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Amanita Muscaria and Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas and his helpers have their origins in ancient pagan rites, which deal with fertility and new beginnings. The Catholic Church has never been able to eradicate these traditions and has therefore used its influence to Christianize it.

God Wodan

Sinterklaas is a celebration that was introduced with Christianity in order to make the new teachings more appealing. The customs surrounding Sinterklaas come from Germanic theology and were originally connected to the god Wodan, who was revered by Germanic people. Saint Nicholas was also the patron saint of sailors, so it was easy to replace Wodan with Saint Nicholas in the celebration.

The Jul Feast

The Jul Feast is a celebration that takes place from December 25th to January 6th. During this time, Wodan, the god of fertility and the elements, rides through the sky on his horse Slypnir with his companion Eckhard. He wears a cloak and is associated with gift-giving. This celebration is believed to be the inspiration for Sinterklaas.

Sinterklaas arrives on a flying horse, which has small wings on the lower legs, published between 1840-50.

Sylvester: a chimney sweep and a poisonous mushroom

Throughout central Europe, New Year’s Eve is known as Sylvester, after the Saint whose feast day falls on December 31. Two distinct images emerged from our conversations about German customs on Sylvester: a chimney sweep and a poisonous mushroom.

It is curious how many different cultural traditions and rituals seem to be connected to the Amanita muscaria mushroom.

The tradition of the chimney sweep in Germany, which is thought to bring good luck and is associated with the winter solstice and the new year, is just one more example of how this mushroom has played a role in various cultural practices.

Year 314

In Germany, New Year’s Eve is called “Silvester.” The name refers to a pope in the fourth century. Silvester I became bishop in Rome in 314 and died Dec. 31, 335. Later he was canonized, and since 354, the church celebrates the day of Dec. 31.

1:13 – Year 314. Most of the Netherlands, Germany, and the Nordic countries were not yet conquered by Christianity.

The chimney sweeper

The chimney sweeper frees the way to the top of soot and dirt and brings fresh wind. Also with the cleaning of the chimney, the chimney sweeper banned the danger of fires and, therefore, was seen as a lucky mascot.

The postcard shown here is inscribed in Hungarian “Boldog Ujevet” (which, according to reader Marcell Revisnyei, means “Happy New Year”). It was postally used on January 1st, 1938. It is typical of Central and Eastern European New Year’s postcards in which a chimney sweep — often a blond child — is shown frolicking in the snow, tossing out lucky talismans by the basketful.

Many traditions require some form of cleansing to greet the New Year. Although many of these rituals involve water in some way (see Laotion, Ukrainian, Greek) the Central European tradition invokes fire instead, or more specifically the cleansing of the chimney and hearth.

The appearance of the Chimney Sweep (in German, Schornsteinfeger) on the New Year is thought to bring good fortune, and this ordinarily lowly figure is met with reverence and good cheer.

Folk images of the Chimney Sweep often depict him spilling forth with tokens of good luck, including the familiar four-leafed clover and the more regional “red fly” mushroom.

The Chimney Sweep bearing gifts begs comparison to another seasonal fireplace visitor, Santa Claus (from the Dutch Sinterklaas, or “Klaus of the cinders”).

The distinctive red-and-white coloring of the “red fly” mushroom (amanita muscaria) carried by the Chimney Sweep, seems to further reinforce these connections.

The red fly mushroom is often described as poisonous, yet there is evidence that it had hallucinogenic properties that were valued both by pre-Christian shamans and early Christian gnostics.

The noted ethnobotanist R Gordon Wasson even suggested that amanita muscaria may have been referred to in ancient Indian Vedic texts as the mystic plant, Soma, a bringer of wisdom and power to those who consume it.

We interpreted German and Central European traditions of Sylvester by creating a giant Chimney Sweep puppet surrounded by a canopy of illuminated red fly mushrooms.

“A chimney sweep’s lucky as lucky can be…”

Clovers and the Amanita Muscaria mushroom

The imagery on this card above is unusual to American eyes because the slipshod young chimney sweep is not only sprinkling the ground with four-leaf clovers, he is equally generous in his distribution of toxic red and white Amanita muscaria mushrooms.

This is not as strange as it seems, however, the four-leaf clover is considered lucky throughout Europe and North America, the Amanita muscaria or “gluckpilz” (“lucky mushroom” in German) is deemed fortuitous in Central and Eastern Europe, where there are remnants of respect for its ancient use as a shamanic hallucinogen.

New Year’s was not celebrated in Germany until the l7th century, according to an old book I have on German folklore, so originally, this took place on Christmas or Saint Nicholas’ Day, but anyway, gifts were given on New Year’s Day to people who delivered bread or did household chores that were not performed by live-in servants. In exchange, these purveyors of services often handed out little cards with a blessing or good wishes.

