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Reflections from the SwampThe defrocking of Sint Nicolaas

The defrocking of Sint Nicolaas

Reflections from the Swamp
Richard van Duyvendyk

There are many cultural adjustments that immigrants undergo when coming to a new country. When they get off the boat, they carry their luggage, language, culture, and religion with them. For our family, the moving of exchanging gifts from Sint Nicolaas Day on Dec. 6th to Christmas Day was one of them. Christmas and Sint Nicolaas Day were separated by 19 days. Even in the Fifties, it seemed that Santa had bullied his way into the celebration of The Christ Child. Presents were modest, a chocolate letter, salted licorice, an orange and speculaas, (spiced cookies). If you were lucky, you got your own bottle of pickled herring. Everything could fit into a wooden shoe. We always received a care package from Holland that contained homemade socks and mitts and the obligatory thermal underwear. I imagine that Oma thought Canada was a frozen wasteland full of igloos and polar bears.

Like most immigrants, we quickly adjusted to the higher expectations of presents around the tree. We never completely mimicked the opening of Presents on Christmas Day. Presents were opened on Christmas Eve, while Christmas remained a day to celebrate Christ’s birth with family and friends. We continued the tradition of opening presents on Christmas Eve with our children. As children, we knew Sint Nicolaas was the real “Santa” and not the guy at the end of the Christmas Parade. Our children grew up with St. Nicolaas.

Sint Nicolaas Day was celebrated on Dec.6th in New Amsterdam (New York) as it was throughout Europe. Coca-Cola created Santa as an advertising tool, and Santa went viral. He immediately was associated with shopping and bringing gifts down the chimney on Christmas. People put away their wooden shoes and expected the living room floor to be filled with presents on Christmas Day. To my knowledge, no one asked for or got pickled herring.

There is a heavy fog of myth that gives Christmas that special feeling. As adults, we don’t believe in Santa but, we perpetuate the myths because of a lingering nostalgic thread that links us to our own childhood.

From a child’s perspective, Sint Nicolaas couldn’t compete with Santa. It was like the Toronto Maple Leafs trying to beat the Montreal Canadiens; not a hope in Hell. So, like in Puff the Magic Dragon, Sint Nicolaas sadly slipped into his cave. A few chocolate coins couldn’t compete with Barbie and toboggans.

For pragmatic reasons, Sint Nicolaas was resuscitated in Carp, because of the Food and Toy Drive. For 26 years we had a Sint Nicolaas on a horse-drawn wagon full of kids collecting food for the “Sint Nicolaas Food Drive.”

Having the food drive around Dec. 6th allowed us plenty of time to organize the food into food baskets in time for Christmas. I gave my class in Carp the day off to celebrate Sint Nicolaas Day. In the morning we delivered pamphlets around the village announcing the food drive, and in the afternoon we played Dutch games, (all of which I made up), and ate salted licorice and herring. Some savoured the experience more than others.

I volunteer at The Mill of Kintail for a nature program designed for younger children. We have one vehicle, so my wife dropped me off because she needed the car elsewhere. I brought the Sint Nicolaas costume along and a pile of wooden shoes because we were setting up for a children’s play at the church in Almonte. I figured I could get a ride to Almonte, or failing that, put on the St. Nicolaas costume and hitchhike back. Maybe a Dutch guy with a hankering for salted licorice would pick me up. Patty, the director of the Young Naturalists, saw the costume and asked me to play St. Nicolaas and hand out some candy canes.

During WW1, men as young as 15 years of age would lie about their age, so they could enlist. Similarly, a young girl of about 5 years of age lied to get into the Young Naturalists. All the other kids knew I had dressed up as Sint Nicolaas and played along with the story. The younger girl looked at me with consternation and doubt. Finally, she came over, pulled off my fake beard and said, “You don’t look like the Santa at the mall, you’re a fake Santa!” It was the first time that Sint Nicolaas had ever been defrocked, and it was all Santa’s fault. The battle of the myths continued, and Dark Vader won.

After the kids had all gone home, I got philosophical about the whole defrocking experience. I felt like I had been forced out of the closet before I was willing to come out on my own. Maybe Sint Nicolaas has to go. Maybe Santa has to go too. Which children’s line-up is longer, the one to see Santa or the line-up to go to Christmas Mass?

The mythology of Santa includes him knowing if you have been bad or good, presents or coal, and the final judgment while you sit on his knee. There is the promise of gifts in the future if you toe the line now. Sound familiar? In short, Santa is much like the classical image of God painted by Michelangelo. The old man with a beard knows everything. You can lie to Santa and get away with it. You can confess your sins, pass go, and collect the 2 hundred dollars.

Kids are into heroes these days, maybe it’s time for a new one. Imagine a new hero, a child perhaps that can open our eyes to the needs of others, travel all over the world in a flash, open our hearts and minds to seek justice and thereby bring peace throughout the world!

Oh yeah, we already have such a character. The one who lives and breathes in, with, and through, and beyond us to create peace on earth through love.
The one who uses our hands, our feet, our lives, to change the world. The one we used to celebrate but got lost when we threw the baby out with the bathwater.

In Franciscan spirituality,

“When we speak of Advent or preparing for Christmas, we’re not talking about waiting for a little baby to be born. We’re in fact welcoming the universal, cosmic Christ—the Christ that is forever being born in the human soul and history.

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