A Kinder, Gentler St. Nicholas: Transformation and Meaning in a "Louisiana German" Tradition
By Rocky L. Sexton
In 1881 German-Catholic immigrants settled in Roberts Cove on the southwest Louisiana prairie. Roberts Cove is not a town, but rather a scattered rural community with the St. Leo's Catholic church complex as a community and cultural center. Located three miles northwest of Rayne in Acadia Parish, Roberts Cove was staunchly German until the World War One era when harsh anti-German wartime legislation initiated a decline of the German language and other cultural elements (McCord 1970: Kondert 1988). Over the next several decades, there was increased intermarriage between Roberts Cove residents and their Cajun-French and Anglo-American neighbors (Sexton 1996). Consequently, there are few remaining German speakers and relatively few overt manifestations of German culture yet the community is still viewed as a German ethnic enclave.
Prior to the organization of the Roberts Cove Germanfest in 1995, the St. Nicholas celebration was the most publicized tradition in Roberts Cove linked to German ethnicity (Boudreaux 1968). The holiday is modeled on the exploits of a 5th-century Bishop named Nicholas from Myra (in present-day Turkey) who achieved Catholic sainthood. Saint Nicholas became a widely popular saint in Europe after his relics were transferred from Myra to Bari, Italy in 1087 (Mackenzie 1987). By the Middle Ages, Saint Nicholas, whose feast day falls on December 6, had become the patron of children, sailors, merchants, schoolboys, and young girls, and his popularity approached that of the Virgin Mary (De Groot 1965). He eventually became associated primarily with children and gift-giving. Though St. Nicholas was later dropped from the official Catholic calendar of saints, he is still popularly regarded as the patron saint of children (Curtis 1995). St. Nicholas served as the model for the American Santa Claus, but distinctive forms of the St. Nicholas celebration, as well as the character St. Nicholas, have remained popular throughout Europe. This holiday is also popular in Roberts Cove where on the evening of December 5th (St. Nicholas Eve), a procession of costumed characters and a choir travel through the community to entertain children and adults alike. 1 Present-day St. Nicholas celebrations differ considerably, however, from accounts of the event earlier in this century. In the following pages, the contemporary Roberts Cove event will be described. Following that, past transformation of the St. Nicholas celebration and its relationship to contemporary "Louisiana German" culture will be discussed. 2 This involves identifying the specific processes through which changes, meanings, and values are negotiated in a folk tradition.
To celebrate St. Nicholas' Eve in present-day Roberts Cove, participants gather at the St. Leo church hall in the late afternoon. The group includes a choir of 16 and women drawn primarily from the church choir, and three males who will assume the roles of St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and Black Peter. The roles of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus were once restricted to male church choir members but currently any male congregation member is eligible to fill these roles. Black Peter is chosen from the church altar boys. All three characters are selected by the parish priest and the head of the St. Leo Choir. Those portraying St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and Black Peter are supposed to remain anonymous, so as soon as they arrive each is surrounded by choir members who help him to don his costume. St. Nicholas is dressed in a flowing white and gold robe and carries a bishop's mitre. His face is disguised by a thick application of white facepaint and a long white beard. To assure complete disguise he also wears a pair of white gloves. A long crozier (staff) completes his clerical appearance. Black Peter is outfitted in black tights, long dark blouse, a turban, and his face is completely blackened. 3 In keeping with the role, he wears a pair of black gloves. Santa Claus is dressed in the traditional manner supplemented by white facepaint and gloves. The choir members dress in identical black pants, black shoes, red sweater decorated with an image of St. Nicholas, and each wears a bell around his or her neck.
After preparations, the group loads onto a school bus to begin the evening tour. The route comprises stops at 15 households nearly all of which lie within the perceived geographical confines of Roberts Cove. Forty-five households alternate hosting St. Nicholas so that each receives the procession at three-year intervals. Between 25 and 100 people gather at each site, including members of the household and family and friends from throughout the state.
