Saint Nicolas has been around for centuries

RNW archive

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As dictated by time-honoured tradition, children's favourite Sinterklaas (Saint Nicolas) arrived in the Netherlands on a steamer from Spain this Saturday. He will ride out into the country on his grey steed accompanied by his loyal servant Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).

On the 5th of December, they will ride across the rooftops to drop presents down the chimneys of the homes of all well-behaved children. According to legend, children who have been bad will be spanked and put in a burlap sack to be taken back to Spain. Even though it’s the same each and every year, it is still a special moment: Saint Nicolas is here again!

On Sunday, Saint Nicolas will visit the Catharijneconvent (St Catharine’s Convent) in Utrecht. The Saint Nicolas exhibition at the museum for religious art opened six weeks ago. Museum spokesperson Billie-Jo Krul says: "We already welcomed 10,000 visitors even before Saint Nicolas entered the country. Nobody expected that. We want to show that Saint Nicolas is a very popular saint and that the feast of Saint Nicolas has been around for ages.”
Saint Nicolas can be seen in 15th century paintings on loan from the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence and from the Vatican museums. They show baby Nicolas standing up in his bath on the day he was born, saying a prayer of thanks to God for giving him life. It is just one of many legends about the pious, generous Nicolas. 
In view of the fact that Nicolas was born in the year 280 – he went on to become bishop of the city of Myra in Asia Minor and died in 350 – the paintings clearly show he lived on in people’s memories even more than a thousand years later. 
Also on display is The Feast of Saint Nicolas, an authentic Jan Steen from the 17th century, by which time Saint Nicolas had become a lover of children who visited homes to give children presents on the eve of his birthday.
Ratings hit
The exhibition shows that his servant Black Pete did not join Saint Nicolas until 1850, when teacher Jan Schenkman published his Sinterklaasboekje (Book of Saint Nicolas). The legends and stories are still being added to. Many Dutch children know the Saint’s horse is called Amerigo, and that Saint Nicolas wears a baseball cap instead of a mitre when he is at home. His adventures can be watched daily on a number of television channels: Saint Nicolas has become a ratings hit.
And about half the country still celebrates Saint Nicolas’ Eve on the fifth of December, including presents, chocolate milk and speculaas (spiced biscuits) The Roman Catholic saint is welcomed in households of all possible denominations, and is also popular among migrant families.
In addition to the historical aspect of Saint Nicolas – including many old paintings and prints – the exhibition at the Catharijneconvent also features contemporary artefacts. Visitors are encouraged to supply their own stories and photographs. One wall in the museum is covered in photographs, many of them still in black-and-white, of children sitting on Saint Nicolas’ lap and of tables laden with packages, the saint has had his picture taken while sitting on a rickshaw and on a motorcycle, Some of the photographs feature children dressed up as Saint Nicolas or Black Pete, while others show the saint’s arrival on the tropical island of Aruba in the Netherlands Antilles. 
The website (Dutch language only) includes all the photographs left behind by visitors to the museum, already more than 150 by the last count; and also stories often involving personal memories from dozens of years ago. Visitors regularly write about the day they were devastated because they were “big enough to learn the truth”, a major rite of passage on the Dutch road to adulthood.

A special route has been set out for young visitors to the exhibition at the Utrecht museum: a hunt along the Spice Nut Trail. They are officially declared Saint Nicolas experts if they correctly answer a number of questions about the saint. And most of their parents and grandparents are quite happy to join the hunt.
"It’s great to see how everybody gets into the spirit”, says Billie-Jo Krul. “Everyone has an emotional connection to Saint Nicolas, which surfaces when they visit the exhibition.” She talks about the live satellite feed set up for the official opening of the exhibition in October. While making preparations for the uplink, she had a personal encounter with the ‘real’ Saint Nicolas, the one you see on television. And for a minute there, she felt like a child again.

Photos and paintings

1. The Good Saint (an illustration by Rie Cramer)

2. Saint Nicholas pays "Cool Pete" a visit (Baarn 2005). One of the entries in the Frank Klijn photo competition (Catharijneconvent Museum)

3. Het Sint-Nicolaasfeest (The feast of Saint Nicholas) by Jan Steen (1626-1629). Saint Nicholas himself does not appear in the painting, only the traditional sweets associated with his feast day. (From the collection of the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam)

4. De legende van de drie meisjes (Gift to the three poor girls). This late Medieval painting by Gentile da Fabriano (property of the Vatican Museums) depicts three young women who are too poor to receive a dowry. To save them from a life of prostitution, Saint Nicholas threw gold nuggets through the window. Nowadays his helper "Black Pete" throws sweets and gingerbread nuggets.

5. Black-and-white photograph submitted by Julius C. van Hoffen. "1952. Father dressed up as Saint Nicholas and me as Black Pete at home. We are wearing historical costumes from Mulder Costumiers, later to become the Historical Costume Museum."