Sinterklaas (also called Sint Nicolaas, de Goedheiligman or simply de Sint in Dutch, is a traditional Winter holiday figure in the Netherlands, Belgium, Suriname and the Dutch Antillian countries. He is celebrated annually on Saint Nicholas' eve (5 December) or, in Belgium, on the morning of 6 December. The feast celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of Amsterdam, children and sailors. He is the basis of the mythical holiday figure of Santa Claus in the United States
All Dutch children know that Sinterklaas (the name is a corruption of Sint Nikolaas) lives in Spain. It is what old Sinterklaas songs and nursery rhymes claim, but exactly why he does remains a mystery.
Whatever the case may be, in Spain, it's said, he spends most of the year recording the behaviour of all children in a big red book, while his helper Black Peter stocks up on presents for next December 5th. In the first weeks of November, Sinterklaas mounts Amerigo, his white horse and Peter (Piet) swings a huge sack full of gifts over his shoulder they then board Sinterklaas’ steamship and head for the Netherlands.
Around mid- November they arrive in a harbour town - a different one every year - where they are formally greeted by the Mayor and a delegation of citizens. Their parade through town is watched live on television by the whole country and marks the beginning of the "Sinterklaas season".
5 December; Sinterklaas Eve
Traditionally, in the weeks between his arrival and 5 December, before going to bed, children put their shoes next to the fireplace chimney of the coal-fired stove or fireplace. In modern times, they may put them next to the central heating unit. They leave the shoe with a carrot a bowl of water nearby "for Sinterklaas' horse," and the children sing a Sinterklaas song. The next day they will find some candy or a small present in their shoes.
On Sinterklaas Eve itself, families traditionally gather in the morning, or evening to see what presents the ‘ Pieten’ have brought for them this year. The older kids and parents usually exchange silly wrapped or self-made gifts accompanied by cheeky poems.
The Sinterklaas feast celebrates the name day, 6 December, of Saint Nicholas (280–342), patron saint of children and sailors. Saint Nicholas was a bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. In the 11th century, the saint's bones were taken and moved to southern Italy, an area then ruled by Spain, and relics and his fame spread throughout Europe. The Western Christian Church made his name day a Church holiday.
The folk feast arose during the Middle Ages. In early traditions, students elected one of them as "bishop" on St. Nicholas Day, who would rule until December 28 (Innocents Day). They sometimes acted out events from the bishop's life. As the festival moved to city streets, it became more lively.
In medieval times, 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 the 17th century, the Netherlands became a largely Protestant country following the Reformation, and the government abolished the public celebrations of Sinterklaas, but the government did allow celebration within the family.
In the nineteenth century the saint became more secularized.
The modern tradition of Sinterklaas as 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). He introduced the images of Sinterklaas' delivering presents by the chimney, riding over the roofs of houses on a gray horse, and arriving from Spain by steamboat, then an exciting modern invention.
In Schenkman's version, Sinterklaas'helper, the medieval figure of the mock devil, which later changed to Oriental or Moorish helper, was portrayed for the first time as black African and called Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). Many people in the Netherlands feel the role of 'Black Pete' gives the Sinterklaas celebrations racist undertone. It is often linked to Holland's history of slave-trading in Africa.
Sinterklaas & 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.
With the help these and other European settlers bringing the tradition with them to the United States, and after a very clever Coco Cola advertisement campaign, Sinterklaas evolved into Santa Claus, the chubby, cheerful and red-cheeked ghost-of-Christmas-present he is today.
In Holland, Sinterklaas and Santa Claus, or 'de Kerstman' (Christmas Man) as the Dutch call him, are two seperate entities. Luckily for Dutch childeren both Sint and Santa bring presents!