The characteristics of Saint-Nicolas’ companion 

Four common characteristics identify the diverse companion(s) of Saint-Nicolas that we find all over Europe. These are:

  1. The masquerade (with its easiest and cheapest form, a face that is blackened)  
  2. The chain
  3. The sack (or basket) sometimes filled with coal. In the Netherlands we find cookies and presents in this sack. 
  4. The rod

Note that in some places animal skins and horns are part of his appearance as well.

About the masquerade:

Throughout Europe, predominantly inhabited by light-skinned people, painting the face (partly) black has been a widespread and convenient way of camouflage since early history. It prevented easy recognition in field and forest, especially at night. This simplest form of camouflage is still widely used by all armies in the world. It is a straightforward method that requires limited means that are widely available to virtually anyone. Only a handful of soot from the fireplace delivers the perfect means to save one’s face from all too easy discovery.  This method was so embedded in society that it found its way into the traditions of many tribes all over the continent. This is the black that we still find back in the figure of the Dutch Black Pete and its many colleagues in adjacent countries.  Additionally, there is another angle to this dark masquerade that is sometimes forgotten. The worship of Saint-Nicolas replaced more or less the existing age-old midwinter festivities during the period of Christianisation.   In this renewed midwinter tradition the light of Saint-Nicolas was placed next to the darkness of Black Pete.

The Chain

Adding an originally pagan figure to the worship of Saint-Nicolas fitted in the customary approach of the church to eradicate heathen traditions and cults. But even while incorporating native elements in the new tradition, replacing the existing mid-winter festivities appeared to be much more difficult than ever envisaged. The old traditions were simply too deeply rooted and could not be replaced so easily. In an attempt to show Christianity’s dominance, the heathen figure of Black Pete (in view of the church representing hell vs. the purity of the Saint) was therefore made to show his subordination to the holy Saint by wearing a chain. It is interesting to notice that despite all these efforts this dark companion retained his popularity among the poor and oppressed over the centuries. He is the jolly jester that behind the back of the Saint pulls a long nose at the church and other authorities. He reminds the people of their heathen hero, free and happy (Renterghem).

The Sack-Basket

The similarities in the stories surrounding the sack in the various regions are striking. The sack is in some place filled with coal (to blacken its face or to put in a shoe) but in the Netherlands it contains peppernuts and presents.  Often it is also used to carry away naughty children, teenage girls, or even sinners to hell. In later stories hell was replaced with a friendlier re-education centre. In the Netherlands being carried to Spain in the sack plays a simlar role. 

The rod

The rod is an age-old fertility symbol. Even in modern times there are still places where young women are “hit” with a rod in a ritual way. This custom can e.g. be found in a northern region of the Netherlands, the Wadden Islands.  In public Saint-Nicolas festivities in the Netherlands the rod has been fully disbanded, yet in the traditional songs around Sinterklaas it is still very present. Also, the special paper used to wrap Sinterklaas gifts during the holiday season often features the rod together with other characteristics from the tradition. And while the rod does not play an official role as an instrument of fear anymore, children are still being told to be good or forsake their chance of gifts. So, while the physical rod is absent, its originally purpose seems as relevant as ever. Officially the Saint and Pete’s do not even care if the children are good or bad these days, at least that is what they officially preach even when grown ups are within hearing distance. So maybe the rod can be assigned another role in future.

Note that other less common features of Saint Nicolas’ companion are animal skins and horns. Confusingly sometimes a figure displays all characteristics of a companion but is still called Claus or Saint. How this fits the storyline is explained in the webpage “Companions of Saint-Nicolas in The Netherlands” under the heading: “Blending of Saint Nicolas and its servant” and also under the topic “twin-role.”

In the Netherlands Black Pete still goes around with a black face and usually brings a sack with him. The chain however, is virtually absent from his nowadays appearance. On television shows and national events, the rod is not seen anymore. However, during local parades or home visits it can still be found in the outfit of Black Pete’s in many places. Furthermore, the rod is still frequently mentioned in songs and depicted on all sorts of Saint related merchandise like paper and books.

Here we see the dark face and the sack of Servant Ruprecht from Germany

Here we see the dark face, the sack, the rod and chain with Hans Trapp from the Alsace region in France

And also in this picture from Hausacker from Luxembourg we recognize the dark face, chain, rod and sack