Nations have fervently claimed him as patron. From sacred icons and medieval legends to secular folklore and modern commercialism, St. Nicholas is renowned worldwide. But would one guess that America claims a long and storied friendship with this popular saint?
While Haddon Sundblom’s series of Coca-Cola illustrations in the 1930s are often credited for reintroducing St. Nick to modern society, one need only look back one hundred years or so to find stories of the bishop alive and well in the States, or at least in the state of New York.
When the “Father of American Literature” published his ghostly autumnal tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1820, Washington Irving wasted no time in alluding to the presence of St. Nicholas in the colonies as he cites commonplace devotion to the saint in the very first paragraph of his story: “…the ancient Dutch navigators…prudently shortened sail, and implored the protection of Saint Nicholas when they crossed….”
Evidently, this was not a new custom but rather an old and fervent reverence which was continued by the Dutch settlers despite many hardships both before and after their arrival in the New World. In order to appreciate this fact, one must look back a few hundred years to the time of the Protestant Reformation.
In the 1520s, Martin Luther’s new ideology was fully underway, and with it came an intense motivation to strip itself bare of anything resembling the old Faith, including the pious customs and traditions. The festivities of Christmastide were particularly in need of purification. The Yule log and mistletoe, remnants from the Norse heathens, were done away with, as were the Catholic Advent feast days and devotions—especially devotions to the saints.
This proved to be no easy task, as these observances had been well-embedded within the lives of the townsfolk for generations and, while many agreed that the Church was in need of reform, not all were ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. One saint in particular, the holy Nicholas, remained extraordinarily popular; and Luther himself singled him out for condemnation.
By this time, the Blessed Bishop was not only remembered as a historic cleric worthy of reverence but also a wonder worker to be implored for his spiritual intercession and a bringer of gifts and guardian of children: a Patron Saint for all. An outright ban on devotions to the saint would do little to stamp out Nicholas’ legacy, and Luther was forced to take drastic measures.
In Luther’s mind, God alone was deserving of homage; this left little room for praise of any other heavenly figures. So, he introduced a counterpose: the Christkindl. This new gift-bringer was proposed as God Himself, the Christ Child, no longer showering presents on the faithful on the feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th, but on the eve of His own birth, December 24th.
This time, Luther’s efforts paid off, at least in part. The new Christkindl took hold successfully throughout Europe and other parts of the globe. In many households, St. Nicholas was forgotten. And yet, history has shown that Luther’s efforts were not as lasting as they initially appeared. Not only has the legacy of Nicholas survived multiple attempts of extermination in Europe, but the very title of Christkindl is now inextricably bound to the saint through the variation Kris Kringle.
Although the tradition of gift-giving still takes place on the day of Christ’s birth due in part to Luther’s efforts, the world over recognizes Sinterklaas or, in the vernacular, Santa Claus, as the bringer of presents.
Now, back to the Dutch. While multiple nations were quick enough to accept the new Lutheran teachings and the Christkindl, the residents of the Netherlands never completely ceased their devotions to St. Nicholas. Fast-forward one hundred years to 1626 and we find affection for him alive and well.
In fact, the Dutch clung to the saint with such zeal one might think their lives depended on it. With the colonization of the New World, the governors and authorities of Amsterdam found no reason to forgo the new possibilities it offered and readied ships to set sail. There was only one problem: almost none of the residents were willing to embark on such an enterprise.
All were aware of the dangers that leaving Holland posed, and it would require much incentive for them to willingly exchange their familiar society for the untamed wilderness of America. After much deliberation and negotiation, enough volunteers were found to warrant an expedition with the promise of land, money, and the protection of St. Nicholas, the latter being the selling point of the endeavor.
While the authenticity of what follows has been doubted by historians, it is nonetheless a compelling account. They soon set sail on the “Goede Vrouw” the Good Woman—with a figurehead of the saint carved into its bow—and made for the southern tip of what is now Manhattan Island. It is reported that the journey went well enough, having the guidance of the friend of Heaven.