December 6th in the United States marks a day much like any other in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Stores are packed with shoppers. Lighting ceremonies and festive markets herald the arrival of the holiday season. And the roads are congested with cars hauling tightly coiled pine, fir, and spruce trees ready to be unsprung and decorated as aromatic masterpieces once they find their new homes in living rooms across the country.
Here in Switzerland, as in much of Western Europe, the day is actually an official holiday. It commemorates the death of Saint Nicholas, a bishop who lived during the 3rd and 4th centuries in what is now Turkey. He’s the historical predecessor for our American Santa Claus.
Different European countries created their own variations of stories about Saint Nicholas and his miracles with two main stories prevailing. The first credited the benevolent bishop with anonymously gifting gold to three unmarried daughters for dowry so that they might avoid a life of prostitution. Some say he tossed the gold through an open window where it landed in a stocking, the very first “stocking stuffer.” In the second tale, Saint Nicholas bestowed a miracle upon several murdered children by restoring them to life and bringing justice for the crime. These two stories formed the foundation for the legend of a generous and kind Saint Nicholas who would return each year to deliver gifts to children.
This year, like every year, the town of Fribourg hosts a parade in honor of their patron saint, Saint Nicholas. Vendors sell balloons, churros, and best of all, vin chaud (or glüewein in German) – a hot and spicy mulled wine, perfect for warming the hands and belly on a frigid December evening.
Meeting up with friends in town, we beelined for the first Boy Scout stand we saw to fill our glasses. Not only is it delicious – likened to our mulled apple cider back home – but the Boy Scouts give away the wine for free, only asking for a small donation for the glass itself. The recyclable cups can be returned once empty for a refund, or better yet, a refill.
God bless the Boy Scouts!
Throngs of folks lined the narrow cobblestone streets marked for Saint Nicholas to follow with his entourage on the way to the cathedral. There, he’d give his Yuletide speech. Others were hanging from upper floor windows or seated on window ledges for a view of the parade.
After waiting for over an hour and nearly freezing our tootsies off, ol’ Saint Nicholas himself finally made an appearance. Perched atop a small donkey, dressed in bishop’s attire, and accompanied by candle bearers, a small band, and Zwarte Piet – Black Pete, the saint’s controversial companion – the entire procession passed in a flash.
This was our first encounter with Zwarte Piet, sporting a blackened face, dark cape, and brandishing a wooden switch to scare children.
Historically, legends and depictions of Zwarte Piet have at times intermingled with those of Krampus, a terrifying pre-Christian pagan beast who was the son of Hel, the female ruler of the realm of the dead in Norse mythology. Though the exact origins of Zwarte Piet are unclear, legends abound which depict him as an evil, dark-skinned man with Moorish origins. He was possibly enslaved by – or a servant to – Saint Nicholas. More contemporary explanations of his appearance have been modernized to defuse criticism that the character perpetuates racism.
Clearly, old traditions are not easily changed. Considering that Dutch colonists who arrived in the Americas in the 1600s first introduced us to their Sinterklaas (the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas), it’s interesting to note how his character evolved into the jolly character we now call Santa Claus. In fact, if it weren’t for the Protestant Reformation and later, 19th century artists like Thomas Nast and Washington Irving, Americans might very well celebrate Santa’s arrival on December 6th instead of on December 24th – Christmas Eve.