by Nancy Armitage
Bishop St. Nicholas was a real person, a real priest, a real Bishop, & he also became a saint. St. Nicholas was born Abt. 270 in Dembre, Turkey & he died on Dec. 6. 343AD in Myra, Turkey.
There are many stories & legends about Bishop St. Nicholas. It is said that St. Nicholas was a wealthy man after his parents died. He gave most of his family’s money away to the poor, children, or the needy. St. Nicholas always did these kind acts in secret without anyone knowing who it was. There is grace in that. One of the St. Nicolas’s legends says that 3 daughters could not get married because they didn’t have a dowry of money. So St. Nicholas heard about the girls situation and placed a bag of gold for each of the young ladies so they could get married & live happily. Another legend or story of Bishop St. Nicholas states that a bad innkeeper killed 3 young boys & pickled them in a barrel. St. Nicholas resurrected the 3 young boys. Bishop St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children. Often on Bishop St. Nicholas’ statues they are illustrated with 3 boys in a barrel. Sometimes, at Catholic churches a young boy is picked to be a “Boy Bishop” on the saints feast day which is December 6th every year.
His feast day is December 6th every year. He is sometimes called Nicolas of Myra. St. Nicholas is one of the most well-loved saint in the world. So many cultures celebrate his feast day: Greece. Italy, Germany, France, Poland, England, Croatia, & Holland. In Amsterdam Holland, he is called “Sint” or “Sinterklass or Saint Nikolaas”; in England “Father Christmas”; in France- “Pere Noel” or “Papa Noel”; in Germany he is Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man) or Christkind (Christ child). He is the patron saint of children, widows, newlyweds, sailors, jewelers, & pawn brokers.
In Amsterdam, there is a famous Dutch Master oil painting called “Feast of St. Nicholas”. It is by Dutch painter: Jan Steen & it’s located at the Rijksmuseum. It illustrates a family & their children (happy & sad) on the Feast of St, Nicholas- Dec. 6th. A very detailed painting, it took him from 1665-1668 to paint it. This Dutch painting shows Dutch treats of speculaas cookies, apple, breads, oranges, peppernoten, & shoes filled with candies & goodies & a doll is a small girls arms.
In the 1600’s, this Dutch tradition of “Sinterklass” came to America by the Dutch settlers who settled in New Amsterdam (which is now New York City). The Dutch called St. Nicholas: “Sinterklass”. The numerous Dutch bakers brought the wonderful Dutch treats to the front of their store windows during Sinterklass time & Christmas time. A “bakers dozen” is usually 13, in Dutch bakeries- a bakers dozen is 18 or 20 cookies to a package, very generous I must say!! For the Sinterklaas celebration, a Dutch bakery might have a whole chocolate ship, speculaas cookies with the image of St. N. & molded chocolate Dutch shoes, peppernoten cookies, & assorted candies and cakes. It was said that if you put your wooden shoes or Christmas stockings out on December 5th that Bishop St. Nicholas will fill them with Dutch treats like candies, chocolates, & spicy nutty speculaas cookies shaped like St. Nicholas.
In the 1822, the image of Sinterklass or Bishop St. Nicholas dramatically changed in America. Clement Clarke Moore wrote “The Night before Christmas” for his 6 children. This enchanting story was published the next year & an illustrator painted Santa Claus. He is depicted as a jolly plump Santa we know today & doesn’t represent the Bishop St. Nicholas any longer. Santa Claus was illustrated with a red hat & no more bishop hat. In 1880’s, Thomas Nast illustrated a pipe-smoking Santa Claus with a red suit with red fur hat & holly attached to his hat with beige backpack & overalls. Santa Claus has lots of toys hanging from ropes on his belt like dollies, books, clocks, fans, & toy horses.
The Huntingtons and Bishop St. Nicholas
We know that Mrs. Arabella D. Huntington loved Christmas. Mrs. Huntington liked to be at her New York City mansion on 57th St. & 5th Ave. during the holidays. Only a couple of years are the exception to this tradition: In 1903, Arabella, her son, Archer, & his first wife, Helen were in Paris. France together. Also, in 1922 & 1923 both Arabella & her 2nd husband, Henry E. Huntington were at their west coast property called the San Marino Ranch (now the Huntington Library, Calif.). The Huntingtons had numerous parties & entertainments with family & friends during the Thanksgiving, Christmas, & New Year’s Holidays. The Huntington’s hosted “At-Home tea parties”, Brunches, Lunches, & Formal Dinners. She also had a affection for the Madonna & Child; she owned at least 20 master “Italian Primitive” paintings on that subject. At the Huntington Library, there is also a painting of a Madonna & Child with Bishop St. Nicholas in his red cloak. First this paintings hung in the Huntington’s NYC mansion; then after Arabella Huntington died, they were transferred by private RR train cars: “San Marino I & San Marino II” to the San Marino Ranch.
