more in certain regions), developed a new confessional consciousness during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Within this context, popular religion became a central element in a dialectical interaction between the churches. The Reformed Church maintained its firm rejection of all forms of 'papal superstition', including under that term both the universal (liturgical and dogmatic) and the local (popular) aspects of Catholicism. However, the apparent Catholic leniency towards popular religious practices attracted many people. This in turn obliged the Calvinists repeatedly to strengthen their negative position against such practices, and even to broaden their attacks to include cultural activities that were not strictly religious. Thus certain aspects of public festivals, Carnival, and burial practices became relegated to the sphere of 'papal superstition'.
A well-known case is the festival of St Nicholas' Eve. Saint Nicholas was originally the patron saint of the Old Church of Amsterdam, and hence of the town itself. Traditionally, a fair was held on that day on the central place, the Dam, in front of the town hall. Children's sweetmeats were sold, and these played a role in the reward and punishment rituals followed by parents in the home. The painter Jan Steen (1626-79), a Catholic from Leiden, represented a family gathering and its rituals on St Nicholas' Eve in a well-known picture, just as he painted other family festivals, like Epiphany, or the religious family rituals of everyday life. For the Reformed consistories, St Nicholas' Eve was nothing more than a papal superstition, a relic of the old popular religion that had to be abolished without reserve. Yet, for the general public the meanings of the festival remained strong, both as a symbol of the town's identity and as the occasion for the most important family and children's festival in the country. Soon the cult of Saint Nicholas had evolved in two different directions: towards a secular festival, on the one hand, and towards a Catholic reinterpretation of Saint Nicholas as a saint in the devotional repertoire of the general Catholic calendar, on the other. The secular family celebration of St Nicholas' Eve continued without interruption through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when educationalists, including liberal Protestant ministers, discovered the pedagogical possibilities of the reward and punishment ritual, and renewed their interest in the moral dimensions of the festival.
Indeed, in the early modern Dutch Republic, the Catholic community subjected all of the practices and beliefs of traditional religious culture to reinterpretation. This, in turn, had two possible outcomes: either the practices and beliefs were embraced as true elements of the Catholic faith (and put forward as such in apologetic disputations with Protestant ministers); or they were rejected as full-fledged 'superstitions', incompatible with
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