GIVING THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
As a child in the Netherlands, my family did not spend a lot of money on Christmas. We were not the only family as Christmas was generally seen as a religious holiday only; gift-giving was not part of it. I wonder how that requirement to spend money to buy and receive gifts for each other became so overall important around this time of the year, when the sunshine- if any–is short-lived and people tend to become sullen and feel like hibernating. More intriguing, why do we put yourselves through this, as for many it increases stress, often spoiling the potential happy times of socializing?
Since time immemorial, cultures in the northern half of the globe had a celebration of some kind to lighten up the dark days of winter around the winter solstice, to honour the past year and turn to the spiritual world in prayer. In pre-Christian times this fest was completely unrelated to the birth of the Christ child and was not called Christmas. People huddled together seeking warmth and comfort thus saving scarce resources (fuel for heat, blankets, and hides for clothing) and shared with community members who had less. Many thought the sun was leaving us and we were punished, or that dark forces had taken over and we should address the spirits to motivate them to be good to us. It might even be the end of the world: how would we know that the sun would come back pre-Copernicus?
Then Christianity took over Europe and other parts of the world. The debatable date of December 25 was established as the day of Christ’s birth, although some offshoots celebrate another date. Gift giving for children was invented.
In some areas of Europe the Child ascribed with supernatural powers is said to bring the presents for the children (Hungary) around the December date. Was this to keep the children entertained, or a grab for a needed break by bushed parents from their children’s hunger cries? In other countries other customs were born.
In middle-eastern Europe, where Islam was and still is the prevalent religion among others, the Roman Catholic Bishop Of Myra in Lycia (modern day Turkey), who was a Greek with the name Nicolaos, became famous for his charity work in the 4th century. He was revered among Catholic and Orthodox Christians. Anglicans and Lutherans also honour him in more recent times.
Nicolaos built a reputation as a great benefactor of the poor and was ascribed to have done many miracles. Called Nicholaos the Wonderworker, he was said to have secretly put coins in poor people’s shoes, if they were left outside. His relics were spirited away in 1087 to Italy, Bari when he became sainted.
Saint Nicholas is still the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, and students in various countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, as well as in parts of Western Europe (Belgium, France, Netherlands, Portugal). He is also the patron saint of a lot of cities, a few well known: Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Fribourg, Liverpool, was also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors, who protected his relics in Bari. (Read the legends around the saint on Wikipedia and be entertained further).
The Dutch first used this saint and his habit of gifting coins in shoes as a useful disciplinary aid in parenting their children. They told their kids that they might receive candies in their shoes, drying out by the chimney, during the week leading up to the saint’s birthday on December 6th, if they had been good for their parents, but would receive a lump of coal or a “roede” when the child had been bad that week. A roede or roe is a number of thin sticks tied together tightly in a bunch that makes an excellent tool for spanking, so parents wouldn’t hurt their hands in the process, similar to the British cane. Of course, this saint was clairvoyant and all-powerful, like God, and he knew what you and everybody else were up to.
Saint N’clas became Sinterklaas –the Dutch word for him, or Sint, for short. Later, the English-speaking world changed Sinterklaas to Santa Claus. The Dutch have a December 5th evening (the day before the saint’s birthday, as he had a day off on the 6th) with gifts for the children. My family and most others did not celebrate Christmases with gifts, but we did partake in Sinterklaas, a joyful and playful family fest, like everybody . On Christmas day we just went to church and ate a nice dinner as a family.
A curious detail of the Dutch celebration is that Sinterklaas on his arrival by boat (allegedly now from Spain) a few weeks before his birthday was and still is always accompanied by a whole army of mostly black helpers, boys and men, to assist him with spreading the gifts around the country. Did the bishop specifically acquire these black service people from elsewhere and were they slaves? In those times servants were often indebted for life and were pretty much just that—serfs or slaves. “Mores” an old-fashioned word of the time for dark skinned people, with the connotation of being Muslim, could have been acquired from the local population, but more likely would have originated from elsewhere, such as north African nations whose inhabitants can be quite dark, and they could have mixed with Africans from sub-Saharan Africa.
Although the vast bulk of slavery and the associated export activities took place much later than the 4th century, exploitation was not exclusive to those centuries. Well, whatever the truth of it was, if you had to work as a serf, it likely wasn’t as bad, if your employer was Sinterklaas. He was a rich man and could apparently afford to spread the good around.
Another explanation might be that Piet, the generic name of each and every black helper of Sinterklaas, got a black skin because he went down the chimney for many days on end leading up to December 6th , to deliver the coal or the sweets to the children’s shoes, waiting by the chimney. Apparently, no accessible washroom facilities existed in people’s homes, or soap potent enough to clean Piet up. But wait a minute, when Sint arrived on his boat, his Piets were already black, even before the work had started, so what’s up with that? They could have washed up on the boat. Oh, stop, maybe the Sint and his army of helpers came from another country and had been working all along the way. Well, we don’t have to explain everything now, do we? Oh the mysteries we believe as kids.
Now wake up! Another question that comes to mind: why boys? We never asked those questions at the time, but nowadays, when religious, supposedly celibate officials, (granted–and other males in positions of power over children), are under scrutiny, the thought must pop up: was Sinterklaas a pedophile?
You have to give it to the British, they gave Santa at least a wife and he has a reputation as a solid family man–a well-respected man. So safe that we plant little babies and now even dogs on his lap, without questioning the message we give children. No, Santa is a safe stranger, and strange he is—a fat man in a bright red suit who hasn’t shaved in a long time, giving kids candies and asking for kisses. I wonder what kind of person volunteers to be Santa. I hope his credentials are being checked. Arggggg, do you have to take all of the innocence of Christmas away?
Well, it’s unclear how Santa came to live on the North Pole. And where he gets the money to produce or buy all those presents for all those kids. Here, the rich kids will be separated from their poorer cousins in asking the last question. The really smart kids will figure him out pretty quick and expose the fraud. Maybe we should encourage our children’s questions instead of deflecting him, and reward them with the truth—knowledge. We truly can give our kids the gift that keeps on giving: critical thinking.
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