When the bus stops in front of a house, the choir begins ringing their bells, singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" as they leave the bus and enter the home or approach an alternative site such as a carport of out-building where hosts and guests await. The choir, still singing, gathers in the center of the assembly. The song concludes when a baritone member of the choir sings "You mean the big fat man with the long white beard?," to which the choir responds in unison, "he's coming to town." The last line is the cue for St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and Black Peter, who have remained hidden, to enter. St. Nicholas walks into the crowd and in a disguised voice greets those in attendance. He specifically addresses the children, collectively rather than individually, stating that he hopes that they have been good during the year and have obeyed their parents and teachers. St. Nicholas then circulates through the gathering greeting adults with a handshake and children with a light touch to the head much like administering a blessing. Santa Claus also greets everyone, and with Black Peter's assistance he gives each child a few pieces of candy. Apart from the very young who may react to St. Nicholas's elaborate costume with uncertainty or even fear, he (along with his entourage) is viewed with a mixture of awe and excitement. The choir continues singing until the three have greeted everyone and have distributed candy. The songs include German carols like "Ihr Kinderlein," "O Tannenbaum" and "Stille Nacht," and songs in English like "Silver Bells," "Joy to the World," and "The First Noel." After St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and Black Peter have greeted everyone, Santa Claus throws any remaining candy onto the floor causing a mad scramble as the children, and even a few adults, rush to grab treats. Then St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and Black Peter quickly return to the bus to avoid being recognized by the spectators. In fact, their performance is considered highly successful if they remain anonymous the entire evening. Choir members remain for a brief period visiting and partaking of refreshments provided at each household before rejoining St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and Black Peter on the bus. This routine continues at every stop. After the last visit, the bus begins the trip back to the church hall. To acknowledge the efforts of everyone, the group begins a chant of "two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate," followed by the name of a participant. 4 The chant is repeated until all participants have been named. Upon arriving at the church hall, everyone removes and packs away costumes and makeup, then they rejoin celebrants at the various host homes.
On the surface, St. Nicholas seems to be a traditional German practice that was brought to Louisiana by the Roberts Cove founders and which has survived with slight modification into the present. However, comments from older Roberts Cove residents indicate that the celebration differs considerably from that of 50 years ago. One female Roberts Cove native stated that in an earlier version of the St Nicholas holiday, "We used to not have the Bishop [the St. Nicholas character]. We just had all the young boys . . if you had money to go buy you a Santa Claus suit you would jump on the truck bed and they would ride around and go from house to house." The same person indicated that the conduct of the visitors inspired fear among children.
All the young boys of the neighborhood dressed as Santa Claus, and they were mean. They would come in with sticks and chains and all they would says was in German, "beten sie" which means pray, and if you didn't get on your knees and said a little prayer they would take the little switch and switch you . . . and one of them had a sack on his back which was supposed to have been to put the bad children in. 5
An elderly man also recalled the celebration as a traumatic event.
When I was a kid this feast of St. Nicholas, I mean it was rough. There just was nothing but Santa Clauses and I mean I was just shaking in my [interrupted by another man who states] "They come there with chains." [original speaker resumes] chains, ropes, and black jack whips like that and if you didn't get on your knees and start saying your prayers, boy, they pow [indicates a blow from a whip]. The thing of St. Nick and the Santa Claus coming and saying pray . . . they were trying to portray St. Nick which was supposed to have been a Bishop and they were supposed to be good holy children for St Nick.
There could be resistance to the visitors by older children, especially those who had misbehaved during the year, and who would hide rather than submit to the demands of the Santa Clauses. However, this resulted in a thorough search for the miscreants who would be whipped if discovered (Boudreaux 1968). Children who behaved and prayed were given pecans or other treats. Adults were also involved in what was in many respects a festive occasion. "We always had good and drinks . . . you invited your relatives . . then at the last homes that man, which was an uncle of mine. He had a party for the characters and everything and that's where they really partied until all hours of the night."
The rowdy and frightening elements of the early Roberts Cove custom are similar to some manifestations of the St. Nicholas holiday once found in various portions of western Europe (De Groot 1965). A description from Holland notes that the "St. Nicholas rounds" unfolded in a rollicking, drunken manner and consisted of "local youths" with a leader representing St. Nicholas who traveled the streets after dark making noise with chains, bells, buckets, and horns. They would chase other youngsters, especially girls, who if captured, would "get their faces blackened" and be "ragged and teased" (De Groot 1965:26). The outrageous behavior of youths may be a mutation of Catholic holidays which had temporarily empowered members of the church hierarchy within the context of often rowdy rites of reversal during feast days (MacKenzie 1987; Curtis 1995). Such holidays include the Feast of the Holy Innocents and the Feast of the Boy Bishop. The feast of the Holy Innocents became identified with the Feast of Fools, a Catholic reinterpretation of the earlier Roman Saturnalia tradition, that by the Middle Ages unfolded over four days in late December linked to the Catholic liturgical calendar (Weiser 1958). Celebrated December 28, the feat of the Holy Innocents was devoted to choir boys and seems to have merged with the Feast of the Boy Bishop which had shifted to December 28 in the 11th century. The boy bishop was a youth who personified Pope Gregory IV, the patron of schools and choirs. He was accompanied by two youths who served as chaplains while the bishop "examined his fellow students . . . also adults , with questions on religious doctrine. He gave praise or reproach and distributed presents or punishment" (Weiser 1958, Boudreaux 1968). However, variations of this official celebration evolved into irreverent abuses" that became characteristic of the Feast of Fools. Then in the 14th century, the Feast of the Boy Bishop was moved to December 5, the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas (Weiser 1958), Boudreaux 1968), although activities rooted in the Boy Bishop tradition seem to have continued to occur in late December in some areas. Weiser (1958) suggests that after this shift, the personification of St. Gregory IV was gradually transformed to that of St. Nicholas. This undoubtedly reflected the rising popularity of St. Nicholas in the centuries after his introduction to Europe. However, "unofficial" versions of the original Boy Bishop festivities linked to earlier Feast of Fools "excesses" now occurring on December 5, with little to no control by church authorities, apparently survived and resulted in the behavior found in the peripheral St. Nicholas "rounds" described by later writers.
