Much of what we think of as distinctly American is actually Dutch in origin. Since the Dutch were the first large, permanent European group of settlers in New Amsterdam, their cultural and social traditions inevitably shaped some of the culture in New Amsterdam (and, later, New York – and the rest of the country!). My favorite Dutch oral tradition is the legend of Sinterklaas – which is particularly appropriate to this time of year!
The modern-day legend of Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas. The legend of Sinterklaas came out of the feast of Saint Nicholas, who is the patron saint of Amsterdam, during the Middle Ages in Holland. Sinterklaas Day is connected to Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th, and is celebrated on the evening of the 5th or the morning of the 6th – not on Christmas – but the tradition is very much the precursor to our American Christmas celebration.
Sinterklaas is a stately old man with a big white beard (sound familiar?), and, like Santa Claus, he has a troupe of helpers. His main helper and companion is Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). The character of Zwarte Piet is a Moor from Spain, and he is, rather troublingly, typically depicted by an actor wearing blackface, red lipstick, and earrings in a racist slave caricature which dates to the 1850s. In some stories, Zwarte Piet is represented as a former slave who was freed by Sinterklaas. Some modern accounts prefer to say that he is black from “chimney soot” from the chimneys he climbs down to deliver presents, rather than a Moorish slave. Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’ sidekick, and plays a role similar to Santa’s elves (though a little more deranged). He passes out candy to good children, but he also punishes bad children – sometimes with a birch rod, other times through straight-up kidnapping (he takes the kidnapped children to Spain, which doesn’t seem so bad if you ask me!).
According to the legend, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet traditionally arrive in the Netherlands in mid-November. They don’t come from the North Pole – they come from Madrid, Spain. Scholars think that Sinterklaas’ origins became tied to Madrid because of traditional associations between mandarin oranges and Saint Nicholas. Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are greeted with a parade and Zwarte Piet throws candy and cookies to the children in the crowd. Every year, the arrival of Sinterklaas and Company is “reenacted” in the Netherlands and televised throughout the Netherlands and Belgium.
Sinterklaas does various charitable acts in the time between Thanksgiving and December 5, but his big night is the 5th. On that night, children leave their shoes by the fireplace – along with a little treat (such as sugar cubes) for Sinterklaas’ horse. (The parallels between leaving stockings on the mantle and a treat for Santa’s reindeer are obvious.) The next morning, the children’s shoes are filled with candy and small presents.
The origins of the Sinterklaas myth are debated. Some believe it partially arose from Germanic mythology, since there are parallels between the Norse god Odin and Sinterklaas. The legend definitely arose at least partially out of medieval depictions of Saint Nicholas. Medieval Saint Nicholas had a little “devil helper” called Krampus, who played a similar role to Zwarte Piet.
Scholars also debate exactly when the legend of Sinterklaas came to North America, and how it morphed into the Santa Claus story we know today. Many scholars do think the Sinterklass story came with the first Dutch to New Amsterdam in the 17th century, though it is likely that the Sinterklaas tradition wasn’t popularized in America until the 19th century. Dutch writer Washington Irving was definitely responsible for the beginnings of the shift from Sinterklaas to Santa Claus – he wrote about Saint Nicholas flying over rooftops in a sleigh in 1812.
As you celebrate Christmas (and the North American Santa Claus tradition) this year, think about Sinterklaas and the Dutch origins of Santa Claus (and be glad that you don’t have to worry about Zwarte Piet beating you with a birch rod or spiriting you away!). As the Sinterklaas story demonstrates, our American traditions are typically not ours alone – they come to us from our rich cultural history as a place of immigrants.