sentimental, new paternal care. Saint Nicholas, meanwhile, turned into a secular Weihnachtsman in Germany. In Holland, the bishop received civil and modern characteristics. From Sint Nicolaas he turned into Sint Heer Klaas ('Sir' Klaas), which later became Sinterklaas (7) (Van Leer, 1995, p. 66).
Protestantism and Burgerlichkeit, so it seems, were crucial to Saint Nick and the likes. The question remains if the figure of a bishop could so easily be "defrocked" and reframed as a symbol of domesticity, modernity and consumption in a Catholic region. Flanders possibly presents a specific case of bourgeois domesticity and--thus--of a specific reflection thereof in the figure of the children's favorite saint. (8) An analysis of the image of the Saint and especially the relation between him and the families in which he performed his role can therefore not only add the "confessional" perspective to existing interpretations of Sinterklaas/ Santa Claus, but also--more importantly--start to sketch the contours of a "Catholic" version of nineteenth century middle-class domesticity. So far, there is no research tradition on the Flemish middle-classes matching the German, French and English canon on Burgerlichkeit, bourgeoisie or Victorianism. (9) As a consequence, the question of domesticity has been largely disregarded. In this paper I will, therefore, aim to relate my questions on Saint Nicholas' function as a model of behavior and his place in the Flemish family not only to constructions of masculinity but also to the construction of domesticity in a Catholic region of nineteenth-century Western Europe. (10)
Gathering Round the Hearth
The question of domesticity is of particular interest, since Saint Nick guides us necessarily to the center of the nineteenth century home: the fireplace. As the Saint's feast took place in the midst of winter, he visited families at a time when they would spend their evening huddled round the stove, (11) a situation that was heavily romanticized in the second half of the century: "O, how gay and attractive was the Flemish hearth", the December issue of Belgische illustratie recounted in 1868, "The lamp on the table was lighting a whole ring of elderly and youths. The nodding grandfather was sitting there, like the little boy of only a few months old on his mother's lap." (12) Small children, too, were reminded of the importance of the family fireplace. A picture in a schoolbook for beginning readers showed how "Sweet Peter" kneels in front of the fireplace in search of goodies (see illustration 3). Multiple poems vividly narrated how children hurried to the fireplace on the morning of December 6, to see if Nicholas had filled their shoes with toys and candy. (13) The shoes were reminiscent of the old Christian legends surrounding the Saint; in several versions, the story was told that Saint Nicholas had helped an old poor shoemaker by throwing three purses with gold through an open window. The next day, the shoemaker found the purses in some unfinished shoes, and although he had not seen his nightly visitor, he immediately came to the conclusion that it had to have been Nicholas. (14)
The centrality of domesticity to Nicholas' visits is perhaps best exemplified through a counter image. In 1858, Jan Van Beers wrote a tear-jerking poem he called "Sint Niklaas" (Van Beers, 1859, p. 11). The poem is not so much a "popular" text, directed at children, but rather a part of romantic "high" literature. It contains vivid depictions of the sensibilities of the nineteenth century Flemish bourgeoisie. In 26 verses, the poem tells the story of a poor young girl and her widowed mother on the night of December 5. Appealing to the middle-class sentimental meaning attached to the hearth, the first line goes "No light, no sparkle scintillated in the low, musty little room". (15) The cold hearth immediately places the story outside the ideal, cozy domestic setting in which Saint Nicholas normally appeared. And indeed, when "little Mary" (klein Mieken) asks her mother if she, "who had behaved so well" should not put her shoe in the corner in order to receive presents, the widow uses the empty fireplace to explain to her daughter why the Saint will not visit her:
Oh, Mary, yes certainly! You were always good, but know--the Saint Only comes in through chimneys, In which a fire burnt by day. (16)
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Publication information: Article title: Domestic Heroes: Saint Nicholas and the Catholic Family Father in the Nineteenth Century. Contributors: Hoegaerts, Josephine - Author. Journal title: Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality. Volume: 3. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2009. Page number: 41+. © 2009 Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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