From Holy Bishop to Ho-Ho-Ho Santa

Some people look upon the word “Xmas” as sacrilegious, but it comes from the Greek “Xristos”, Christ. Xmas has been used in the UK for centuries. My previous post mentioned the third century Bishop from Smyrna, Nicholas and how we knew him in my childhood in the Lowlands, as Sinterklaas or St. Nicolaas. (Who in turn became North America’s “Santa Claus”.)  In the Netherlands and Flanders, St. Nicolaas rides a horse and is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), a Moor.  Santa Claus rides a sleigh pulled by reindeer. And of course back at the North Pole he’s got his helpers, the elves.

In my boyhood, Sinterklaas was “the” day of the holiday season, much more anticipated than Xmas Day. On the eve of December fifth, we put out our wooden shoes, shoes or slippers with an apple, carrot, or any tasty bit for the horse of Sinterklaas. [December 5 because that was the day of the original Saint Nicolaas’ birthday.]
Needless to say, during the night of December 5, time seemed to pass slowly. Our little hearts bounced with great expectations. We knew whether we’d been naughty on a few occasions during the year, but hoped the good man had forgiven these small ‘side-steps’.So you see, not much different from Santa Claus, and Christmas Eve, here in North America, except almost 3 weeks’ earlier.
When a young boy I recall a few occasions close to Xmas Day when father came home with a small conifer tree. There’d be white candles placed on the branches, and father always put a bucket of water beside the tree, in case of fire. There were no presents or toys since these had already been given on Sinterklaas Day. Sometimes father would hang apples on the small tree (having selected one with sturdy branches to bear the weight). Then there’d be no candles or any other decoration.
Later I learned from my maternal grandfather this was a tradition practised back in the eleventh century and symbolized the Tree of Paradise. At one time, maybe still somewhere in the world,
December 24 was celebrated as the Feast Day of Adam and Eve.
It wasn’t until 1841 when Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert of Germany installed a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. From there the tradition of trees reached out to rich and poor alike. We all have our unique childhood memories, mine go back to Sinterklaas Day much more than December 25.

[There’s a new field called “psychophysiology”; yesterday we read an article about how for example experiences and memories of joy, or sadness for some, around the holiday season can be mapped in our brains and effect our subsequent frame of mind around Christmastime. For many people the family gathering can be very stressful, especially if they feel forced to “put on a happy face”. You can’t fool your brain though].

I like “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas, especially the recording read by the poet himself. All these traditions based on folklore, mythology and pagan history are just as interwoven, complex (and sometimes confusing), as we humans. And “memories” are made of all this.

Here’s a quote from “The Pickwick Papers” by Charles Dickens, who wrote in 1836, five years before Queen Victoria had her first Christmas tree:
Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own friends and his quiet home.”
Signing off for now, Henri