St Nicholas – or Sinterklaas as the Dutch call him – would arrive at households on 5 December, the eve of St Nicholas’s Day, and test children on their knowledge of scripture. Prior to his visit, children would try to memorise the Bible for hours in their desperation to pass the tests he would set them. And for good reason – passing the test might mean being rewarded with sweets and treats but failure could cost them their soul. Nowadays a visit to Santa Claus is a wonderful and magical experience where they meet a jolly, warm, friendly character who sits children on his knee, jovially asks if they have been naughty or nice and merrily gives them a Christmas present, chuckling all the time. In contrast, the Sinterklaas of the Dutch Middle Ages was a severe, threatening religious autocrat who preached fire and brimstone, judged children’s moral characters and threatened to damn them all to a lifetime in Hell. If children looked forward to his visits at all – and I’m not at all convinced that they did – their anticipation was mixed with a sense of fear and trepidation. This was a dress rehearsal for the day of judgement.
Sinterklaas would glare at the nervous children and, unsmiling, demand answers to questions on the Bible. If children knew the answers they would be handed sweets and warned to ensure they remained good for the following year. If children got a few questions wrong they would be soundly beaten. But if they had failed to learn anything at all they would be dragged off to Hell.
To understand the terror this instilled in children, it is important to remember that this was a time when Hell and eternal damnation were seen as very real threats for anyone who was not sufficiently pious and the role of a bishop or priest involved ensuring their flock was so terrified of the possibility of an afterlife of eternal torment that they would obey the Church without question. The visit of St Nicholas was an early test of a child’s devotion to the Lord and every child was terrified of failing his tests. Without his favour and protection, there was nothing to stop the devil taking them away. Children really, really did need to be good for goodness’ sake.
 Child safeguarding issues permitted.