Many Roberts Cove settlers originated in the Geilenkirchen region of German bordering Holland (McCord 1970, Kondert 1988) where rowdy St. Nicholas rounds were common, so it is not surprising that a variation of this general tradition diffused to Louisiana. However related customs were brought to other areas of North America by Germanic settlers, resulting in a broad distribution of traditions related to the St. Nicholas rounds. One example is the Belsnickling tradition in Pennsylvania that was introduced by German and Swiss settlers who became part of the population later known as Pennsylvania Dutch (Shoemaker 1959). 6 This custom featured the character Belsnickle derived from Pelznickel (Fur Nicholas), a version of St. Nicholas common in western Germany (Weiser 1958). In Pennsylvania, the traditional rural Belsnickle was a lone character who visited homes to punish and reward children. However, Alfred Shoemaker (1959) asserts that through acculturation among Dutch, German, Scotch-Irish, and English settlers, traditions associated with St. Nicholas and Christmas Eve mingled. Much of the behavior that once occurred on St. Nicholas Eve was moved to the Christmas season and combined with Christmas mumming practices from the British Isles. 7
There are similarities between Belsnickling in Pennsylvania and the St. Nicholas tradition in Roberts Cove. Belsnickels frequently dressed in long robes and beards while other wore masks or, influenced by other mumming traditions, engaged in role reversal by dressing as Native Americans donning blackface. Belsnickels would make a dramatic entrance by ringing bells, shaking chains, rattling windows and doors, and brandishing willow whips or buggy whips. They would throw treats onto the floor and as the children rushed to pick up treats, they would whip them while saying, "Will you pray?" (Shoemaker 1959:83). The Belsnickels would target specific children known to be naughty, for example, good children were often allowed to immediately pick up treats thrown by Belsnickels whereas bad children were switched before they were permitted to gather treats (Shoemaker 1959).
Like Belsnickling in Pennsylvania, the St. Nicholas tradition was somewhat transformed in Roberts Cove. For example, Santa Claus suits became the favorite costume for the touring youths in Roberts Cove. This is not surprising considering that the St. Nicholas celebration began to be celebrated in Louisiana at a time when the character Santa Claus, portrayed in much the same manner as the contemporary bearded, red-suited character, was becoming a popular culture icon in American society. This imagery resulted from the evolution of St. Nicholas into Santa Claus in the United States and was spread by the popular works of American authors like Washington Irving, Clement Moore, and the cartoonist Thomas Nast (Curtis 1995). Consequently, in Roberts Cove, the character of St. Nicholas became represented by the American character Santa Claus which as obviously similar in appearance to various permutations of St. Nicholas. This was, however, a superficial change because rather than behaving like the benevolent American Santa Claus, Roberts Cove youth continued to act out the intimidating role of St. Nicholas rooted in the earlier St. Nicholas rounds.
The adoption of the Santa Claus costume is interesting in itself, but given the great contrast between past and present St. Nicholas it is necessary to explore the process by which the malevolent Santa Clauses/St. Nicholas of the past were replaced by the kind, gentle St. Nicholas Eve character of the present. Oral history in Roberts Cove attributed this transformation to the actions of a Dutch priest who ministered to the community from 1952 to 1955. After experiencing the local custom, he informed the community that their St. Nicholas celebration was a negative portrayal of the holiday.
