SINTERKLAAS (Dutch pronunciation: ) or Sint-Nicolaas (Dutch
pronunciation: ( listen )) is a legendary figure based on Saint
Nicholas , patron saint of children. Other names for the figure
Sint ("The Saint"), De Goede
Sint ("The Good Saint"), and
De Goedheiligman ("The Good Holy Man") in Dutch ; Saint Nicolas in
French; Sinteklaas in Frisian ; and Kleeschen and Zinniklos in
The feast of
Sinterklaas celebrates the name day of
Saint Nicholas on
6 December. The feast is celebrated annually with the giving of gifts
on St. Nicholas' Eve (5 December) in the northern parts of the
Netherlands and on the morning of 6 December,
Saint Nicholas Day, in
the southern provinces of the Netherlands, as well as Belgium,
Luxembourg and northern France (French Flanders, Lorraine and Artois).
The tradition is also celebrated in territories of the former Dutch
Empire , including Aruba, Bonaire,
Curaçao and Suriname.
Sinterklaas is the primary source of the popular
Christmas icon of
Santa Claus .
* 1 Figures
* 2 Feast
* 2.1 Arrival from Spain
* 2.2 Period leading up to Saint Nicholas\' Eve
* 2.3 Saint Nicholas\' Eve and Saint Nicholas\' Day
* 3 History
* 3.1 Pre-Christian Europe
* 3.2 Middle Ages
* 3.3 16th and 17th centuries
* 3.4 19th century
* 3.5 World War II
Sinterklaas in the former Dutch colonies
Sinterklaas as a source for
Sinterklaas in fiction
* 7 Related holiday figures
* 8 See also
* 9 Notes
* 10 External links
Sinterklaas played by Bram van der Vlugt
Sinterklaas is based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas
(270–343), a Greek bishop of
Myra in present-day Turkey. He is
depicted as 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
mitre and ruby ring, and holds a gold-coloured crosier , a long
ceremonial shepherd's staff with a fancy curled top. He traditionally
rides a white horse . In the Netherlands, the horse is called Amerigo,
and in Belgium, it is named Slecht Weer Vandaag, meaning "Bad Weather
Sinterklaas carries a big, red book in which is written
whether each child has been good or naughty in the past year.
Two Dutch women in costume as
Zwarte Piet Main article:
Sinterklaas is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces
and colourful Moorish dresses. These companions are called Zwarte Piet
Zwarte Piet first appeared in print as the nameless
Saint Nicholas in Sint-Nikolaas en zijn knecht ("St.
Nicholas and His Servant/Apprentice"), published in 1850 by Amsterdam
schoolteacher Jan Schenkman; however, the tradition appears to date
back at least as far as the early 19th Century.
Zwarte Piet's colourful dress is based on 16th-century noble attire,
with a ruff (lace collar) and a feathered cap. He is typically
depicted carrying a bag which contains candy for the children. The
Zwarte Pieten toss their candy around, a tradition supposedly
originating in the story of
Saint Nicholas saving three young girls
from prostitution by tossing golden coins through their window at
night to pay their dowries .
Traditionally, he would also carry a birch rod (Dutch: roe), a
chimney sweep 's broom made of willow branches, used to spank children
who had been naughty. Some of the older
Sinterklaas songs make mention
of naughty children being put in Zwarte Piet's bag and being taken
back to Spain. This part of the legend refers to the times that the
Moors raided the European coasts , and as far as Iceland, to abduct
the local people into slavery. This quality can be found in other
Saint Nicholas such as
Père Fouettard . In
modern versions of the
Sinterklaas feast, however,
Zwarte Piet no
longer carries the roe and children are no longer told that they will
be taken back to Spain in Zwarte Piet's bag if they have been naughty.
Over the years many stories have been added, and
Zwarte Piet has
developed from a rather unintelligent helper into a valuable assistant
to the absent-minded saint. In modern adaptations for television,
Sinterklaas has developed a
Zwarte Piet for every function, such as a
head Piet (Hoofdpiet), a navigation Piet (Wegwijspiet) to navigate the
steamboat from Spain to the Netherlands, a gift-wrapping Piet
(Pakjespiet) to wrap all the gifts, and an acrobatic Piet to climb
roofs and chimneys.
