Sinterklaas for Expats: He’s NOT Santa Claus!

Amidst all the merriment, mythology and gluttony, holiday traditions hold clues to a nation’s temperament and personality. In the Netherlands, those at year-end can be confusing for expats unfamiliar with Sinterklaas or Father Christmas—Sint-Nicolaas in Dutch.

Sint waves to the crowd after arriving in Amsterdam from Spain.

Based on St. Nicolaas of Myra, patron saint of children, sailors and Amsterdam (among other things), Sinterklaas is the forerunner of North America’s Santa Claus. In the Netherlands and Belgium, his birth is celebrated annually on St. Nicholas Eve—December 5. 

Sinterklaas parades through Amsterdam on his white horse.

Referring to both the superhero himself and his namesake holiday, Sinterklaas separates secular gift-giving from religious observance. In a departure from strict Calvinism, the holiday tolerates conspicuous consumption while saving December 25 for more respectful Christian worship.

Unlike children in America and other countries, who must wait until December 24 for Santa to soar through the skies, little Dutchies eagerly anticipate the arrival of Sinterklaas in mid-November. On his giant steamboat, Pakjesboot 12, the beloved Sint chugs from Spain to the Netherlands with his trusted helpers on-board. While he resembles Santa Claus with his regal red robes, animated sidekicks and magical powers, he’s an entirely different holiday superhero.

Sinterklaas’ arrival marks the start of the holiday season in the Netherlands.

For my fellow expats and anyone visiting Amsterdam in November/December, here’s how to distinguish Sinterklaas from North America’s Santa Claus:

Sinterklaas

Santa Claus

APPEARANCE: A regal figure with flowing white beard, red robes, gold-trimmed bishop’s cape, pointy hat stamped with a gold cross, and a hooked staff.Rotund and jolly with twinkly eyes, wire-rim glasses, white beard, red outfit trimmed with white fleece, and a droopy hat accessorized with a pompon.
ANCESTRY/FAMILY: Based on St. Nicholas of Myra, born in 270 A.D. No acknowledged relatives. True to his vows of celibacy stemming from his connection to St. Nicholas, a Christian bishop.Based on St. Nicholas of Myra, born in 270 A.D. Abandoned his celibacy vows when he married Mrs. Claus, now a sweet-looking grandma type.
AGE: Probably 1,737 but claims he’s too old to remember.Probably 1,737 but says he stopped counting at 550.
RESIDENCE: A castle in Spain, probably in temperate Andalusia.A toy factory at the North Pole shared with Mrs. Claus and a team of elves.
TRANSPORT: A steamship called Pakjesboot 12, with deck space for helpers. On land, Sint transfers to Amerigo, a magical white horse who can walk over rooftops and leap through the air.A sleigh drawn by 12 magical reindeer, including one with a red nose named Rudoph, who pull Santa and his elves through the air.
HELPERS: The Zwarte Pieten, a lively band dressed like 17th-century minstrels with hoop earrings, frizzy hair and ruby lips. Whether their faces are black from chimney soot or makeup that makes them resemble Renaissance-era slaves depends on which story you believe.Cute fairytale creatures called elves who work year-round at the North Pole crafting Christmas toys.
GIFTS: Store-bought but wrapped by the Zwarte Pieten. Hand-made and wrapped in Santa’s toy factory by his industrious elves.
DELIVERY: Entrusted to the Zwarte Pieten, who descend home chimneys on December 5. They replace carrots kids have placed in their shoes for Amerigo with chocolate letters. Sint plays rooftop guard, then returns home to sunny Spain.Employs magic to come down chimneys with his elves to place presents under Christmas trees and fill stockings hanging over fireplaces with goodies on December 24.
NAUGHTY-NICE CONSEQUENCES: Naughty kids receive nothing and may be beaten with twigs by the Pieten or hauled back to Spain for a warm winter.Poorly behaved children receive a lump of coal in their stockings instead of presents.
A colorful parade welcomes Sinterklaas to Amsterdam.

So there you have it: Sinterklaas vs Santa Claus. Who’s YOUR favorite holiday superhero? And what does he reveal about your culture?

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5 comments

  1. This is incredibly interesting! Do the Dutch also retain the tradition of Santa Claus for December 25 since Sinterklaas comes much earlier? I also wonder what let to the development of our modern-day Santa Claus. Certain elements such as his elves might come from Scandinavian mythology, I suppose, but it would be interesting to know how Santa evolved from a regal bishop to a fat, jolly old man. Also, in terms of favourite holiday superheros, I always enjoyed Easter egg hunting as a child. That’s evidently another pagan tradition that got mixed with Christianity, some sort of fertility celebration perhaps? It would be interesting to know if Europeans celebrate Easter any differently — most likely less emphasis on the material and more emphasis on Christ’s resurrection.

  2. Oh my gosh, he DOES exist! I first heard of Sinterklaas from David Sedaris’s hilarious “6-8 black men” essay and when I saw your picture of his former slaves and a man in a pope-like outfit I was thrown back into David’s monologue! Other cultures can be so fascinating. When he first arrives by boat, he roams the town asking children what they want for Christmas apparently. I wonder if children sit on his lap or if he just interviews random kids on the street. Hopefully no kids were malicious this year and taken back to Spain by Sinterklaas. I can’t wait to experience Holland in the winter!

  3. i was actually introduced to this holiday for the first time this year when i visited my cousin and her husband in leuven, belgium.
    since i’m jewish i never got to celebrate christmas and now i’m really falling behind because i had my first sinterklaas here, which was fun i have to say!
    but a bit of an odd tradition…

  4. Love this! I grew up celebrating St. Nick’s Day. We would put our shoes out, and in the morning they were filled with nuts and, if we were lucky, an orange! I think as a kid, I resonated more with this celebration of St Nicholas than the commercialized, jolly & rotund Santa. I have to say – more incentive to be naughty if I get to accompany Sinterklaas to Spain for the winter! 😉

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