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Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, Santa Claus

Johannes Vingboons, View of Nieuw Amsterdam or New York (1664)
Johannes Vingboons, 
View of Nieuw Amsterdam
or New York (1664)
Nicholas of Myra: early Christian bishop, who was in the Middle Ages venerated as patron of sailors and protector of blessed marriages (Saint Nicholas). As Sinterklaas, he remains a characteristic figure in Dutch folklore. He is also the historical figure behind Santa Claus.
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Myra 343
Bari 1087
Amsterdam 1578
New York 1776

New York 1776

In 1626, Dutch merchants founded a town called New Amsterdam. The Lenape tribe received for sixty guilders of gewgaw and were believed to have given up their title to the island of Manhattan, and a fortress was built. It was not the first Dutch settlement in the Americas, but it turned out to be a very important one, which was expressed in the grant of a privilege in 1653. Although its officials were Protestant, the city acknowledged the freedom of religion. There were Catholics who accepted Saint Nicholas as the patron of the city, and there were Protestants who liked to hide little presents in the shoes of their children. There are reports of official "visits" of Sinterklaas to the city. When New Amsterdam was captured by the English in 1664, the religious rights were mentioned in the Articles of Capitulation.

For the next century or so, both the Catholic saint and the more secular folklorist customs associated with him are almost absent from our sources, although a Catholic visitor of the city, now called New York, would know where to find the chapel of Saint Nicholas, and people still gave presents and told each other stories about Sinterklaas.

In this century, the date of the feast gradually wandered. Officially, it should be celebrated on the sixth of December, but we read about an actor visiting New York on New Year's Eve. There is no real explanation, but several factors may have contributed. One of them is that the old Germanic festival was not only combined with the Christian Saint Nicholas, but also to Saint Martin (11 November) and Epiphany (6 January). Gift exchange was simply something of the season and could be celebrated at any moment. Another factor may be the confusion of the calendars. Unlike the people on the European Continent, who had accepted the Gregorian calendar, the English continued to use the Julian calendar. It was easy for an event celebrated on 6 December to move to the nineteenth, and beyond. The details are obscure, because Sinterklaas was celebrated by the common people, whose daily life only seldom made it to the municipal archives.

In 1773, Saint Nicholas unexpectedly returned. The British demanded taxes from the American colonies but refused to give them a representative in Parliament. Following the incident known as the "Boston Tea Party", on 16 December, everywhere in the colonies, patriots started to organize societies to obstruct the British imperialists. In New York, they called themselves "Sons of Saint Nicholas", as an alternative to the pro-British societies of Saint George. In this way, Nicholas became a symbol of New York's non-English past, and he was therefore accepted as patron of the New York Historical Society.

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Santa Claus, by F.O.C. Darley (1862)
Santa Claus, by F.O.C. Darley

The problem was that not much was known about the original celebration of Saint Nicholas in New Amsterdam. The lacuna was filled by the author Washington Irving (1783-1859), who in 1809 published a satirical book called Knickerbocker's History of New York from The Beginning of the World To the End of The Dutch Dynasty, in which Sinterklaas often played a role. In fact, Irving invented a tradition. His Nicholas resembled a corpulent Dutch citizen, smoking a Goudse pijp (a long white pipe made of clay, produced in Gouda). The venerable bishop had become "a chubby and plump, right jolly old elf", as he is called in the anonymous poem called A Visit From Saint Nicholas (1823). Within fifteen years, Father Christmas, including his fur-trimmed red dress, reindeers, sleigh, and cherry nose had been invented.

Among the cartoonists who contributed to the development of the iconography was the German-born illustrator Thomas Nast, who designed the covers and illustrations of the Christmas issues of Harper's Weekly Magazine between 1863 and 1886. He is responsible for the introduction of the name Santa Claus, a contamination of Sinterklaas and German Sankt Niklaus. Between 1931 and 1964, Coca Cola used Santa in its advertisements, which established him as an all-American commercial icon, not unlike Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.

