Throughout much of mainland Europe, December 5 is celebrated as ‘St. Nicholas’ Eve’.
A celebration which is delayed by nineteen days before it is marked in the United Kingdom on what we term ‘Christmas Eve,’ for St. Nicholas is, of course, better known nowadays in this country as ‘Santa Claus.’ In the Netherlands, our near neighbours, the traditions of St. Nicholas’ Eve bear a very marked resemblance to our customs on Christmas Eve, the children placing their shoes beside the fireplace and retiring reluctantly to bed, ever hopeful that their good behaviour will be rewarded with gifts from the saint. These gifts are, traditionally, sweets, marbles or small toys … gifts that Sinterklaas can fit into their shoes. Traditionally, too, the children leave gifts for their benefactor’s horse … Sinterklaas does his rounds with the aid of horses rather than reindeer … bread, or a little hay, or a carrot.
Sinterklaas’ always takes these gifts for his steed, and a lucky beast it is, too, especially with the carrot, for carrots are extremely beneficial to people and, presumably, confer the same benefits on other members of the animal kingdom. I well remember being exhorted by my mother to ‘eat your carrots; they’re very god for you’ … and how right she was! Carrots are an excellent source of vitamin A, providing more than one-fifth of the average adult’s needs for the day. They also provide around one-twentieth part of the vitamin C we should have on a daily basis as well as small amounts of the calcium and iron which our bodies require. As an added bonus, carrots also contain small amounts of vitamins E and K and the trace elements potassium, manganese, phosphorous, magnesium and zinc.
So what is it about these vitamins and trace elements that make them beneficial, for it is hard to think that a foodstuff containing iron, manganese, magnesium and zinc can be at the same time tasty and beneficial! Well, the vitamin C and the zinc help build up our immune systems and help keep us healthy; they help cuts and scratches to heal; and they reduce the risk of age-related eye problems, although it is the vitamin A that really does help one to see better in low-light conditions. Vitamin A can also help prevent cancer, build up immunity in children and prevent signs of ageing such as wrinkles. Vitamin E also helps to develop strong immunity and healthy skin and eyes, while vitamin K has several important functions, being needed for the blood clotting which helps wounds heal properly. It also helps build strong bones.
We all need what are called trace elements, too. Calcium is essential for developing and maintaining healthy bones and teeth; we need iron for red blood cell formation and function; magnesium helps nerves and muscles to function; phosphorous works with calcium to develop and maintain strong bones and teeth; and potassium regulates heartbeat and maintains fluid balance in our bodies.
Carrots, which were, of course, originally wild plants, are known to have been cultivated in what we call Afghanistan three thousand years ago. These carrots were mainly purple or yellow; and their cultivation spread to the Mediterranean region, to Egypt, to Greece and to Roman Italy. They were grown for their leaves and seeds which were used medicinally. The orange carrot which we know and eat as a root vegetable was developed and stabilized by Dutch growers as recently as the 16th and 17th centuries. And this reference to Holland brings us back to where we started, with children in the Netherlands offering carrots to Sinterklaas’ horse. However, I doubt whether they really enable it to see in the pitch dark!