Europeans first brought Saint Nicholas to America in the 15th century. On his first voyage, Columbus named a port in Haiti for Saint Nicholas; and the Spaniards originally called Jackson, Florida, "Saint Nicholas Ferry". When the Dutch emigrated to America they took their beloved saint with them. At the prow of the ship in which they sailed to the New World in 1630 was a figure of Saint Nicholas. He wore a broad-brimmed hat and held a long -stemmed Dutch pipe.
But at the same time the Reformation was fiercely dividing their homeland. A ban was placed on the celebration of Saint Nicholas Eve, forbidding passing out of cookies and cakes to children, a custom that had been as entrenched as our own trick-or-treating on Halloween. Saint Nicholas never regained his wide popularity and virtually disappeared as 17th century Dutch New Amsterdam was becoming 18th century English New York.
With their arrival, the Dutch Sinter Klaas did become the forerunner for Santa Claus in the United States. According to legend, Sinter Klaas makes his rounds on December 5, Saint Nicholas's Eve. He is sometimes said to be accompanied by a figure named Black Peter, who carries a whip with which to chastize naughty children. Shown above right, dressed in a bishop's robes, Sinter Klaas rides through the streets distributing sweets to the children.
German immigrants brought with them a positive attitude toward Christmas. They brought their custom of setting out hay in the barnyard for the Christ-child's donkey on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day finding the basket filled with snits (dried apple slices), choosets (candy), walnuts and gingerbread. As the Germans intermarried with the English, the dialect "Christ-kindle", from the proper German Christkindlein, became "Kristkingle" or "Kriss-kingle." Eventually the "Kriss Kringle" replaced the Christ-child figure entirely, a substitute akin to Santa Claus. By the latter half of the 19th century, Kriss Kringle was the most common Christmas bearer in Pennsylvania.
Pelznickel (Saint Nicholas in furs), another Old World German Christmas servant, was better known as "Belsnickel". He had been portrayed as someone out to have some fun by scaring children half to death, before changing character and giving them sweets. In more southern states of the America, Belsnickel was said to kidnap bad children and carry them away to who knows where. Children's imaginations called up fates worse than anything the adults might suggest. He rattles at windows with a horsewhip and wrapped around the wrist of the first child to reach for scattered candy without his permission. Gradually "Belsnickeling" became the custom of going from door to door collecting food and money for the poor and survived well into the present century. Jon Kankus is similar to Belsnickeling in theme and location.
Children in old Czechoslovakia believed Svaty Mikulas was let down from heaven on a golden cord by an angel. When he arrived on Christmas, children rushed to the table to say their prayers. If they did well, Svaty Mikulas told the angel to give the children presents.
Once the Dutch brought Saint Nicholas to America, he was gradually transformed from an austere bishop to a jolly old elf. The major shapers of the modern American Santa Claus were:
Sunday, November 03,
2002; Last updated:
Friday, December 25, 2015