Who is Sinterklaas? Saint Nicholas explained, hereby me! A Canadian mom of three living in the Antwerp province of Belgium.”
‘Sinterklaas” and of course “Zwarte Piet”. Maybe you just moved to this side of the globe and wonder who the heck is this guy that you are seeing all over the place in the form of chocolate and speculaas cookies? He kind of looks like Santa, maybe Santa looks like the Pope here in Belgium/Netherlands?
Even though Saint Nicholas brings presents like Santa, there are quite some big differences. And try explaining that to a 6 six-year-old. More about that in another post.
Here in Belgium, it’s a big big thing. It’s quite as magical as growing up with Santa. Books about Saint Nicholas are read in schools. You can see Saint Nicolas arriving from Spain at the Antwerp harbor from your parent’s shoulders or watch it on tv. You can visit him at the mall and sit on his lap, just like Santa. Saint Nicolas even came to read at our local library. And then on the eve of the 6th of December, the children put out one of their shoes, put a carrot in it or some sugar cubes for the beautiful horse of Sinterklaas. Some children like to even put out a bottle of beer for Saint Nick. Quite different from putting out cookies and milk for Santa.
Sinterklaas is a celebration that is celebrated in the Netherlands and Belgium, but where does it actually come from? Have Sinterklaas and Piet always looked like this? And are the Netherlands and Belgium the only countries where it is celebrated? In short, do you know Saint Nicholas? A piece of history.
Saint Nicholas, the saint
Sinterklaas currently lives nice and warm in Spain. Once a year he comes to the Netherlands and Belgium on his steamboat to bring us all presents. However, he has not always lived in Spain, has not always had a steamboat and has not always been called Sinterklaas, but Saint Nicholas.
Saint Nicholas was as the story goes, a monk who was born in the year 280 AD in Asia Minor, now Turkey in the village of Patara. Nicholas was praised in his time for his dedication to his faith and goodness of action. He was a rich man who found joy in giving. Nikolaas was loved by children because he was generous and very friendly to them. He loved doing good deeds, the best-known being that he would have saved 3 sisters from going into slavery and prostitution by giving them a dowry so they could get married. In the course of time, Nicholas grew his popularity and later the church renamed him Saint Nicholas, the saint, patron of both children and sailors.
From Turkey to the Netherlands
The stories of Saint Nicholas became more and more popular and spread over the world via land and sea over time. Sailors took the stories to Italy, where they subsequently spread through Switzerland, Austria, and eventually from Germany to the Netherlands. The journeys made by the stories of St. Nicholas made the story and the face of Sinterklaas change a little to what was celebrated by the people at that time. Sinterklaas, for example, has many similarities with the Germanic god Wodan (also known as Odin). This god flew through the air with a horse and had a large white beard, staff, and red cloak. On his shoulders, he had 2 black ravens who told him about the actions of the people and sometimes he crawled through the chimney of people to scatter seeds in honor of fertility.
A trace of the journey that made the story of Sint Nicholas can be found in different parts of the world. These celebrations show that the sweet story of Sinterklaas that we know today used to have a much darker tone where Piet was sometimes depicted as a demon and where the roe (symbol of fertility) was used to beat women when she left walked down the street.
Such celebrations symbolize the good and the evil and are still celebrated today in countries such as Austria, Switzerland, southern France, Macedonia and even on our own Wadden Islands. These unique celebrations have been preserved because they originated in more isolated places in, for example, mountain villages or on the Wadden Islands where it is more difficult for outsiders to get into local opinion.
Sinterklaas, as he is known to us today, with his loyal servant Zwarte Piet and having a steamboat plus living in Spain, was conceived by the Dutch teacher Jan Schenkman. Jan Schenkman, born in 1806, was the first to write the Sinterklaas story in its current form in a picture book, a story that consists of several books. In his first booklet called “St. Nicholas and his servant,” he gave Zwarte Piet a page suit, clothing worn by squires and introduced new elements such as the steamboat and living in Spain. He also wrote several poems and was the creator of songs such as “Zie ginds komt de stoomboot uit Spanje weer aan“.
From Santa Claus to Santa Claus
For example, the Sinterklaas party as we know it today has come a long way and in its journey, it has been adapted in every place to what best suited the people of that time. Just as the Dutch and Belgians received the Sinterklaas story from their neighbors, so did Dutch immigrants bring the Sinterklaas story by sea to America, from which the Christmas story ultimately emerged. You can find more about the origin of the Christmas story on the website of History.com, follow the link here.
If you did not grow up with Sinterklaas, what were your first thoughts when experiencing this magical time of the year?
How do you explain Sinterklaas or even Santa to your children?
I do not want to lie to my child, but I also do not want to rob him of these magical memory makers and so I’m just waiting until he figures it out himself. If he will ask me at some point whether Sinterklaas exists, I will just simply ask him what he thinks and see from thereon.
How about you?