Traditionally Zwarte Piet's face is said to be black because he is a
Moor from Spain. Today, some prefer to say that his face is blackened
with soot because he has to climb through chimneys to deliver gifts
The figure of
Zwarte Piet is considered by some to be racist. As
such, the traditions surrounding the holiday of
Sinterklaas have been
the subject of numerous editorials, debates, documentaries, protests
and even violent clashes at festivals. Many large cities and
television channels now only display
Zwarte Piet characters with some
soot marks on the face rather than full blackface, so-called
roetveegpieten or schoorsteenpieten ("chimney Petes"). Nevertheless,
Zwarte Piet and the holiday remain popular in the Netherlands. In
a 2013 survey, 92% of the Dutch public did not perceive
Zwarte Piet as
racist or associate him with slavery, and 91% were opposed to altering
the character's appearance.
ARRIVAL FROM SPAIN
Sinterklaas and his
Zwarte Piet helpers arriving by steamboat
Sinterklaas arriving in
Groningen in 2015
The festivities traditionally begin each year in mid-November (the
first Saturday after 11 November), when
Sinterklaas "arrives" by a
steamboat at a designated seaside town, supposedly from Spain. The
steamboat anchors, then
Sinterklaas disembarks and parades through the
streets on his horse, welcomed by children cheering and singing
Sinterklaas songs. His
Zwarte Piet assistants throw candy
and small, round, gingerbread-like cookies, either kruidnoten or
pepernoten , into the crowd. The event is broadcast live on national
television in the
Netherlands and Belgium.
Following this national arrival, all towns with a dock usually
celebrate their own intocht van
Sinterklaas (arrival of Sinterklaas).
Local arrivals usually take place later on the same Saturday of the
national arrival, the next Sunday (the day after he arrives in the
Netherlands or Belgium), or one weekend after the national arrival. In
places a boat cannot reach,
Sinterklaas arrives by train, horse,
horse-drawn carriage or even a fire truck.
Sinterklaas is said to come from Spain, possibly because in 1087,
half of Saint Nicholas' relics were transported to the Italian city of
Bari , which later formed part of the Spanish
Kingdom of Naples
Kingdom of Naples .
Others suggest that mandarin oranges , traditionally gifts associated
with St. Nicholas, led to the misconception that he must have been
from Spain. This theory is backed by a Dutch poem documented in 1810
in New York and provided with an English translation:
Trek uwe beste tabberd an,
Reis daar mee naar Amsterdam,
Amsterdam naar Spanje,
Daar Appelen van Oranje,
Daar Appelen van granaten,
Die rollen door de straten. English
Saint Nicholas, good holy man!
Put on the Tabard, best you can,
Go, therewith, to Amsterdam,
Amsterdam to Spain,
Where apples bright of Orange,
And likewise those granate surnam'd,
Roll through the streets, all free unclaim'd
The text presented here comes from a pamphlet that John Pintard
released in New York in 1810. It is the earliest source mentioning
Spain in connection to Sinterklaas. Pintard wanted St. Nicholas to
become patron saint of New York and hoped to establish a Sinterklaas
tradition. Apparently he got help from the Dutch community in New
York, that provided him with the original Dutch
Strictly speaking, the poem does not state that
Sinterklaas comes from
Spain, but that he needs to go to Spain to pick up the oranges and
pomegranates. So the link between
Sinterklaas and Spain goes through
the oranges, a much appreciated treat in the 19th century. Later the
connection with the oranges got lost, and Spain became his home.
PERIOD LEADING UP TO SAINT NICHOLAS\' EVE
Kruidnoten , small, round gingerbread -like cookies A
chocolate letter , typical
Sinterklaas candy in the
In the weeks between his arrival and 5 December,
visits schools, hospitals and shopping centers. He is said to ride his
white-grey horse over the rooftops at night, delivering gifts through
the chimney to the well-behaved children. Traditionally, naughty
children risked being caught by Black Pete, who carried a jute bag and
willow cane for that purpose.