We know that the Huntington Family had the true spirit of St. Nicholas. All of the Huntington’s Collis P. Huntington, Arabella D. Huntington, Henry E. Huntington, & Archer M. Huntington were exceptionally generous to America & many of its great cities and communities. They donated land, gave money to build hospitals, free libraries, art museums, free kindergartens, art & book societies, & other numerous places. They gave their money away in New York City, Westchester Co., NY, San Francisco & Pasadena (CA), West Virginia, Newport News in Virginia, & Racquette Lake in Adirondack Mt. Sometimes, not wanting to make the donations public information. That was in the true spirit of Bishop St. Nicholas. Mrs. Huntington was very generous with her staff and all the people she came in contacted with during her day. Mrs. Huntington Head Butler, Alfonzo Gomez stated that she would tuck several hundred dollars in her sleeve & throughout her day give out money to people that were kind to her. Document: HEH Coll. MS 19/1-17 (Alfonso Gomez interviews) at Huntington Library San Marino CA.
Gilded Age New York City:
Christmas during the 1880-1890’s, was quite gilded indeed. The Victorian years were over the top as we say today. Tall Christmas trees up to the ceiling of tall rooms, huge Christmas glass ornaments “as big as grapefruits” .Look at this fancy menu of the St. Nicholas Society (below). Oh my!
Mrs. Huntington Christmas/ St. Nicholas Tea party Menu:
Mrs. Arabella Huntington had many Christmas & St. Nicholas parties & tea parties at her different mansions. The Christmas foods Mrs. Huntington she served was numerous. Her once a month, “At-Home” tea gathering was on Tuesdays at Christmas time. At the Huntington Mansion there was lots of cooking, baking, & decorating activity going on Mondays & Tuesdays.
For savory treats, she served Chicken Mousse with Truffle Sauce, Imported French cheeses like Brie Camembert & Roquefort with crackers, nuts and berries, Roquefort Puff, Pate de foie Gras in Aspic, Caviar Canapes
Huntington Tea Blend: combination of India Tea and Ceylon tea which made a Orange Pekoe tea, Apricot Cordial
Tea Sandwiches: Virginia Ham, Roast Beef, Chicken Salad, Egg Salad, Cheese sandwiches, Butter tea sandwiches, Lobster salad
Cream Scones or Buttermilk scones or Butter Beaten Biscuits with Lemon Curd, Chantilly Cream, Raspberry Jam, San Marino Ranch Loganberry Jam,
Punch: Champagne Punch, Christmas Wassail, Roman Punch, Victorian Egg Nog in a large silver punch bowl, Hot Dutch Sinterklass Cocoa with marshmallows (for children).
For Christmas sweet treats: Petit Mincemeat tarts, Southern Pecan Tassies ( tarts), Southern Pralines, Fruit Salad, Cookies: French Beurre Biscuits, Loone Doones, French Cakes, Petit Fours (Small iced cake with royal icing on top), Royal Pudding, Charlotte Pudding, Macaroon Ice Cream, Fancy Cakes, Huylers Chocolate BonBons, Jordon Almonds, Huntington Mansion Honey Bars, Peppermint Bonbons, Cinnamon Swirl Star cookies, Orange Cake, Christmas Plum Pudding, Petit sweet potato tart,
Document: HEH Coll MS 17/1 Dec 16, 1915 Hobby Club Menu (HEH at 57th Mansion); HEH Coll MS 38/11 uncat (1919 NY house bills), heh coll ms 8/9 uncat
Biscuits Glace, St. Nicholas
This is a adapted New York recipe from the 1876 The Home Cookbook: it was written by a French chef at the St. Nicholas Hotel, New York, “where biscuits glace reached a perfection that cannot be excelled by any confectioner!” The original recipe did not use vanilla wafers, just whipped cream.
12 vanilla wafers
1/2 lb. powdered sugar
4 egg yolks
2 qt. heavy cream, whipped to almost butter
red food coloring
12 cupcake foil and paper cups
garnish with crushed candy canes and red candy sprinkles
Beat sugar and yolks together with vanilla. Add cream to egg yolks and sugar mixture. Color half of the mixture with red food coloring and spread on the bottom of cupcake paper cups and then fill the rest of the cups with whipping cream. Place in a cookie tin and freeze for 2 hours. Sprinkle crushed red peppermint candies & red sprinkles on top. Serve.
St. Nicholas Society & Archer Huntington
In the 1920’s, Archer M. Huntington was extremely generous to New York City, gifting away houses, property, & money he owned to different clubs he was a member of. He was so generous his mother Arabella Huntington & her 2nd husband H.E. Huntington worried he would die a poor man. In 1939, Archer Huntington was awarded the great honor of the “St. Nicholas Medal” from the St. Nicholas Society of New York City. This Dutch society started in New York City in the 1800’s. This special annual award is only given to the most generous of donors of society, their donations often being giving in secret. That was the tradition of Bishop St. Nicholas himself, who gave money to the poor and needy (but in secret without getting the glory).
