Saint Nicholas and Building a Capacity for Self-Reflection in the Young - A Waldorf Perspective December 05 2022
December 6 is the day marked to celebrate the legendary Saint Nicholas (15 March 270 – 6 December 343)—the prototype for our North American Santa Claus. His feast day is often celebrated in Waldorf schools, though in some schools his celebration has been disapproved and removed for being too Eurocentric or too harsh for children. His legends are rooted in German lore and in Dutch stories (Sinterklaas* is his name in Dutch). But vestiges of this remarkable saint pop up in many places throughout Europe, Turkey, parts of Dutch-colonized African countries, North America and elsewhere.
Traditionally when Saint Nicholas appears to children, he wears the garb of an early Christian bishop* (so he wears a funny mitered hat, as some children would tell you) and he carries a large golden book. In this book are written all the good deeds children have done on one page, and on the opposing page, unfortunate deeds and challenges facing the child are written. Saint Nicholas addresses each child with these balancing facts of the little one’s life. He calls to the child to continue doing good things in the world and to work to improve challenging habits (like hanging up one’s coat, or avoiding helping with the dishes, or speaking disrespectfully to one’s parents, as examples). Saint Nicholas then gives all children apples and nuts and perhaps a little chocolate to reward them for their goodness and to encourage them to keep it up!
Saint Nicholas sometimes selects a child who has gone through a particularly trying time or who has accomplished some important thing and he gives this child a golden nut accompanied by words that describe why the special gift is warranted. Some teachers give all the children in a class a golden nut because all children are golden, after all. Certain teachers wait and use the golden nut as a powerful affirmation for children who have gone through something difficult or trying.
Children in some countries leave their shoes out on the Eve of Saint Nicholas* and the next morning find that their shoes have been filled with nuts and fruit (by Saint Nicholas, of course!). The children delight in realizing that such a spirit has noticed them in this way.
This last point—of being seen and noticed—is an important element in Saint Nicholas’s useful help. For a child to realize that his and her deeds have been seen by someone, anyone, makes a child develop an inner resolve to continue doing good things and to continue resisting doing naughty or unhelpful things. Children (and grown-ups, too!) are often unaware of how their actions are affecting those around them. Saint Nichols gives parents and teachers a chance, in a loving, neutral way, to make the child aware of how actions help or do not help in the world beyond one’s own self.
Saint Nicholas’s stories are the origin of secret gifts. It is said that Saint Nicholas saved a man’s three daughters* from prostitution by depositing through the man’s postal slot in his front door a bag of gold for three nights. This provided the man doweries for his three daughters. “Secret Santa” gift-giving comes from this story. Gifts that are surprises are like this as well. A child’s anticipation of good things to come strengthens life forces in the child and develops a habit of good thoughts and positive imagining into the future.
Saint Nicholas’s stories illuminate his special love of children. The most dramatic story is of a ruthless butcher* who, during a famine, took four orphan children, chopped them into pieces and pickled them in a barrel of brine for sale. Saint Nicholas allegedly came into the butcher’s shop, tapped on the top of the brine barrel and the four children came out whole and well, much to the shock of the terrible butcher. It is a good story, though, for children who worry a lot. Imagine a little one taking into her soul the knowledge that there is rescue in difficult circumstances from unexpected directions and that there are beings with magical love for children who can manifest this rescue — remarkably reassuring!
Gazing into the Eyes of the Future, a book published by Waldorf Publications and written by David, Tresemer, Donald Samson, and David Mitchell, delves into the deeper significance of the festival of Saint Nicholas. The tragedy of banning the event in schools is that a potent tool for calling to the higher sensibilities of our children and seeing in their eyes the wish to do good in the world, the yearning to be seen as good and striving, is then lost. It isn’t possible to find in world cultures another way so powerful and yet gentle and story-like for a child to be made aware of the importance of doing good. Long into the upper grades, when students have realized that the verses and chidings that Saint Nicholas brings them are written by their teacher (in school, perhaps by parents at home), they are eager to hear what Saint Nicholas has to say. They are, through words of recognition and insight brought to a sense of self, a sense of responsibility, a sense of regret for deeds not-so-well done, for mistakes. These reactions bring to children a habit of self-confidence, self-recognition, self-reflection, and realization that every action in life counts whether it is seen by earthly eyes or not.
Teachers can often bring children to a sense of wonder — another fine habit of heart and soul, to be able to cultivate — when Saint Nicholas explains things the child has done, good or bad, that he or she is convinced no one knew about. This gives the child further proof that all things done have an influence on the world — seen or not.
Just to offer full disclosure on why Saint Nicholas is sometimes seen as too harsh for children, Saint Nicholas traditionally with a side-kick, Ruprecht*. Ruprecht was a terrible human being when he was alive on earth. As a chimney sweep, he never washed and so is perpetually dirty. On earth he was cruel, greedy, and selfish, and he had a wicked tongue that would not stop cursing and using foul language. Saint Nicholas tried and tried to get Ruprecht to see the danger in his ways. So intractable was Ruprecht, especially in his non-stop foul words, Saint Nicholas cut out his tongue to give him a chance to be redeemed. Ruprecht crouches next to Saint Nicholas and carries a tree branch he uses to strike a chair or a desk to try to correct an incorrigible child, to remind him of what can become of one not willing to change for the good. Many schools leave Ruprecht out of the festival. Saint Nicholas travels from class to class alone with his golden book and the occasionally distressful Ruprecht stays at home!
The worthy Saint Nicholas might love children better than us all, as he is willing to call to the children and ask for their best selves to be the front runner in little souls as they grow and learn good ways to be of help in our world. The future lives with our children. Imagine a future filled with adults who have had help in practicing doing rightful tasks and good deeds; adults who have habits of heart and soul that reflect, take responsibility for their actions, and imitate loving others, especially children.