Before going to bed, children put their shoes next to the fireplace
chimney of the coal-fired stove or fireplace (or in modern times close
to the central heating radiator ). They leave the shoe with a carrot
or some hay in it and a bowl of water nearby "for Sinterklaas' horse",
and the children sing a
Sinterklaas song. The next day they find some
candy or a small present in their shoes. Typical
traditionally include hot chocolate , mandarin oranges , pepernoten ,
speculaas (sometimes filled with almond paste ), letter-shaped pastry
filled with almond paste or a chocolate letter (the first letter of
the child's name made out of chocolate), chocolate coins and marzipan
figures. Newer treats include gingerbread biscuits or and a figurine
Sinterklaas made of chocolate and wrapped in colored aluminum foil.
SAINT NICHOLAS\' EVE AND SAINT NICHOLAS\' DAY
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 ("
Sinterklaas evening") 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 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
Sinterklaas departs without any ado, and all festivities are
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 a poem or wish list for
carrots, hay or sugar cubes for the horse on the evening of the fifth
and in Belgium often a bottle of beer for
Zwarte Piet and a cup of
Sinterklaas are placed next to them.
Christmas as a gift-giving occasion, usually for as long as
the children are living at home. Also in some areas, 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 personalised way. This is called a surprise (from
the French ).
Sinterklaas usually accompany gifts, bearing a personal
message for the receiver. It is usually a humorous poem which often
teases the recipient for well-known bad habits or other character
When the children reach the age when they know "the big secret of
Sinterklaas", some people will shift to
Christmas Eve or
for the present giving. Older children in Dutch families where the
children are too old to believe in
Sinterklaas anymore, also often
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 .
Sinter Claes depiction at a 16th-century house near the Dam in
Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of the capital of the
Netherlands The Feast of
Saint Nicholas , by
Jan Steen , 1660s
Illustration from the 1850 book St. Nikolaas en zijn knecht
Saint Nicholas and his servant"), by Jan Schenkman, 1850
Hélène Adeline Guerber and others have drawn parallels between
Sinterklaas and his helpers and the
Wild Hunt of
Wodan or Odin, a
major god among the Germanic peoples, who was worshipped in Northern
and Western Europe prior to Christianization. Riding the white horse
Sleipnir he flew through the air as the leader of the Wild Hunt,
always accompanied by two black ravens,
Huginn and Muninn . Those
helpers would listen, just like Zwarte Piet, at the chimney – which
was just a hole in the roof at that time – to tell
Wodan about the
good and bad behaviour of the mortals. Due to its speculative
character, however, this older "Germanic" theory has little support
among present-day scholars, although it continues to be popular in
non-scholarly sources. At the same time, it seems clear that the Saint
Nicholas tradition contains a number of elements that are not
ecclesiastical in origin.
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:
Sinterklaas rides the rooftops on his white horse which has
various names; Odin rides the sky with his grey horse
Sinterklaas gives chocolate letters to children, like Odin gave
the rune letters to man.
Sinterklaas carries a staff and has mischievous helpers with black
faces, who listen at 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 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,
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.
16TH AND 17TH CENTURIES
During 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
After the rebellion of the Dutch provinces against the Spanish Empire
, Calvinist regents and ministers prohibited celebration of the Saint.
Republic of the United Provinces officially became an Protestant
country and abolished public celebrations. The South, however,
remained Catholic. People there and students in Amsterdam, which also
contained a significant Catholic population, protested. The government
eventually allowed private family celebration of Saint Nicholas' Day.
In the 19th century, the saint emerged from hiding and became more
secularized at the same time. The modern tradition of
a children's feast was likely confirmed with the illustrated
children's book Sint-Nicolaas en zijn knecht ('
Saint Nicholas and his
servant'), written in 1850 by the teacher Jan Schenkman (1806–1863).
