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Have you ever heard of Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas? It is the most appreciated holiday by kids in the Netherlands and Belgium and is a bit similar to Father Christmas. For starters there wouldn’t even have been a Santa Claus in this world if it wasn’t for Sinterklaas. The appearance and role of Mr. Claus is in fact largely based on his Dutch skinny cousin. There are some noticeable differences though between Klaas and cousin Claus, which we will point out later on.

Sinterklaas or simply Sint, is a traditional holiday figure in both the Netherlands and Belgium and Saint Nicholas’ Eve is celebrated by the Dutch each year on December 5th, because the good old man’s birthday is on December 6th. Don’t ask where the logic can be found in this, we don’t know. But maybe it is because he travels on to Belgium where people celebrate Saint Nicolas the next morning.

ORIGINS

Sinterklaas supposedly hails from Turkey and is said to be the bishop from Myra, hence the red clerical cope and miter. Stories have also surfaced that he was called Nicolas the Miracleworker because he saved the town from starvation and was famous for leaving people secret gifts and money in their shoes. He now lives in Spain but where precisely is unclear. Why he moved from Turkey to Spain is equally unclear and shrouded in a cloak of mystery.

HISTORY

The earliest mentions of the saintly man are from around the third century which means he must be close to 1800 years of age right now. If you ever get a chance to ask him his about his precise date of birth he will most probably answer that he can’t remember. Living for 1800 years obviously does have some effect on the functioning of your brain. But we have to admit he looks pretty spectacular for a person his age. We suspect he taps from a fountain of youth hidden somewhere in his house in Spain. Maybe that is also the reason no one has ever found out where he resides. And although the Sint may be a very forgetful man -he needs to write everything down in a big red book that he carries around all the time- he does remember how to ride his horse, named Amerigo, a dapple grey. If you think that is no biggie, try doing it on top of a roof. Because that is how Sinterklaas and his helpers (the Pieten) deliver the presents: through the chimney.

TODAY

Sinterklaas has always been the patron saint of the city of Amsterdam, of sailors and of children. But his figure today is mostly famous for bringing joy, cheer and gifts to well behaved kids. In late November, a few weeks before his actual birthday, the good man sails in from Spain by boat. His arrival is a festive and happy occasion that all children eagerly anticipate. This is followed by a procession through the streets while his Pieten shower the waiting children with candies and tiny brown cookies, called pepernoten.

THE TRADITION

Up until his birthday celebration children leave their shoes near the fireplace at night and fill them with hay and carrots for Sinterklaas’ horse. Sint does not leave money anymore but chocolate or little presents can always be found the next morning, unless the child has been naughty. In which case it will receive a note that if he or she doesn’t clean up his/her act there will be no presents on December 5th and even worse Sinterklaas may take the child with him back to Spain in his burlap sack.

THE FINALE – ST NICHOLAS EVE

And then on the evening of December 5th we enter the grande finale. There is banging on the front door and on the windows but when the children open the door, there is nobody there. Instead they find a heap of presents in burlap bags. As the children grow older, by age 8 or 9, they have found out by accident (presents in mommy’s closet or drawings mailed to the Sint) or on purpose (classmates have spilled the secret) that the whole concept of Sinterklaas is in fact one big scam and that parents have been deceiving them for years. Some find this utterly traumatic, probably from fear that the yearly stream of present will dry up and others find it exciting to be let in on this grown up secret.

THE SECRET’S OUT

Now that the secret is out it doesn’t mean that the traditions stops. It is still celebrated by many bigger kids and grown ups although the rules change a little. By now you will enter the era of “Surprises”. Everyone draws a person’s name and is obliged to craft something spectacular for this person that hides the gift. The messier, the better and the more difficult to extract the hidden gift, the more hilarious and successful you’ll be. And of course there should be a personalized poem that should be funny, witty and taunting at the same time. All this is in good cheer and most families keep up the Sinterklaas tradition for many years to come. Which doesn’t mean the Dutch and Belgians don’t celebrate Christmas, cause they do.

SINTERKLAAS VS SANTA CLAUS

Which brings us back to where we started. Sinterklaas and Santa Claus are basically one and the same character as you’ve learned by now. Santa originally was Sinterklaas at first but evolved into a closely related but altogether completely different character.

Sint’s lean and very skinny posture is no competition for Santa’s big rounded belly. It might influence also how both are perceived. It looks like cousin Claus is a much more easy going and jollier character than the Sint who hardly laughs and seems a bit detached. Father Christmas does not punish children but Sint threatens to do so. Santa Claus transports himself in a magic sleigh, has Elf helpers and a known address where he manufactures his toys and gifts. He comes down the chimney just like Piet but leaves his presents in a stocking instead of a shoe. On the big day at sunrise presents can be found under the X-mas tree. And Santa has a wife, which the Sint doesn’t probably because of his saintly background and celibacy stuff.

So there you go. Saint and Santa both sprouted from the legendary tales of the bishop from Myra but evolved into two different characters with an identical mission. That of bringing joy and happiness to kids all over the world.

Do you have, or know of, any customs and traditions that are country specific? We would love to know, so leave us a comment…

This post is also available in: Dutch

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