Sinterklaas is a mythical figure with legendary, historical and folkloric origins based on Saint Nicholas and is the primary source of the popular Christmas icon of Santa Claus. 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 miter and ruby ring, and holds a gold-colored crosier, a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top, and traditionally he rides a white horse. Zwarte Piet is a companion of Sinterklaas, usually portrayed by a man in blackface with black curly hair, dressed up like a 17th-century page in colorful attire, often sporting a lace collar and a feathered cap.
Parallels have been drawn between the legend of Sinterklaas and the figure of Odin, who as King of the Norse Aesir was a major god among the Germanic peoples, and was worshipped throughout Northern 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 include the fact that Sinterklaas rides the rooftops on his white horse (Odin rides the sky with his grey horse Sleipnir); Sinterklaas gives chocolate letters to children (like Odin gave the rune letters to mankind); Sinterklaas carries a staff and has mischievous helpers with black faces, who listen to chimneys to find out whether children are bad or good and report to Sinterklaas (Odin has a spear and his black ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who report what happens in the world to Odin).
The Sinterklaasfeest arose during the Middle Ages. The folk feast celebrates the name day, 6 December, of Saint Nicholas (AD 270–343), patron saint of children. Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. In 1087, half of his relics were furtively transported 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 of Spain, until the 18th century. Because half the remains of St. Nicholas were in Bari (then a Spanish city), in this tradition St. Nicholas comes from Spain and has a black helper depicted as a Morisco page boy known as Zwarte Piet. Because of the help he gave to sailors in his home town, Saint Nicolas was venerated as the patron saint of sailors, which is why he comes to the Netherlands on a steamboat.
His anonymous gifts and kindness towards children had already secured him the patronage of children, by the elders of Lycia, his home province. Sinterklaas’ fame spread throughout Europe. The Roman 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. In the Reformation in 16th-17th-century Europe, many Protestants and others changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl, and the date for giving gifts changed from 6 December to Christmas Eve.
Sinterklaas is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colorful Moorish dresses. These helpers are called Zwarte Pieten (Black Pete(r)s). 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 are 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. In early traditions, students elected one of their classmates as “bishop” on St. Nicholas Day, who would rule until 28 December (Innocents Day), and they sometimes acted out events from the bishop’s life. As the festival moved to city streets, it became more lively.
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. In the 1770s the New York Gazetteer noted that the feast day of “St. a Claus” was celebrated “by the descendants of the ancient Dutch families, with their usual festivities.” 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 making Saint Nicholas the patron Saint of New York and starting a Sinterklaas tradition. He was apparently assisted by the Dutch because in his pamphlet he included an old Dutch Sinterklaas poem with an 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 and ties – 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 then a parade to the center of town.
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas’ Eve, 5 December, became the chief occasion for gift-giving during the winter holiday season. The evening is called Sinterklaasavond or Pakjesavond (“gifts evening”, or literally “packages evening”). On the evening of 5 December, the main presents will somehow arrive, or a note will be “found” that explains where in the house the presents were hidden by Zwarte Piet who left a burlap sack with them. Sometimes a neighbor will knock on the door (pretending to be a Zwarte Piet) and leave the sack outside for the children to retrieve; this varies per family.
When the presents arrive, the living room is decked out with them, much as on Christmas Day in English-speaking countries. On 6 December, Sinterklaas departs without any ado, and all festivities are over. In the Southern Netherlands and Belgium, most children have to wait until the morning of 6 December to receive their gifts, and Sinterklaas is seen as a festivity almost exclusively for children.
The shoes are filled with carrots and sugar cubes on the evening of the fifth and often, a bottle of beer for Zwarte Piet and a cup of coffee for Sinterklaas are placed next to them. Sinterklaas largely replaces Christmas as a gift-giving occasion, usually for as long as the children are living at home. Also, when it is time for children to give up their pacifier, they place it into his or her shoe (“safekeeping by Sinterklaas”) and it is replaced with chocolate the next morning.
The present is often creatively disguised by being packaged in a humorous, unusual or personalized way. This is called a surprise (from the French ). Poems from Sinterklaas usually accompany gifts, bearing a personal message for the receiver. It is usually a humorous poem that often teases the recipient for well-known bad habits or other character deficiencies.
When the children reach the age when they know “the big secret of Sinterklaas”, some people will shift to Christmas Eve or Christmas Day for the present giving. Older children in Dutch families where the children are too old to believe in Sinterklaas anymore, also often celebrate Christmas with presents instead of pakjesavond. Instead of such gifts being brought by Sinterklaas, family members may draw names for an event comparable to Secret Santa.