“Meeting a chimney sweep — called a Schornsteinfeger or Schlotfeger — at New Year’s meant good luck for the year, especially if he would give you his card. However, by the time my sister and I were children, in the 1910s and 1920s, chimney sweeps were sufficiently rare that meeting one at any time of the year was considered lucky.”

Chimney sweeps can also be found in the form of silver bracelet charms, small figurines, wooden incense:”smokers,”

Good Luck Semi-Sweet Chocolate labels like the one shown here (which also depicts a lucky horseshoe), and even edible mid-winter gifts in which the chimney sweep’s body is made of dried prunes.

Other European postcards in my collection show chimney sweeps giving people money bags, riding in toboggans with lucky pigs, and strewing about prodigious amounts of four-leaf clovers and Amanita muscaria mushrooms.

I see in this sooty New year’s mushroom-bringer the folkloric remains of a shamanic Winter Solstice tradition now long lost to history.

Zwarte Piet

Traditionally, he would also carry a birch rod (Dutch: roe), a chimney sweep‘s broom made of willow branches,

Before going to bed, children each leave a single shoe next to the fireplace chimney of the coal-fired stove or fireplace (or in modern times close to the central heating radiator, or a door).

They leave the shoe with a carrot or some hay in it and a bowl of water nearby “for Sinterklaas’ horse”, and the children sing a Sinterklaas song. The next day they find some candy or a small present in their shoes.

Pre-Christian Europe

Jacob Grimm, Hélène Adeline Guerber and others have drawn parallels between Sinterklaas and his helpers and the Wild Hunt of Wodan or Odin, a major god among the Germanic peoples, who was worshipped in Northern and Western Europe prior to Christianization.

Riding the white horse Sleipnir he flew through the air as the leader of the Wild Hunt, always accompanied by two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn.[

Those helpers would listen, just like Zwarte Piet, at the chimney – which was just a hole in the roof at that time – to tell Wodan about the good and bad behaviour of the mortals. 

Historian Rita Ghesquiere asserts that it is likely that certain pre-christian elements survived in the honouring of Saint Nicholas.

Indeed, it seems clear that the tradition contains a number of elements that are not ecclesiastical in origin.

Middle Ages

The Sinterklaasfeest arose during the Middle Ages. The feast was both an occasion to help the poor, by putting money in their shoes (which evolved into putting presents in children’s shoes) and a wild feast, similar to Carnival, that often led to costumes, a “topsy-turvy” overturning of daily roles, and mass public drunkenness.

In early traditions, students elected one of their classmates as “bishop” on St. Nicholas Day, who would rule until 28 December (Innocents Day), and they sometimes acted out events from the bishop’s life. As the festival moved to city streets, it became more lively.

16th and 17th centuries

During the Reformation in 16th- and 17th-century Europe, Protestant reformers like Martin Luther changed the Saint gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl and moved the date for giving presents from 6 December to Christmas Eve. Certain Protestant municipalities and clerics forbade Saint Nicholas festivities, as the Protestants wanted to abolish the cult of saints and saint adoration, while keeping the midwinter gift-bringing feast alive.

After the successful revolt of the largely Protestant northern provinces of the Low Countries against the rule of Roman Catholic king Philip II of Spain, the new Calvinist regents, ministers and clericals prohibited celebration of Saint Nicholas.

The newly independent Dutch Republic officially became a Protestant country and abolished public Catholic celebrations. Nevertheless, the Saint Nicholas feast never completely disappeared in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, where the public Saint Nicholas festivities were very popular, main events like street markets and fairs were kept alive with persons impersonating Nicholas dressed in red clothes instead of a bishop’s tabard and mitre.

The Dutch government eventually tolerated private family celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day, as can be seen on Jan Steen’s painting The Feast of Saint Nicholas.

Sinterklaas is the basis for the North American figure of Santa Claus.

It is often claimed that during the American War of Independence, the inhabitants of New York City, a former Dutch colonial town (New Amsterdam), reinvented their Sinterklaas tradition, as Saint Nicholas was a symbol of the city’s non-English past. 

In the 1770s the New York Gazetteer noted that the feast day of “St. a Claus” was celebrated “by the descendants of the ancient Dutch families, with their usual festivities.”

In a study of the “children’s books, periodicals and journals” of New Amsterdam, the scholar Charles Jones did not find references to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas.

Not all scholars agree with Jones’ findings, which he reiterated in a book in 1978.[

Howard G. Hageman, of New Brunswick Theological Seminary, maintains that the tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas in New York existed in the early settlement of the Hudson Valley. He agrees that “there can be no question that by the time the revival of St. Nicholas came with Washington Irving, the traditional New Netherlands observance had completely disappeared.”

However, Irving’s stories prominently featured legends of the early Dutch settlers, so while the traditional practice may have died out, Irving’s St. Nicholas may have been a revival of that dormant Dutch strand of folklore. In his 1812 revisions to A History of New York, Irving inserted a dream sequence featuring St. Nicholas soaring over treetops in a flying wagon – a creation others would later dress up as Santa Claus.




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