Christmas Tarts (1900)
These are a gilded age recipe printed in the newspaper “The Examiner” on Sat. Dec. 15, 1900.
2 c. apples, peeled & cubed
few dates [or dried apricots or dried cherries]
grated rind of 1 orange & half of the juice
grated rind of 1 lemon & half of the juice
Mix together in a jar: 2 T. soft sugar, 1 t. Brandy, 1/2 grated nutmeg, & dash ground cinnamon
Line some little patty tins [3″-4″tart pan] with good puff paste [pie crust or puff pastry] fill with the [apple] mixture and put a piece of butter in each; cover with another piece of paste, prick the top & bake in a quick oven 350@ -375@ for 20-30 mins and when cooked to golden brown. Dust the top plentifully with confectioners sugar.
Dutch Sinterklass Traditions: St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6th)
St. Nicholas Surprise: A present & a Poems about each person, about 4 lines that rhyme at the end of each line. Mentioning the good traits & bad traits of the receiver. Presents are wrapped up in only humble tissue paper & no bows. Sometimes, a box in a box and in another box. The initials of the receiver on the gifts, sometime a joke gift & sometimes a good gift. St. Nicholas gifts should be handmade, whether its homemade food like a small gingerbread house or candy in a decorated jar.
In Holland, Bishop St. Nicholas fills wooden shoes with goodies. In American (Dec. 6th) the saint fills Christmas Stockings or shoes with all kinds of treats. Sometimes, peppernoten cookies are throw on the floor with little wrapped candies or chocolate gold coins. The Shoes or Stockings are filled with a orange, gold coin chocolates, candies, apples, lemons (if the child was naughty), cookies, & Dutch chocolate letters, too! Chocolate Letters come in dark chocolate or milk chocolate or Hazelnut milk chocolate (see below).
Bishop St. Nicholas Breakfast:
Sometimes it is a large breakfast when St. N. day falls on a weekend, or a quick breakfast on a school day. We have made St. Nicholas Eggs (my husband invention, eggs & minced chives), sausage letters (pork or chicken sausage shaped with the first letter of a family member), cups of hot Dutch cocoa, speculaas cookies, & chocolate gold coins. I was down at the Dutch Artesia Bakery one year & these two sweet Dutch ladies showed me some baked goods that were a must on St. Nicholas Day. One was a rolled cinnamon bread with raisins & nuts inside & dusted with powdered sugar; they told me it is delicious sliced and toasted with butter. You could make you own with Pillsbury rolls & some brown sugar added. They also pointed to the large Gingerbread Girl & Boy and said they always get those, too.
Bishop St. Nicholas Dinner:
Over the years, we have had very similar dinners on Dec. 5th or Dec. 6th. Appetizers: like Dutch Gouda Cheese or Amsterdam Gouda Cheese & rosemary crackers; I have made a Dutch Beer Cheese Ball with Almonds served with crackers. In Dec. of 2006, we were in Amsterdam during Sinterklass Season, our host bought us hot Dutch Bitterballen (hot deep fried meatballs) on the eve of St. N. day. Sometimes, I have found a wine that has “saint” in the title or St. Nicholas or Dutch Heiken Beer. Or, sometimes I have made a fancy red wine punch called “Bishop St. Nicholas Punch” (recipe below). Or, I have made a sweet cranberry red & ginger ale punch for the little kids.
Bishop St. Nicholas Punch (Adults only)
This spicy wine punch is a Dutch tradition from Amsterdam, Holland. A festive punch called “Bisschopswijn” or “Dutch Bishop’s Wine”. The Dutch brought this recipe with them to America- to New Amsterdam (New York City). It was traditionally to drink it on December 5th, the Eve of Sinterklaasavond, St. Nicholas Day (Feast day of St. Nicholas). Dutch celebrations continued in New Amsterdam to Christmas & Twelth Night or the Epiphany (Jan. 6th)
2 liter red Bordeaux or Claret wine
2 oranges, 1 sliced and put aside for decoration
2 lemons, 1 sliced and put aside for decoration
30 cloves, whole
2 sticks cinnamon
1/4 c. brown sugar or granulated sugar
pinch of mace
1 nutmeg, grated
Place 15 cloves in 1 lemon & 1 orange. In a medium stockpot, place the citrus fruit, spices & sugar with the wine. Boil & then put at a simmer for 1 hour. Remove the spices and citrus. Ladle the punch into a large punch bowl & garnish with slices of lemon & oranges. Serve in punch cups or coffee mugs. Recipe: Nancy Armitage
Our St. Nicholas Dutch dinner usually consists of a Dutch Julienne Veggie Soup or Mushroom Soup, Pork Roast, Dutch Noodles with Herbs or Scallops Potatoes or Twice Baked Potatoes, Broccoli with Dutch Hollandaise Sauce. Dessert could be a cake with the face of the Bishop St. Nicholas with ice cream, or Dutch spicy Speculaas cookies or Peppernoten & Chocolate gold coins.