Dutch sailors saw men in beards and long coats giving gifts and candy to children and food and shelter to the poor.
The person we know as Saint Nicolas was born around 280 in Patara, Turkey, and died about 50 miles away in Myra in 343. He was a rich noble in a prosperous seaport, and he was known for helping the poor. He was made bishop in the new Roman Catholic Church. The Emperor Constantine established the Holy Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Nicea in 325 and there were opportunities for advancement for friends of the Emperor. Nearby Antioch was one of the five centers of the early Christian faith at that time.
Muslim Turks seized the town in 1084. The Crusaders’ Siege of Antioch conquered the city in 1098. But it finally fell to the Muslims in 1268.
The Dutch Empire was just getting started in 1602, and the Dutch East India Corporation was doing active trade with Antioch. Many of the sailors on Dutch ships were dispossessed peasants, driven off their land and into the city. Peasants had revolted in Germany and Holland in the middle of the sixteenth century. They believed it was just and necessary to fight for the society of Christian love described in Acts of the Apostles 2:44, “All the believers were together and had everything in common.”
But the nobles didn’t want to share, and they slaughtered hundreds of thousands of peasants.
The sailors naturally credited the origin of the practice to one of their favorite saints.
Some Dutch sailors who remembered the Peasant Wars sailed to Antioch, and when they saw men in beards and long coats giving gifts and candy to children and food and shelter to the poor in the area where St. Nicolas was from, they naturally credited the origin of the practice to one of their favorite saints.
And St. Nicolas became Sinterklass or Sinter Klaus and then Santa Claus. And gradually the practice of gift giving moved from St. Nicolas’s feast day, December 6, to December 25.
But what were the Dutch sailors actually seeing 400 years ago? They had probably witnessed the Eid al Fitr celebration at the end of the Ramadan fast, when devout Muslims feast and are required to support their community by giving money to the poor. The sailors must have been convinced they were seeing the spirit of St. Nicolas and the hopeful communism of the early Apostles.
And those Dutch sailors brought that Islamic communist ideology of love and sharing down to us 400 years later in the figure of Santa Claus.
Read more articles by Ed Felien on The Rag Blog.
[Ed Felien is publisher and editor of Southside Pride, a South Minneapolis monthly, and a regular contributor to The Rag Blog.]