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.

A Saint and Santa

I’m sorry Virginia, but there is no Santa Claus. There’s no one who can ride a sleigh pulled by reindeer and deliver gifts to children all around the world. What is true is that millions of children will get no gifts or merriment come December 25th.

All the “Santa’s Helpers” that you see dressed like him are just men with beards, real and fake, and big bellies, real or fake, and their Ho, ho, ho’s and promises are also perhaps real, perhaps fake.

But not to be a total holiday humbug and Scrooge, some of them collecting for charities or doing food and toy drives for those in need do have some of the spirit of what the origin story for Santa was about.

Here Saint Nicholas looks a bit more legendary and a bit less religious.

The story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey.

Santa Claus has nothing to do with Christianity but it is based, at least in part, on a real man who became St. Nicholas of Myra. He was born to wealthy parents who died young, and Nicholas gave his inheritance to the poor and needy.

If there is something to take from the blending of Nicholas the saint and the legend that came from him, it is that charity done anonymously and caring for and aiding children is a worthwhile thing to always do and perhaps more so at the year’s end.

One of the legends of Nicholas is about a father who had three daughters and not enough money to provide dowries for them. It is said that Nicholas walked by the house and threw a bag of gold through the window (in some versions it was down the chimney) on three consecutive nights.


Religion joins legend (as it often did in Christianity) when Nicholas’ reputation as an early Christian saint and his legendary habit of secret gift-giving and caring for children became the traditional model of Santa Claus (“Saint Nick”) through Sinterklaas, the Dutch traditions regarding Saint Nicholas.

When the Dutch established the colony of New Amsterdam, (later to become Manhattan and New York City) they brought the legend and traditions of Sinterklaas with them. St. Nicholas Park, located at the intersection of St. Nicholas Avenue and 127th Street, was originally settled by Dutch farmers. The park is named for St. Nicholas of Myra.

Saint Nick and legend fell out of favor over time but the Dutch tradition figured into Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker History in 1809. That book has 25 references to St. Nicholas and Santa Claus. The immense popularity of Irving’s book served to reintroduce St. Nicholas to the American public.

Nast’s Santa

The tradition of him wearing red began in the 1870s with the American cartoonist Thomas Nast, who introduced the red suit and cap, white fur lining, and the buckled black belt.

In 1931, the Coca-Cola company commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa for their Christmas advertisements, and who was once Saint Nick goes fully commercial. Those illustrations established Santa as a jolly, plump, character with rosy cheeks, a white beard, twinkling eyes, and laughter lines. Sundblom drew inspiration from the 1822 poem by Clement Clark Moore called “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (AKA “Twas the Night Before Christmas”).

And Santa had become fully commercialized.

Coca-Cola ad