He [the priest] told them, "you all have the wrong impression of St. Nick." He said, "if you all are calling this St. Nick now, you all are not portraying St. Nick in the right way. St. Nick was a kind and gentle man." So he is the one who started all the custom that is now in Roberts Cove. . .
The priest urged the replacement of the rowdy Santa Claus characters with St. Nicholas and his servant Black Peter. The priest's perception of the "correct" St. Nicholas characters and the celebration in general reflected versions of the holiday which overshadowed the riotous, peripheral St. Nicholas rounds (or similar customs) in both Holland and Germany. In Holland, the team of St. Nicholas and Black Peter (supposedly a "blackamoor" who served as an assistant to the legendary bishop) are popularly identified with St. Nicholas Eve by both Catholics and Protestants. The St. Nicholas and Black Peter costumes introduced to Roberts Cove are nearly identical to those described in early 20th-century Dutch accounts (Jungman 1904). Likewise, their behavior is much the same considering the following description of a St. Nicholas visit in Holland.
. . . a large white sheet is laid out in the middle of the room and round it stand all the children. . . before the expected time of the Saint's arrival they begin to sing songs to welcome him into their midst . . . The first intimation the children get of the Saint's arrival is a shower of sweets bursting in upon them. Then, amid the general scramble which ensues, St. Nicholas suddenly makes his appearance (Hough 1901:123). 8
Following St. Nicholas' entrance, Black Peter would assist him in distributing treats to the children. While these characters were much more friendly than their counterparts in marginal variants of the St. Nicholas celebration, there was a threat of punishment. For example, in some areas of Holland and Germany, St. Nicholas came not only to reward good children with treats but frequently with a stick/switch [perhaps a variation of the Bishop's crozier], or book of sins containing the names of naughty children (Russ 1982). In Dutch celebrations, Black Peter frequently held a sack which was supposed to be used to carry bad children off to Spain, once a stronghold of the "Moors" (Walwin 1971, Curtis 1995). This also occurred in areas of Germany; the difference being that St. Nicholas is accompanied by a different and somewhat more threatening character named Ruprecht (Norman 1993). However, these actions appear to have involved only the potential for punishment rather than the actual violence directed toward children in the St. Nicholas rounds and Belsnickling. 9
Given the evidence it is clear that the characters and practice introduced by the priest were derived directly from the "mainstream" Dutch St. Nicholas tradition, which is similar to some German customs. Thus, it was only in the early 1950s that the gentle St. Nicholas and his servant Black Peter appeared in Roberts Cove. However, one Santa Claus was retained because according to a resident:
Our custom of Santa Claus is just an American version, that is where the Santa Claus part comes in. When the priest changed all the Santa Claus, he wanted to do away with the Santa Claus, he said we will have the Bishop and little Black Peter and we can keep one American Santa Claus for the American tradition.
However, the lone Santa Claus is related to his Roberts Cove predecessors is appearance only, because he behaves in the same manner as the kind Santa Claus experienced by other American children. In Roberts Cove, for the evening of December 5, Santa Claus is secondary to St. Nicholas, though his character returns to prominence at Christmas.
Given the drastic changes in Roberts Cove St. Nicholas it is interesting to consider the meaning that the event now has for the community terms of its "Germanness." How is it that a recently introduced custom from Holland has become such a salient symbol of contemporary German culture and identity for the German-Americans of Roberts Cove? I would suggest that through a "Germanization" process St. Nicholas became accepted as part of what some residents refer to as "Louisiana German culture." this involved several interrelated factors: the circumstances under which the Dutch St. Nicholas was introduced, the integration of German cultural content into the new tradition, the spatial linkage of the earlier St. Nicholas tradition, the passage of time since the new St. Nicholas was introduced.
The modified celebration was legitimatized because a priest who exerted considerable spiritual and social influence in the community initiated the change through his insistence that the new version of the celebration was the proper way to celebrate St. Nicholas. In this sense, the community was less interested in the new event's specific point of origin than with the fact that it was proposed as the "correct" way to do it. That the community would not be particularly resistant to this change is not surprising if one compares it to the 19th-century decline of Belsnickling. This seems to have occurred in part because there was increasing of the harsh treatment of children during Belsnickling (Shoemaker 1959).
Not long after the new St. Nicholas was introduced, the community began a cultural renaissance that revived or introduced practices associated with German culture in community events, especially those organized with the cooperation of St. Leo's Catholic church, long a bastion of German cultural practices (McCord 1970; Kondert 1988). At this time the church choir, which had learned German songs from older community members, began to accompany the St. Nicholas procession and sing Christmas songs in German. These songs now help to set the cultural tone of the celebration.
