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St. Nicholas Day Transcript
In her lost and found essay today, Rita Smith takes us from the fourth century to the present’s presents.
December 6 is St. Nicholas Day, according to legend, the date a man named Nicholas, who lived in the fourth century, died. He was a priest of great kindness and generosity who became the patron saint of children; who brought them toys and gifts of food on December 6 if they were good. A 12th century children’s prayer asked:
Saint Nicholas, patron of good children
I kneel for you to intercede
Hear my voice through the clouds
And this night give me some toys!
St. Nicholas, as a figure who brought gifts to good children, was popular in many European cultures throughout the middle ages and the Reformation, and when the Dutch arrived in America in the 1700s, they brought their gift-giving December 6 visitor, Sinterklass, along with them.
It was Washington Irving of “Sleepy Hollow” fame who gave Americans their first detailed information about Sinterklass, in a book published in 1809 entitled A History of New York. Sinterklass was a gentleman who wore a broad-brimmed Dutch hat and long stockings. He puffed on a clay pipe and arrived, in the first edition of the book, on a horse. A few years later Washington revised this mode of transportation and Sinterklass came riding over the tops of the trees in a wagon that landed on rooftops. He drew magnificent presents from his pants pockets and slid down chimneys to leave gifts. Sometimes, if he couldn’t fit down a certain chimney, although he wasn’t nearly as rotund as he later became, he simply dropped the gifts into it.
When Sinterklass entered a house, he tried not to be seen, but in Irving’s story, a man named Van Kortlandt was in one of the houses and saw him. “And when St. Nicholas had left the presents and taken a moment to smoke his pipe,” Irving wrote, “he twisted it in his hatband, and laying a finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant wink, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.” Hmmm, sounds rather familiar doesn’t it?
We don’t know when Clement Mark Moore read Washington Irving’s book, but there is no doubt he did. He was so impressed with the story of the Dutch Sinterklass that in 1822 he wrote a poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” about a gift laden visitor who came not on St. Nicholas Day eve, but on Christmas Eve. Children in some European countries still get gifts from St. Nicholas on December 6, but whether then or on Christmas Eve, the 12th century child’s plea “this night give me some toys,” is still heard and St. Nicholas still gives it heed, bringing toys and joys to all good children, just as he did in the fourth century.