Sinterklaas (or more formally Sint Nicolaas or Sint Nikolaas; Saint Nicolas in French; Sankt Nikolaus in German) is a traditional Winter holiday figure still celebrated today in the Low Countries, including the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as French Flanders (Lille), Artois (Arras) and as “Sunderklaas” on the Frisian Islands, even those not belonging to the Netherlands. He is also well known in territories of the former Dutch Empire, including South Africa, Aruba, Suriname, Curaçao, Bonaire, and Indonesia. He is one of the sources of the holiday figure of Santa Claus in North America.
Although he is usually referred to as Sinterklaas, he is also known as De Goedheiligman (The Good Holy Man), Sint Nicolaas or simply as De Sint.
He is celebrated annually on Saint Nicholas’ eve (5 December) or on the morning of 6 December in Belgium and Northern France. Originally, the feast celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas — patron saint of children, sailors, and the city of Amsterdam, among others. Sint Nicholas being a bishop and this geographical spread make clear that the feast in this form has a Roman-Catholic background.
Closely related figures are also known in German-speaking Europe and territories historically influenced by German or Germanic culture, including: Switzerland (Samichlaus), Germany and Austria (Sankt Nikolaus); the region of South Tyrol in Italy; Nord-Pas de Calais, Alsace and Lorraine in France – as well as in Luxembourg (De Kleeschen), parts of Central Europe and the Balkans.
Parallels have been drawn between the legend of Sinterklaas and the figure of Odin, a major god amongst the Germanic peoples and worshipped in North and Western Europe prior to Christianization. Since some elements of the Sinterklaas celebration are unrelated to Christianity, there are theories regarding the pagan origins of various customs of the holiday stemming from areas where the Germanic peoples were Christianized and retained elements of their indigenous traditions, surviving in various forms into modern depictions of Sinterklaas. Non-Christian elements in Sinterklaas that arguably could have been of pagan origin:
▪Sinterklaas rides the roof tops with his white horse (‘Amerigo’ or in Flanders ‘Slecht Weer Vandaag’); Odin rides the sky with his gray horse Sleipnir.
▪Sinterklaas carries a staff and has mischievous helpers with black faces; Odin has a spear and black ravens as his attributes.
Originally, the Sinterklaas feast celebrates the name day, 6 December, of the Saint Nicholas (280–342), patron saint of children. Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. In 1087, his relics were furtively translated to Bari, in southeastern Italy; for this reason, he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari. Bari later formed part of the Spanish Kingdom of Naples, because it was previously conquered in 1442 by Alfonso V of Aragon. The city thus became part of the Kingdom of Aragon and later to Spain, until the eighteenth century. Due to the fact that the remains of St. Nicholas were in Bari (then a Spanish city), is this tradition that St. Nicholas comes from Spain. His helpers are black, because at the time Spain was part of the Moors’ empire. St. Nicholas is well known in Spain as the patron of sailors. That’s why St. Nicholas comes to the Netherlands in a steamboat. St. Nicholas fame spread throughout Europe. The Western Catholic Church made his name day a Church holiday. In the north of France, he became the patron saint of school children, then mostly in church schools. The folk feast arose during the Middle Ages. In early traditions, students elected one of them as “bishop” on St. Nicholas Day, who would rule until December 28 (Innocents Day). They sometimes acted out events from the bishop’s life. As the festival moved to city streets, it became more lively.
Sinterklaas is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dresses. These helpers are called ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (Black Petes). During the Middle-ages Zwarte Piet was a name for evil. Although the character of Black Pete later came to acquire racial connotations, his origins were in the evil figure. Good and bad play an important role in the feast: good is rewarded, bad and evil is punished. Hence the duplication of the one Saint in a saint and a (frolicking) devil.
The feast was both an occasion to help the poor, by putting money in their shoes (which evolved into putting presents in children’s shoes) and a wild feast, similar to Carnival, that often led to costumes, a “topsy-turvy” overturning of daily roles, and mass public drunkenness.
