The legend of Saint Nicholas

Published by Maxime Pliester le

The legend

To the xie century appears a legend that seems forged on the combination of a "literary misunderstanding", transforming "three innocents" protected by the saint into "three children", and an "iconographic misunderstanding", in which these three incarcerated innocents become three children in a tub3. These two misunderstandings constitute the breeding ground of a legend which develops particularly in the Franco-German regions.4.

Legend has it that, as winter approached, three children, who had gone to glean in the fields, got lost on their way home; attracted by the light filtering from the windows of a house, they approach and knock on the door. The man who opens them, Pierre Lenoir (Peter Schwartz in Germanic culture), a butcher by profession, agrees to give them hospitality for the night. In fact, as soon as the children enter, he kills them, then, using a large knife, cuts them into small pieces, to finally put them in his salting (a large tub filled with salt), in order to make it salty.

Saint Nicolas, riding his donkey, passes by and knocks in turn at the butcher's door. The man, not daring to reject a bishop, invites him to dinner. His guest asking him for salted pork, the butcher understands that he has been discovered and, trapped, confesses everything. The holy man then extends three fingers above the barrel of salted pork, thus reconstituting and resuscitating the three children.

Saint Nicolas then chains the butcher to his donkey and keeps it close to him to punish him. This one becomes the bogeyman, a bad being, whose role is to reprimand disobedient children and dunces, strong in his violent and irascible character. Always dressed in black, hidden under a hood and a thick black beard, he embodies the complete opposite of Saint Nicholas, in short, who sports a beautiful white beard, colorful bishop's vestments (mauve and white, with a crosier, originally golden, then red and white, which brings it closer to the Père Noël current (Saint Nikolaus became Santa Klaus)), and still gives the image of a benevolent person.

Part of the regional attributes of Saint Nicolas would be inspired by the Scandinavian god Odin5,6,7. Indeed, the latter is always accompanied by his two "all-seeing" crows and his horse Sleipnir, just as Saint Nicholas is in certain regions accompanied by two Black Pieten and his horse.


Au xxxe century, Saint Nicholas is still celebrated in a large number of European countries, including: France, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, Poland, Croatia, Austria… On the night of 5 to , the saint passes through homes to bring delicacies to well-behaved children: dried fruit, apples, cakes, sweets, chocolates and large gingerbread. In the French Flanders,  French Hainaut,  Boulogne,artoisLorraineBelgium and the Swiss city of Fribourg, of which he is the Patron Saint, Saint Nicolas parades through the streets on .

With us in Belgium

Among Dutch speakers, Saint Nicholas is called Sinterklaas and, as in the Netherlands, he disembarks from a boat from Spain mounted on a white horse. Among French speakers, he travels with a donkey. It is accompanied by a Father Fouettard, also called “Hanscrouf” or “Zwarte Piet”. Sometimes there are two "bogeymans".

In the north as in the south of the country, he comes the night of the 5th to  to deposit gifts and sweets – in particular chocolate figurines, nic-nacs to spéculoos in his likeness – in the shoes of good children. It is traditional to leave a bowl of water or milk and a carrot in front of the kitchen or living room fireplace for the donkey, and a glass of alcohol for the saint. It is traditional to eat cougnous during Saint Nicholas15.

At the beginning of December, Saint Nicolas visits schools or public centers to ask children what gifts they want, to see if they have been good during the year, and to give them sweets. Children are often invited to write a letter addressed to the “great saint”. A service of the Belgian post responds free of charge to children who send him a letter to the address Rue du Paradis no 1, 0612 SKY16.

Several weeks before the arrival of the great saint, schoolchildren must leave a pair of shoes every evening in front of their bedroom door. Those who have been wise discover a different typical delicacy every morning: Marzipan, chocolate, clementine, marshmallow, etc.

Saint-Nicolas in Belgium is also a student tradition which requires that you place a plate or a pair of shoes the day before in front of your door and that each cooker (student room tenant, cothurne) discreetly puts candy in it. To Mons in  Brussels in  Cork and Namur, there is also the Saint Nicholas of the students : a procession parades through the city with floats and students collect coins from passers-by as well as in front of secondary schools to buy beers when windlass which ends the day.

In some universities and higher education establishments, a student (often part of the student committee) would dress up as Saint Nicholas and go from auditorium to auditorium to celebrate Saint Nicholas with all the students present in class that day.


Note: Texts above taken from the following Wikipedia page:
Photo Credit: By CrazyPhunk at nl.wikipedia & Gaby Kooiman, CC BY-SA 3.0,

← Previous post Next article →