Some say he introduced the images of Sinterklaas' delivering presents
by the chimney, riding over the roofs of houses on a grey horse, and
arriving from Spain by steamboat , which at that time was an exciting
modern invention. Perhaps building on the fact that
historically is the patron saint of the sailors (many churches
dedicated to him have been built near harbors), Schenkman could have
been inspired by the Spanish customs and ideas about the saint when he
portrayed him arriving via the water in his book. Schenkman introduced
the song Zie ginds komt de stoomboot ("Look over yonder, the steamboat
is arriving"), which is still popular in the Netherlands.
In Schenkman's version, the medieval figures of the mock devil, which
later changed to Oriental or Moorish helpers, was portrayed for the
first time as black African and called
Zwarte Piet (Black Peter).
WORLD WAR II
German occupation of the Netherlands
German occupation of the Netherlands (1940–1945) many of
Sinterklaas rhymes were rewritten to reflect current
Royal Air Force
Royal Air Force (RAF) was often celebrated. In 1941, for
instance, the RAF dropped boxes of candy over the occupied
Netherlands. One classical poem turned contemporary was the following:
Gooi wat in mijn schoentje,
Gooi wat in mijn laarsje,
Dank U Sinterklaasje World War II version
Gooi wat in mijn schoentje,
Bij de Moffen gooien,
Maar in Holland strooien! English
Sinterklaas, little capon,
Throw something in my little shoe,
Throw something in my little boot,
Thank you little
Sinterklaas World War II version
R.A.F. little Capon,
throw something in my little shoe
throw at the Krauts
but scatter in Holland!
This is a variation of one of the best-known traditional Sinterklaas
rhymes, with "RAF" replacing "Sinterklaas" in the first line (the two
expressions have the same metrical characteristics in the first and
second, and in the third and fourth lines). The Dutch word kapoentje
(little rascal) is traditional to the rhyme, but in this case it also
alludes to a capon . The second line is straight from the original
rhyme, but in the third and fourth line the RAF is encouraged to drop
bombs on the Moffen (slur for Germans, like "krauts" in English) and
candy over the Netherlands. Many of the
Sinterklaas poems of this time
noted the lack of food and basic necessities, and the German occupiers
having taken everything of value; others expressed admiration for the
Dutch Resistance .
Sinterklaas was only accompanied with one (or sometimes
two) Zwarte Pieten, but just after the liberation of the Netherlands,
Canadian soldiers organized a
Sinterklaas party with many Zwarte
Pieten, and ever since this has been the custom, each Piet normally
having his own dedicated task.
SINTERKLAAS IN THE FORMER DUTCH COLONIES
Curaçao , Dutch-style
Sinterklaas events are organized to this
Zwarte Piet characters have their faces painted all the
colours of the rainbow. Prime Minister
Ivar Asjes has spoken
negatively of the tradition. In 2011, the government of Gerrit
Schotte threatened to withdraw the grant for the Dutch tradition after
the Curaçaoan activist
Quinsy Gario was arrested, when he protested
Dordrecht against the use of Zwarte Piet.
Sinterklaas events are also organized in Suriname to this
day. In 2011, opposition member of parliament and former president
Ronald Venetiaan called for an official ban on
Sinterklaas because he
Zwarte Piet to be a racist element.
In 1970 the Surinamese playwright
Eugène Drenthe envisioned the
character of Gudu Ppa ("Father of Riches" in
Sranantongo ) as a
postcolonial replacement of Sinterklaas. Instead of a white man, Gudu
Ppa was black. His helpers symbolized Suriname's different ethnic
groups, replacing Zwarte Piet. 5 December was officially renamed
Kinderdag ("Children\'s Day ") in Suriname. Although promoted by the
military regime in the eighties, Gudu Ppa never really caught on.
SINTERKLAAS AS A SOURCE FOR SANTA CLAUS
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." In a study of the "children's books,
periodicals and journals" of New Amsterdam, the scholar Charles Jones
did not find references to
Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas. Not all
scholars agree with Jones' findings, which he reiterated in a book in
1978. 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
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
Santa Claus in the
Christmas celebration, which returned –
freed of episcopal dignity and ties – via England and later Germany
to Europe again.
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.