American Christmas songs have been altered and serve to localize the event. For example, the song "Silver Bells" opens with, "Silver Bells, Silver Bells, St. Nick has come to the children" (rather than "Christmas has come to the city"). Another line states, "Cove is waiting"(rather than "City is waiting") referring to the community's anticipation of St. Nicholas's arrival. The inclusion of the line "Cove is waiting" roots the celebration in Roberts Cove, commonly referred to as "the cove" by residents. For Roberts Cove residents and their non-German neighbors, the area is viewed as a German region despite a diverse population and in fact, some non-Germans have referred to the area as "German Cove." Thus Roberts Cove is viewed as a sort of miniature German homeland for people of German descent throughout the state. The fact that the celebration occurs in German "space" and has been modified to this locale serves to link ritual to place, and place to culture, and reconstitutes St. Nicholas as a German tradition in the eyes of Germans and non-Germans.
St. Nicholas Eve celebrations also retain some of the structure of the earlier celebration although obviously in a much less rowdy form. The celebration still unfolds as a tour in which the visits are hosted and attended by members of the same social network. This provides a setting for interaction among family and friends who are scattered throughout the area and beyond, because festivities begin well before the arrival of St. Nicholas and often continue long after the procession departs from each home.
The passage of time must also be considered in the Germanization process. Elderly residents clearly remember the earlier version of the holiday, whereas those of middle age have less specific recollection of past St. Nicholas Eves. The older generations are often the most ardent proponents of the value of the tradition and its identification as German. For example, a middle-aged hostess at one house and middle-age participants at other homes readily identified St. Nicholas as an "old German custom." An elderly resident of Roberts Cove who is a key figure in organizing the event stressed its importance by stating that St. Nicholas is "the biggest tradition here we have and that is something we cannot pass it up [let it disappear]." Taking their elders' perspective, for the young, the holiday in its current manifestation is the only one they have ever known. For young and old alike, their mutual interpretation of the contemporary St. Nicholas celebration as a German event is largely shared: it is what Richard Handler and Jocelyn Linnekin describe as a "present-tense understanding generated from the context and meanings of the present" (1984:281). This is because public memory, which Steven Hoelscher (1998) argues is inevitably focused on the present, can often subsume different individual perspectives of tradition into a single image and re-cast it in terms of the contemporary. Taken collectively, the various features of St. Nicholas' "Germanization" represent a meaningful synthesis of old, new, and modified elements. This "balance between stability and change, between the enduring and the novel" (Stern 1991:xii) has resulted in what is in many respects a uniquely Louisiana German custom that is kinder and gentler than its precursor.
The St. Nicholas holiday has a long complex history in both Europe and the United States. The circumstances under which the St. Nicholas tradition because kinder and gentler in Roberts Cove and the current community-level "understanding" of it as a Louisiana German cultural practice provide a useful case study of how quickly and completely a recently introduced and modified custom can be transformed into a time-honored tradition.
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I would like to thank Peter Kivisto for commenting on an earlier draft of this paper.
1. St. Nicholas is celebrated in two other communities in southwest Louisiana: Meridian, a rural community located several miles west of Roberts Cove, and Broussard which is located a few miles south of Lafayette. The celebration was introduced to these communities through out-migration by Roberts Cove residents, so the contemporary events are very similar.
2. Information on the contemporary St. Nicholas and its past transformations in Roberts Cove is derived from observation of the event in 1994 and follow-up interviews with community members. Interview tapes and fieldnotes are in the author's possession.
3. The custom of blackfacing is also found in nearby Cajun Mardi Gras groups. However, it is a form of generic racial inversion as opposed to the practice in Robert's Cove which is linked to a specific supposedly historical character. Because of its high visibility, blackfacing in Mardi Gras has drawn criticism from those who view it as racist. The Black Peter character, however, has never been subject to such criticism. This is because of the limited context in which St. Nicholas occurs and the "low key" nature of the event.
5. The custom of forcing children to pray under the treat of whipping is found in the Mardi Gras celebration of two Cajun communities in southeast Louisiana (Cagle 1996). However, given the origins of the St. Nicholas custom discussed later in this paper, the similarities between the two celebrations are due to parallel developments in various continental European traditions rather than cross-cultural borrowing in Louisiana.
8. As previously noted, the throwing of treats into the midst of children is also present in the Roberts Cove celebration. The primary difference is that in Roberts Cove it is done as a conclusion to the visit rather than as a part of St. Nicholas' initial appearance.