16th and 17th Century
After the rebellion of the 17 Dutch provinces against the Spanish Empire, Calvinist regents and ministers prohibited celebration of the Saint. The Republic of the United Provinces became an official Protestant country following the Reformation, and its governments abolished public celebrations. The South, however, remained a Catholic colony. People there and students in Amsterdam, also Catholic, protested. The governments were forced to allow celebration within the family.
In the nineteenth century the saint emerged from hiding and became more secularized at the same time. The modern tradition of Sinterklaas as a children’s feast was likely confirmed with the illustrated children’s book Sint Nicolaas en zijn knecht (Saint Nicholas and His Servant), written in 1850 by the teacher Jan Schenkman (1806–1863). Some say he introduced the images of Sinterklaas’ delivering presents by the chimney, riding over the roofs of houses on a gray horse, and arriving from Spain by steamboat, then an exciting modern invention. Although others claim that some of these elements (like putting the shoe and the gray horse that is capable of riding roof tops) stem from much earlier times, dating even back to pre-Christian Europe. It is a fact however, that Sint Nicholas is patron saint of the sailors, that’s why many churches dedicated to him are built near harbours. So Schenkman could have been inspired by original customs and ideas about the saint, when he let him arrive via the water in his book. Schenkman introduced the song “Zie ginds komt de stoomboot” (“Look over yonder, the steamboat arrives”), which is still popular in the nation.
In Schenkman’s version, the medieval figures of the mock devil, which later changed to Oriental or Moorish helpers, was portrayed for the first time as black African and called Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). He is a negro boy who accompanies Sinterklaas and helps him on his rounds (possibly derived from the Dutch colonial experience, or the Moorish occupation of Spain, the main Catholic nation.) Traditionally Sinterklaas only had one helper, whose name varied wildly. “Piet(er)” the name in use now can be traced back to a book from 1891.
World War II
In the lean times of the German occupation of the Netherlands (1940–1945), Sinterklaas nonetheless came to cheer everyone, not just children. Many of the traditional Sinterklaas rhymes written during those times referred to current events. The Royal Air Force (RAF) was often celebrated. In 1941, for instance, the RAF dropped boxes of candy over the occupied Netherlands.
Late 20th and 21st Century
The arrival of Sinterklaas into town became a huge event and is broadcast on national television. Numerous people dress as Zwarte Pieten in various cities and towns across the Netherlands. Their faces were blackened to indicate that Zwarte Piet was an imported African servant of Sinterklaas (though some people said Zwarte Piet was a slave who, when Sinterklaas bought him his freedom, was so grateful that he stayed to assist him). Today however, the more politically correct explanation that Pete’s face is “black from soot” (as Pete has to climb through chimneys to deliver his gifts) is used.
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas’ Eve, 5 December, became the chief occasion for gift-giving during the Christmas season. The evening is called Sinterklaasavond or Pakjesavond (boxing evening). For Belgian and some Dutch children, it is customary to put one shoe in front of the fireplace from the day Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands, usually in the third week of November, sing Sinterklaas songs and go to bed. A carrot and/or hay may put in the shoe as a treat for Sinterklaas’ horse. The next morning the carrot would be gone and the children may find candy or a small present in their shoes.
On 6 December, the living room is decked out in presents, much as on Christmas Day in English-speaking countries. In the Netherlands, most children receive their presents on the morning while adults celebrate in the evening. During the evening, Zwarte Piet will leave a sack with presents. Some parents with older children will knock on the door and leave a sack outside for the children to retrieve; this varies per family. On 6 December, Sinterklaas departs without any ado. The festivities are over.
In Belgium, most children have to wait until the morning of 6 December to receive their gifts, and Sinterklaas is seen as a holiday almost exclusively for children. Presents for adults are usually kept for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
Appearance: Sinterklaas is an elderly, stately and serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape or chasuble over a traditional white bishop’s alb and sometimes red stola, dons a red mitre, and holds a gold-coloured crosier, a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top. He carries a big book that tells whether each individual child has been good or naughty in the past year. He traditionally rides a white gray.
