The Catholic tradition that everyone enjoys

It’s the 6th of December, the feast day of Saint Nicholas of Myra, but for many people in the Netherlands, Belgium, parts of Germany and central Europe, his celebration is already over. The old tradition of giving gifts on the eve of the saint’s feast day still exists, and despite heavy secularisation and commercialisation, his imagery is still enormously Catholic. Depicted as a bishop with mitre, staff, alb and something approaching a chasuble, the heavily-bearded saint still makes an official arrival in the Netherlands in mid- to late-November, when he is welcomed in a different city or town each year, with members of the local authorities and the royal family in attendance. Well-choreographed children shows and tv-programs are centered around St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas in Dutch, as he promises presents to children who have been good and, now less frequently, punishment for bad children (often in the form of being taken to Spain, where tradition tells us St. Nicholas lives during the year).

In reality, the person of St. Nicholas of Myra, in modern Turkey, lies at the foundation of the tradition of Sinterklaas. The abbot and bishop may have been an important player at the Council of Nicaea in 325, where he defended Catholic teaching in the face of heresy, and victim of persecution under Emperor Diocletian: first and foremost a Christian, a Catholic shepherd and example then.

The media attention to Sinterklaas will now lie dormant for another year, but how fantastic would it be if this regal person with all his Catholic regalia and symbolism were officially welcomed by the bishops of the Netherlands next year? Sure, he may be the great friend of children and giver of gifts, but in the end he is the abbot and bishop who is an example to us all in his Christianity. Maybe it’s time we all get to know him as such again.

One thought on “The Catholic tradition that everyone enjoys”

  1. The traditional Sinterklaas outfit does not comprise a chasuble or anything like it, although I have recently seen newspaper photographs of an unnamed costume rental firm fitting out Sinterklaas with chasubles of 19th or early 20th century make (and – oh, horror! – a stole worn over the chasuble!). The traditional outfit is as IC describes, preferrably with a garment under the alb resembling a violet (I have never come across purple) cassock, violet stockings and gloves and a gemmed ring. Over the alb he wears a red stole and cope. Preferred footwear: shoes with silver clasps. The mitre is also red and shows a Latin cros at the front. Note that mitres of Catholic bishops traditionally never show a cross and that they are always white or gold but never in a liturgical colour (Anglicans don’t seem to agree on that). So Sinterklaas looks a lot like a Roman Catholic bishop, but not quite. Unfortunately, it must be said that Sinterklaas often looks a lot shabbier than this.

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