Each variation offers a slightly different take on the legendary figure, but the Dutch Sinterklaas is recognised as the biggest influence on the modern-day commercialised character who is popular in English speaking countries. To say they are the same person won’t go down well with the Dutch, but more about that later.
Sinterklaas himself is based on a real person, Saint Nicolas, who lived between 271 and 343. The patron saint of of children, sailors, and pawnbrokers, among others, “Saint Nick” lived in what is now Turkey and became known for his secret gift-giving. In the Netherlands, the day of his death is celebrated with the Feast of Sinterklaas on 6th December. The evening before is when gifts are exchanged, and this ritual is observed by Christians and non-Christians alike.
According to children’s songs and stories, Sinterklaas is said to live in Spain, although nobody is quite sure why. Just like Santa Claus, he spends his year deciding which children are deserving of presents based on their behaviour. His helpers, Zwarte Pieten, spend their time gathering gifts to give to children deemed have been good through the year. The well-behaved kids will receive their presents on the eve of the feast, 5th December.
Before then, in the first week of November, Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten travel by ship from Spain to the Netherlands with their haul of presents. On the “intocht van Sinterklaas” arrival in the middle of November, they parade around town, an event that is observed by many in locations around the country. It’s even broadcast live on Dutch television. On the “pakjesavond” (gift evening) or “T Heerlijk avondje” (the lovely night’) when the toys are distributed, Sinterklaas rides across rooftops checking on children’s behaviour while the Zwarte Pieten head down the chimneys to pick up carrots or hay left by the children for Sinterklaas’ horse.
If all is well, a knock at the door (usually from a helpful neighbour) will notify the family that presents are waiting for them outside. Of course, Sinterklaas and his helpers are very busy, so there’s no sign of them on the doorstep. They’ve already headed off to continue the good work and leave presents for other deserving children. The lead-up to this evening is much like the days before December 25th elsewhere, with everyone running around trying to buy finish their shopping on time.
For adults who no longer believe in Sinterklaas, the gifting process is sensibly accompanied by a “secret Santa” style draw, where you’ll need to buy a gift for just one other person in the group. It’s usual to make something by hand and include a poem called a “sinterklaasgedicht”. It’s written in jest and often pokes fun at the recipient.
Zwarte Pieten, or Black Peters, are a particularly controversial aspect of this tradition. The Sinterklaas equivalent of Santa’s elves are often portrayed as white with soot on their faces from their trip down the chimney. Some believe the Black Peters are instead depicting slaves, and this topic is often debated in the Netherlands. Despite the obvious potential for offence, many Dutch people will passionately defend the use of the infamous characters.
The Dutch are also incredibly protective of their long-established image of Sinterklaas. They won’t take kindly to the suggestion that Santa Claus is one and the same. For starters, they live thousands of miles away from each other.
Spain might be a good getaway destination for Santa if he needs a break from the icy North Pole. Sinterklaas is known to look after himself better, too, and is far less rotund than Mr. Claus. There are numerous other differences, including mode of transport (sleigh or ship), 12 reindeer versus one horse, and of course the day on which presents are exchanged.
All of which has me wondering if either version actually exists. I couldn’t possibly have been lied to all these years, could I?
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