During the Reformation in 16th-17th-century Europe, many Protestants
changed the gift bringer from
Sinterklaas to the Christ Child or
Christkindl (corrupted in English to Kris Kringle). Similarly, the
date of giving gifts changed from 5 or 6 December to
SINTERKLAAS IN FICTION
In a scene in
Miracle on 34th Street , a Dutch girl recognises Kris
Kringle as Sinterklaas. They converse in Dutch and sing a Sinterklaas
song while she sits on his lap, to the amazement of Susan Walker , who
is then convinced that he's the real
Santa Claus .
Sinterklaas has been the subject of a number of Dutch novels, films
and television series, primarily aimed at children. Sinterklaas-themed
children's films include Winky\'s Horse (2005) and the sequel Where Is
Winky\'s Horse? (2007).
Sinterklaas-themed films aimed at adults include the drama Makkers
Staakt uw Wild Geraas (1960), which won a
Silver Bear award at the
11th Berlin International Film Festival ; the romantic comedy Alles is
Liefde (2007) and its Belgian remake Zot van A. (2010); and the Dick
Maas -directed horror film
De Club van Sinterklaas is a Sinterklaas-themed soap opera aimed at
children. The popular television series has run since 1999 and has had
a number of spin-off series. Since 2001, a
Sinterklaas "news" program
aimed at children is broadcast daily on Dutch television during the
holiday season, the Sinterklaasjournaal. The Dutch-Belgian Nickelodeon
series Slot Marsepeinstein has aired since 2009.
Much of the first half of
A War of Gifts by
Orson Scott Card is about
Sinterklaas tradition, including chapter 4 "
Sinterklaas Eve" and 5
In the fourth episode of the television series The Librarians ("And
Santa's Midnight Ride"), Santa (
Bruce Campbell ) is an "immortal
avatar" who has existed in many different incarnations throughout
history. After experiencing mistletoe poisoning, he briefly turns into
Sinterklaas, using his magic to make toys appear in people's shoes,
before regaining control of his current incarnation.
RELATED HOLIDAY FIGURES
Other holiday figures based on
Saint Nicholas are celebrated in some
parts of Germany and Austria (Sankt Nikolaus); Hungary (Mikulás);
Switzerland (Samichlaus); Italy (San Nicola in Bari, South Tyrol,
Alpine municipalities, and many others); parts of Bosnia and
Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia (Sveti Nikola); Slovenia (Sveti
Nikolaj or Sveti Miklavž); Greece (Hagios Nikolaos); Romania (Moș
Nicolae); Albania ("Shën Kolli" (Nikolli), among others. See further:
Saint Nicholas Day .
* Christianity portal
* Holidays portal
* Companions of
Folklore of the Low Countries
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* ^ Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the
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* ^ nos.nl; Wie is die
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calls to abolish \'Black Pete\' clowns which march in
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already in 1863, the Dutch lexicographer Eelco Verwijs is found
comparing the feast of St. Nicholas with Germanic pagan traditions and
noting that the appearance of
Wodan and Eckart in December reminds him
of that of St. Nicholas and "his servant Ruprecht" (De christelijke
feesten: Eene bijdrage tot de kennis der germaansche mythologie. I.
Sinterklaas (The Hague, 1863), p. 40). An older reference to a
possible pagan origin of a "St. Nicholas and his black servant with
chains", apparently in a Dutch setting, is found in L. Ph. C. van den
Bergh, Nederlandsche volksoverleveringen en godenleer (Utrecht, 1836),
p. 74 ("...de verschijning van den zwarten knecht van St. Nikolaas met
kettingen, die de kinders verschrikt, ... acht ik van heidenschen
* ^ McKnight, George Harley (1917). us.archive.org St. Nicholas –
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Jacqueline; Sauter, Willmar; Schoenmakers, Henri (2007).
Festivalising!: Theatrical Events, Politics and Culture.
New York: International Federation for Theatre Research. p. 291.
* ^ Forbes, Bruce David, Christmas: a candid history, University of
California Press, 2007, ISBN 0-520-25104-0 , pp. 68–79.
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