A Zwarte Piet (Black Pete, plural Zwarte Pieten) is a servant of Sinterklaas, usually an adolescent in blackface with black curly hair, dressed up like a 17-th century page in a colourful dress, often with a lace collar, and donning a feathered cap.
Sinterklaas and his Black Pete usually carry a bag which contains candy for nice children and a roe, a chimney sweep’s broom made of willow branches, used to spank naughty children. Some of the older Sinterklaas songs make mention of naughty children being put in the bag and being taken back to Spain. The Zwarte Pieten toss candy around, a tradition supposedly originating in Sint Nicolaas’ story of saving three young girls from prostitution by tossing golden coins through their window at night to pay their father’s debts.
There are various explanations of the origins of the helpers. The oldest explanation is that the helpers symbolize the two ravens Hugin and Munin who informed Odin on what was going on. In later stories the helper depicts the defeated devil. The devil is defeated by either Odin or his helper Nörwi, the black father of the night. Nörwi is usually depicted with the same staff of birch (Dutch: “roe”) as Zwarte Piet.
Another, more modern story is that Saint Nicolas liberated an Ethiopian slave boy called ‘Piter’ (from Saint Peter) from a Myra market, and the boy was so grateful he decided to stay with Saint Nicolas as a helper. With the influx of immigrants to the Netherlands starting in the late 1950s, this story is felt by some to be racist. Today, Zwarte Pieten have become modern servants, who have black faces because they climb down sooty chimneys. They hold chimney cleaning tools (cloth bag and staff of birch).
The Zwarte Pieten have roughly the same relationship to the Dutch Saint Nicolas that the elves have to America’s Santa Claus. According to tradition, the saint has a Piet for every function: there are navigation Pieten (“wegwijspiet”) to navigate the steamboat from Spain to the Netherlands, and acrobatic Pieten to climb roofs and stuff presents down the chimney, or to climb down the chimneys themselves. Over the years many stories have been added. In many cases the Pieten are quite bad at their job, for instance the navigation Piet might point in the wrong direction. This provides some comedy in the annual parade of Saint Nicolas coming to the Netherlands, and can also be used to laud the progress of children at school by having the Piet give the wrong answer to, for example, a simple question like “what is 2+2?”, so that the child can give the right answer.
Arrival and origin:
Sinterklaas traditionally arrives in the Netherlands each year in mid-November (usually on a Saturday) by steamboat from Spain. Some suggest that gifts associated with the holy man, the mandarin oranges, led to the misconception that he must have been from Spain. This theory is backed by a Dutch poem documented in 1810 in New York and provided with an English translation:
Trek uwe beste tabberd an,
Reis daar mee naar Amsterdam,
Van Amsterdam naar Spanje,
Daar Appelen van Oranje,
Daar Appelen van granaten,
Die rollen door de straten.
Saint Nicholas, good holy man!
Put on the Tabard, best you can,
Go, therewith, to Amsterdam,
From Amsterdam to Spain,
Where apples bright of Orange,
And likewise those granate surnam’d,
Roll through the streets, all free unclaim’d […]
The text presented here comes from a pamphlet that John Pintard released in New York in 1810. It is the earliest source mentioning Spain in connection to Sinterklaas. Pintard wanted St. Nicholas to become patron saint of New York and hoped to establish a Sinterklaas tradition. Apparently he got help from the Dutch community in New York, who provided him with the original Dutch Sinterklaas poem. Strictly speaking, the poem does not state that Sinterklaas comes from Spain, but that he needs to go to Spain to pick up the oranges and pomegranates. So the link between Sinterklaas and Spain goes through the oranges, a much appreciated treat in the 19th century. Later the connection with the oranges got lost, and Spain became his home.
