Sinter Klaas

The feast of Sinterklaas celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, and it is celebrated annually with the giving of gifts on St. Nicholas’ Eve the night before in the Netherlands. (And on the morning of Saint Nicholas Day in Belgium.) Will you be putting any candy in a child’s shoe tonight?

Sinterklaas arriving in Groningen, Netherlands

Is Saint Nicholas the early Santa Clauss? Yes and no. Sinter Klaas certainly sounds like a name you could Anglicise as Santa Claus.

I have written before about these legends of Sinterklaas, and Saint Nick or Nicholas, and the mythical Santa Claus, and about Christmas itself in Decembers past. I’ve probably written too much about it.

I grew up with Christmas as a religious holiday and also as the ridiculous secular holiday that starts in November and continues until the new year, I have grown tired of almost all of it. But when I had my children, I fell back into the holiday hole.

I think if I had small children now I would not make Santa Claus anything but a storybook character. For Saint Nicholas, I would emphasize what the legendary figure is thought to have done and try to stay with that spirit of giving in all its forms. I would downplay the onslaught of toys and gifts for oneself and put more emphasis on giving to others. I have made December 6 one of the days that I sit down and make some donations to charities I support.

Santa places his gifts around the Christmas tree and fills stockings hanging above the fireplace. Sinterklaas places the gifts in front of the fireplace, and, instead of stockings, he fills shoes that children placed before the fireplace the night before. In the shoes is only candy. My mother, who was raised in an Austrian household, also did that with us in our early days.

So, Sinterklaas comes first in places like the Netherlands and then comes Christmas Eve and Day. The Dutch separate Sinterklaas and gifts from Christmas which is meant to be more religious and is celebrated just on the Eve and day.

It is understandable why the two holidays merged in some ways over the centuries. After all, the saint was a religious figure and holiday. Sinterklaas is based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas (270–343). He was not from Holland. He was a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. He is depicted as an elderly, stately, 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 a sometimes-red stole, wears a red mitre on his head, and a ruby ring (lots of red), and holds a gold-colored crosier, which is a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top.

No reindeer. He traditionally rides a white horse.

Sinterklaas carries a big, red book in which he records whether each child has been good or naughty in the past year. That is one of the elements that stretches a child’s credulity at some point. With Santa, credulity is stretched very far: flying reindeer and sleigh, toys for every child in the world, and the ability to get to every house and get down some chimneys all in one night?

I’m no expert on Sinter Klaas but from what I read there are some Santa-like games with St. Nick too. On the evening of 5 December, parents, family, friends or acquaintances pretend to act on behalf of “Sinterklaas” and try to fool the children into thinking that “Sinterklaas” has really given them presents. The fireplace or living room is decorated with them in a similar way that Christmas Day appears in English-speaking countries. But on 6 December, “Sinterklaas” departs without any ado, and all festivities are over.

Oh, if that was only true in America.

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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