December 6th is Saint Nicholas Day. Most of my American friends never had a chance meeting this holy man: Santa Claus in in charge of the United States Department of Happy Children. In the low countries of Europe, Saint Nicholas rules the roofs and chimneys of the houses where well behaving children live. In Flanders, Belgium, where I grew up, he’s called “Sinterklaas”. When I moved to New York, I left his jurisdiction.
Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated in Belgium on December 6th, while our neighbors in the North choose to have the Saint Nicholas Day on December 5th. Children will put their shoe next to the chimney (as opposed to the socks for Santa Claus). In the shoes they leave a carrot and some sugar for the horse of Saint Nicholas. The horse is typically a white horse. Some kids will add a beer for Saint Nicholas and Black Pete, his loyal helper. During he night, Saint Nicholas will walk over the roofs of the houses, and check his big book to see if the children in a certain house where good in the past year, and leave them toys.
Saint Nicholas would know what toys to bring, as the children have sent him a letter in the weeks before, telling what they would like to receive and claiming how they have been on their best behaviour. By the way, I’ve always suspected my parents working for Sinterklaas and delivering his letter. The Belgian Post does however collect all letters that are dropped by children in a mailbox anywhere in the country, and Saint Nicholas will, with the support of the Belgian Postmaster and his staff, send a letter and a small gift to all these kids.
When we were children, people told us that December 6, the day we celebrate Saint Nicholas, was his birthday. But it turns out that we were actually celebrating the day of his death. The legend goes that Nicholas of Myra would support a poor family by sharing some of his wealth. But in order not to humiliate the poor family, he dropped of some gifts under darkness. The bishop died on December 6, 343.
It made Saint Nicholas Day the patron day for the children, but he’s also considered the patron saint for students and sailors.
In recent years, some controversy was going on in Belgium and even more in the Netherlands about the tradition of the helper of Saint Nicholas being black, was racist. But we learned as a child that the persons’ black color was due to the fact that the helper, who could be of any race, would go down the chimney and open the foor for Saint Nicholas, and that would give him his color…