At his arrival Sinterklaas parades through the streets on his gray horse Amerigo, welcomed by cheering and singing children. This event is broadcast live on national television in the Netherlands and Belgium. His Zwarte Piet assistants throw candy and small, round, gingerbread-like cookies, either “kruidnoten” or “pepernoten,” into the crowd. The children welcome him by singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. Sinterklaas visits schools, hospitals and shopping centers. After this arrival, all towns with a dock usually celebrate their own “intocht van Sinterklaas” (arrival of Sinterklaas). Local arrivals usually take place later on the same Saturday of the national arrival, the next Sunday (the day after he arrives in the Netherlands or Belgium), or one weekend after the national arrival. In places a boat cannot reach, Sinterklaas arrives by train, horse, or even carriage or fire truck.
Presents Traditionally, in the weeks between his arrival and 5 December, before going to bed, children put their shoes next to the fireplace chimney of the coal-fired stove or fireplace. In modern times, they may put them next to the central heating unit. They leave the shoe with a carrot or some hay in it and a bowl of water nearby “for Sinterklaas’ horse”, and the children sing a Sinterklaas song. The next day they will find some candy or a small present in their shoes.
Typical Sinterklaas treats traditionally include: hot chocolate, mandarin oranges, pepernoten, letter-shaped pastry filled with almond paste or chocolate letter (the first letter of the child’s name made out of chocolate), speculaas (sometimes filled with almond paste), chocolate coins and marzipan figures. Newer treats include kruidnoten (a type of shortcrust biscuit or gingerbread biscuits) and a figurine of Sinterklaas made of chocolate and wrapped in colored aluminum foil.
Poems can still accompany bigger gifts as well. Instead of such gifts being brought by Sinterklaas, family members may draw names for an event comparable to Secret Santa. Gifts are to be creatively disguised (for which the Dutch use the French word “surprise”), and are usually accompanied by a humorous poem which often teases the recipient for well-known bad habits or other character deficiencies.
Sinterklaas, Santa Claus, and Christmas Sinterklaas is the basis for the North American figure of Santa Claus. It is often claimed that during the American War of Independence the inhabitants of New York City, a former Dutch colonial town (New Amsterdam) reinvented their Sinterklaas tradition, as Saint Nicholas was a symbol of the city’s non-English past.The name Santa Claus supposedly derived from older Dutch Sinter Klaas. However, the Saint Nicholas Society was not founded until 1835, almost half a century after the end of the war.In a study of the “children’s books, periodicals and journals” of New Amsterdam, the scholar Charles Jones did not find references to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas.Not all scholars agree with Jones’s findings, which he reiterated in a book in 1978. Howard G. Hageman, of New Brunswick Theological Seminary, maintains that the tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas in New York existed in the early settlement of the Hudson Valley. He agrees that “there can be no question that by the time the revival of St. Nicholas came with Washington Irving, the traditional New Netherlands observance had completely disappeared.”However, Irving’s stories prominently featured legends of the early Dutch settlers, so while the traditional practice may have died out, Irving’s St. Nicholas may have been a revival of that dormant Dutch strand of folklore. In his 1812 revisions to A History of New York, Irving inserted a dream sequence featuring St. Nicholas soaring over treetops in a flying wagon — a creation others would later dress up as Santa Claus.
But was Irving the first to revive the Dutch folklore of Sinterklaas? In New York, two years earlier John Pintard published a pamphlet with illustrations of Alexander Anderson in which he calls for to make Saint Nicholas patron Saint of New York and to start a Sinterklaas tradition. He was apparently assisted by the Dutch, because in his pamphlet he included an old Dutch Sinterklaas poem with English translation. In the Dutch poem, Saint Nicholas is referred to as ‘Sancta Claus’. Ultimately, his initiative helped Sinterklaas to pop up as Santa Claus in the Christmas celebration, which returned – freed of episcopal dignity – via England and later Germany to Europe again.
The Saint Nicholas Society of New York celebrates a feast on 6 December to this day. The town of Rhinebeck in Dutchess County, New York, which was founded by Dutch and German immigrants, has an annual Sinterklaas celebration. It includes Sinterklaas’ crossing the Hudson River and a parade up to the center of town.