SAINT NICHOLAS’ BELEAGUERED BLACK COMPANION(S): A STUDY OF THE CONTESTED NATURE AND LATE ANTIQUE HISTORY OF SANTA’S HELPERS IN THE DUTCH SAINT NICHOLAS FEAST

L Müller

Abstract


The Netherlands has a long history of celebrating Saint Nicholas
Day. On the eve of the 5th of December, the Dutch commemorate the date of death of the popular bishop from Myra, who protected citizens and sailors and gave his money to the poor. Bishop Nicholas, who came from a well-to-do Christian merchant family of Greek descent, lived in Asia Minor during the fourth century CE.  Today, during the European winter months, a version of Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) features prominently in Dutch public spaces, especially in shopping malls and bakeries. Most often the saint is accompanied by one or more companions. This article explores the possible late antique origins of these companion(s), who have recently become embroiled in heated Saint Nicholas debates in the Netherlands on Dutch racism and the slave trade. I will posit that the Saint’s current companion(s) have semi-historical origins which may be traced back to North African grain merchants, traders and sailors who in late antiquity regularly sailed from Alexandria to Myra. The proposal challenges contending theories that the Saint Nicholas legends did not have companions of African descent before the nineteenth century. The investigation is significant for questions relating to the current transformations in the appearance of Saint Nicholas’ companion(s) and whether they should remain or rather be
eliminated from the Dutch Saint Nicholas tradition.

Keywords


Saint Nicholas; Black Peter; Dutch folkloric history; grain trade; late antiquity

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.7445/65-0-1026

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