Saint Nicholas – The Legend Begins
Saint Nicholas was not left to rest in peace after his death, for in those days the bodies of holy men were of great value, not only spiritually but commercially. News leaked that the Venetians were coming to carry off the saint’s body. The merchant seamen of the port of Bari in south-eastern Italy were determined to divert them. On May 9, 1087, they made a raid on Myra, took the Saint’s remains and carried them back home to Bari, where they are to this day in the beautiful Basilica of Saint Nicholas, which was built to house them. Through the centuries the shrine has been visited and sometimes experienced miracles. They offered prayers to Saint Nicholas, who was known to have had such a care for all who are poor and needy, whether in mind or body.
During the Reformation all saints fell into disrepute in parts of Europe that took to the Protestant faith. Reformers did everything they could to erase the popular Saint Nicholas. But despite their efforts, they were never completely successful. Even though he was removed from the church, Saint Nicholas continued his popularity in the streets and homes. In Germany he put nuts and apples in the shoes of Protestant children under the guise of the Christchild. In 1545 Martin Luther’s children received gifts from the “Holychild,” after previous receiving them from Saint Nicholas. The Christchild and Saint Nicholas were described as wanderers, traveling afoot or by chariot or by horseback, examining the deeds of mankind, children especially, for good behavior and rewarding them with the apples, nuts, and sweets.
Parents quickly began using these “visits” to encourage good behavior from their offspring. It was also known that bad children received switches from Saint Nicholas. More often than not , Saint Nicholas had an assistant to hand out any discipline and particularly in Germanic Europe, the visit was an occasion of a solemn, sometimes terrifying experience for children before being given goodies.
Dutch children were told that Saint Nicholas , or Sinterklaas, sailed from Spain with a Moorish helper. They filled their shoes with hay and sugar for his horse and woke up to find the shoes filled with nuts and candies. When he was actually seen, dressed in his bishop’s robes and carrying presents and a birch rod, he knew a great deal about the children’s behavior and resembled father or older brother.
Black Peter walks along with Sinterklaas. He wears animal skins or sometimes the colorful clothing of the medieval Moor and gives a switch to parents of bad boys and girls. Some say the bad children are taken away in the sack that Black Peter carries on his back.