A holiday for children
In this delightful scene, Jan Steen beautifully captures the joys of a family gathering together in their home to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas, still one of the most important holidays on the Dutch calendar. The holiday falls on December 6th and is especially devoted to children. In the Netherlands, on the night before the feast, St. Nicholas travels on horseback over rooftops accompanied by his helper, Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”), whose name comes from his being covered in soot from the chimneys used to access Dutch homes. Children place their shoes on the hearth and hope to find them the next morning filled with presents and other delectable treats. Families sing songs in honor of the saint and share an abundance of candies, specially baked breads, and sweet biscuits. It is a day full of fun and surprises and even a bit of mischief.
A master visual storyteller, Steen incorporates many of these traditions in his painting while also expertly representing the actions and expressions of the children in this middle class family as they react to the morning’s events.
The boy laughs and points to a shoe held by a young maidservant. The shoe contains birch switches that were used to punish naughty children. Clearly, a tearful boy, to the maidservant’s right, received the shoe as a not-so-desirable gift for his poor behavior.
His grandmother, however, beckons him toward the bed in the back of the room, where it appears that she has discovered a better gift hidden behind the bed curtains. On the right side of the scene, three additional children gaze with wide-eyed amazement toward the chimney through which their presents were delivered. An older brother holds up a toddler for a better view. The toddler hugs a gingerbread version of St. Nicholas, a reminder of who is being honored on this joyous occasion.
In the foreground of this domestic interior, Steen tempts us with an assortment of treats piled high in a woven basket and strewn across the seat of an ornately carved chair. Here we see apples, nuts, sugared candies, waffles and other baked delights of various shapes and sizes. Particularly impressive is the large, richly decorated diamond-shaped loaf that leans against the chair. This sweet white bread, called a duivekater, was traditionally enjoyed at the Feast of St. Nicholas, as well as at Christmas, and on the Dutch New Year.
The Christian Saint Nicholas, or as the Dutch call him, Sinterklaas, was a 4th century Bishop of Myra (a town located in modern day Turkey) who was known for his generosity and kindness especially to children. He died on December 6th in 343 C.E., and it is this day that is commemorated. Although traditionally a Catholic holiday, the Feast of St. Nicholas survived in the Protestant Netherlands, although in a secularized form to be celebrated by all.
Nevertheless, Sinterklaas continues to be shown wearing his customary bishop’s garb: a tall, pointed red mitre (hat) and long red robes. In the 18th century, when Dutch immigrants brought their traditions to America, the well-loved Saint Nicholas eventually developed into the figure known today as Santa Claus.
A comic genius
This charming scene of family is a fine example of the type of painting that Jan Steen is best known for. In addition to holiday gatherings such as this, his other works include representations of school life, rowdy taverns, love-sick women, and dissolute households. Steen fills his scenes of everyday life with engaging details, presenting them in a direct and amusing way. While he finds some inspiration in the theater, Steen relies as well on his keen wit and narrative ability to capture, and in some cases, even ridicule human nature in a good humored and entertaining manner. An especially versatile artist, Steen was also a talented painter of biblical and mythological subjects as well as portraits. With some 300 paintings to his credit, Steen leaves a legacy as a comic genius and one of the most prolific Dutch painters of the seventeenth century.