But what is he holding in his left hand? The red book may be a Bible. And on top of this? Fruit? Originally it would have been the three bags of gold that the saint tossed through a poor man’s window so that his three daughters would have dowries. According to the story, the gold landed in the shoes left by the fire to dry, explaining the St Nicholas Eve tradition of scattering sweets and leaving gifts in shoes by the fire. And what about the chocolate coins! All these St Nicholas traditions are explained by the legend of the well-aimed bags of gold. As the tales receded into the distance, the coins made way for bread, oranges and mandarins. And the latter also lent weight to the myth that the saint actually came from Spain.
There are plenty more St Nicholas legends. For example the story of the three students murdered by the taverner, who proceeded to hide their bodies in a barrel of brine. When St Nicholas visited the inn sometime later he dreamt the entire crime and successfully brought the three students back to life.
St Nicholas lives on as the Dutch prototype for Santa Claus: Sinterklaas. But did he really exist? Of course. He was probably born around 280 AD in Lycia in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). In the fourth century he served as bishop of the provincial capital Myra and was later canonised for his good works. St Nicholas became a popular saint in the ninth century, appearing in many hagiographies. These include beautiful stories about his infancy and childhood. Apparently he refused to drink from his mother’s breast on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Nicholas defended Christians from demons on many occasions, and after his death on 6 December 342 he saved many ships from sinking. So St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors and of numerous ports, including Amsterdam. He was originally buried in Myra. In 1087, his remains were transferred to the Italian city of Bari. His tomb at St Nicholas’s basilica is a place of pilgrimage to this day. Confusingly, Sinterklaas is celebrated on 5 December these days, a continuation of the largely forgotten tradition in which each new day starts at sundown.