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.
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.
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.
For my fellow expats and anyone visiting Amsterdam in November/December, here’s how to distinguish Sinterklaas from North America’s 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.|
So there you have it: Sinterklaas vs Santa Claus. Who’s YOUR favorite holiday superhero? And what does he reveal about your culture?