Dutch children, waiting for Sinterklaas. Photo Jona Lendering.
Dutch children, waiting for Sinterklaas.

The development from the bishop of Myra to a marketing device is essentially a summary of western thinking about wealth.
  1. Saint Nicholas embodied the Catholic attitude that rich people must generously share their riches with the poor, because God had not created the difference in wealth;
  2. after the birth of Calvinism, which does not condemn profit as such, Dutch Protestants continued to celebrate the feast of Sinterklaas, although as secular folklore. As a censor of moral behavior, he appealed to their uneasiness about their immense wealth;
  3. finally, Santa Claus is an icon of Capitalism.


Returning to the Dutch Sinterklaas today, we can see that he has retained many characteristics of pre-Capitalist thought. In general, he teaches that children must give to people who are less fortunate, without expecting something in return. The good holy man sets the example. Of course, this does not mean that children do not request the most expensive presents, and it must be noted that millions are spend on Sinterklaas gifts, but many parents (or hired actors) explain that the feast is more about giving than about receiving.

Sinterklaas arriving in Amsterdam. Photo Jona Lendering.
Sinterklaas arrives in Amsterdam; note that there is no Christian cross on his mitre, but Amsterdam's weapon

The celebrations start in November, when Sinterklaas arrives in a port with a large ship with presents, after a long voyage - said to be from Spain. After all, for centuries, the city of Bari, where Nicholas lies buried, was part of the Spanish dominions. Often, the mayor receives Sinterklaas, who now starts a procession into town.

He is accompanied by a helper, who is called Zwarte Piet, 'black Peter'. This is another relic from pre-Christian times, when a dwarf-like demon, defeated by the good god Wodan, was forced to perform good deeds for humankind. (According to some scholars, Black Peter is derived from the black ravens that were Wodan's friends.)

Zwarte Piet. Photo Jona Lendering.
Zwarte Piet.

Over the centuries, this demon has developed in various directions.
  • When Saint Nicholas visits towns in northern France, his companion is a red-haired wild man (père Fouettard).
  • In Flanders, children often given him a beer to help him with his hard work.
  • In the Netherlands, he has received a Moorish dress, and today, now that many colored people from Surinam are living in the Netherlands, there is some debate whether there is a racist aspect to Zwarte Piet. (In 2007, an American company did not allow its Dutch employees to celebrate Sinterklaas, because it believed that it could be accused of racism in the U.S.A.) Often, green, yellow, red, and blue Peters are added as an acceptable compromise.

Coloring plate
Coloring plate of Sinterklaas;
Wodan's lance has converted
into a staff and the white
clouds have become a
snow-covered roof.
After his tour through the city, which is usually broadcasted on TV, Sinterklaas disappears, but in the first week of December, he visits schools and families. (There are special companies where you can hire a Sinterklaas and there is a society that trains actors.) Children sing special songs, some of which are very old and incomprehensible. Later, they receive a pastoral word from the bishop, who encourages them to be sweet children and censures bad behavior.

On the fifth of December, children will place their shoe somewhere near the hearth (this creates problems in modern houses), and early in the morning of the sixth, they will find that Sinterklaas has visited their home. Among the typical presents are oranges, sweets, and chocolate bars in the shape of letters. And of course some of the presents the children have requested.

It is usually a big disappointment when the children, about six years old, are told that Sinterklaas does not really exist. Learning the sad truth is, however, also a rite de passage. From now on, the children are, in at least one aspect, treated as grown-up people, and invited to celebrate the pakjesavond, "presents evening", during which adults exchange gifts. Usually, little poems are added, in which Sinterklaas ridicules odd habits. In this aspect, Saint Nicholas is still a bishop who guides his flock.

Myra 343
Bari 1087
Amsterdam 1578
New York 1776
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2005
Revision: 20 Nov. 2008

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