Ever wondered where Santa Claus
actually originated from? Well...
In the early Middle Ages there lived an actual Saint Nicholas of Myra, in present day Turkey. In the Netherlands and Belgium, Saint Nicholas remained a popular saint, appearing annually in the night of 5 and 6 December to bring presents to all the children who've been good. His name was eventually bowdlerized into "Sinterklaas", a hasty pronunciation of the name "Sint-Nicolaas". Despite being derived from Roman Catholic traditions, he is now celebrated by Dutch and Belgian children from all backgrounds, both religious and irreligious. While there are many similarities between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus, in Belgium and the Netherlands they are seen as two separate folklore characters, and thus both holidays are celebrated.
Sinterklaas is an old, good-natured bearded man dressed in a bishop's vestments. He lives in Spain most of the year and travels to the Low Countries by steamboat, arriving somewhere in November. He is welcomed by the mayor of the city of his arrival, which is broadcast live on TV each year. After holding a speech, Sinterklaas mounts his white horse and rides throughout the city. He is accompanied by several black helpers who are all called "Zwarte Piet" ("Black Pete"). Zwarte Piet throws candy and cookies at the good children, but will punish the bad ones by beating them with a birch rod and carrying them off to Spain in a bag (this, of course, never actually happens). While Sinterklaas is in the country, in the evening children put their shoes next to the chimney and sing carols, hoping their shoe will be filled with candy or small gifts during the night. Sinterklaas' birthday is celebrated on the eve of December 5th, which includes more candy and gifts, while adults generally write each other (sometimes snide) poems.
Sinterklaas' origins lie in the Scandinavian god Odin and his white horse Sleipnir. According to this pagan tradition, the bearded god and his horse entered the people's homes by night on December 5 and left presents behind for the children. This story was later adapted by the Christian church and merged with the tale of St. Nicholas of Myra. This also explains why "Sinterklaas" is always dressed in a bishop's robe and hat. The character Santa Claus later took his name, beard and red suit.
As for Zwarte Piet: there are many explanations behind his appearance and character, ranging from a black devil forced to do good deeds by the Saint, to an Ethiopian slave Sinterklaas freed and who stayed with him out of gratitude, to a version of the Norse Narfi, personification of the night. In more recent politically correct times, he has caused a lot of confusion and controversy with foreign tourists unfamiliar with the tradition. Not many people in Belgium or the Netherlands would see Zwarte Piet as an African stereotype, and his dark skin is usually explained to children as being a result of the chimney dirt. Thus Zwarte Piet isn't an actual black man, just a person who should wash more often. His threatening image has been downplayed as well: he is no longer a Scary Black Man
who wants to punish kids, but a jolly, playful manchild
who provides comic relief to the audience.
Sinterklaas should not be confused with voice actor Michael Sinterniklaas
- Subject of many annual Dutch children's songs.
- The song the Dutch child sings to Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street, "Sinterklaas Kapoentje", is actually a real Sinterklaas carol, though not addressed at Santa Claus, but Sinterklaas!
- Several television series around the character excists, inclusing De Club Van Sinterklaas, Slot Marsepeinstein and Het Grote Sinterklaas Verhaal, as wel as several movies.
- Featured in the Flemish children's TV show "Dag Sinterklaas" (1993), which is still annually broadcast on Flemish public TV. Sinterklaas' role is played by actor Jan Decleir.
- Featured as regular character in the Flemish comic strip Nero. The main cast is often visited by him and his donkey (who claims to be a horse). Apparently, Nero is the only adult who still believes that Sinterklaas exists.
- Frequently lovably spoofed in the short columns by Dutch author Godfried Bomans.
- Satirized in the classic comedy routine, "Snieklaas" by Dutch comedian Toon Hermans.
- Satirized in the Dutch sketch comedy show "Jiskefet", with comedian Hans Teeuwen as a perverted version of Sinterklaas.
- Featured in an episode of FC De Kampioenen.
- Featured in several episodes of Samson En Gert.
- Annually featured in the Dutch version of Sesame Street.
- Spoofed in the controversial Dutch comedy horror movie "Sint" (2010) by Dick Maas, in which he is portrayed as a murderous phantom. The movie poster caused many parents to file a complaint, but the judge decided that Sinterklaas' murderous face on the poster wasn't visible enough to be of major concern to small children.
- He's one of the Christmas traditions mentioned in the "Where Santa Has a Different Name" song in Caillou's Holiday Movie.
This folkloric character provides examples of the following tropes:
- Adaptation Overdosed: Almost every Dutch-language film, book, TV series, sketch show,... directed at a family audience will feature Sinterklaas at one point.
- Badass Beard
- Bag of Holding: Sinterklaas has a large bag where all kinds of presents fit in.
- Black Face: The Dutch-Belgian Sinterklaasfeest has been controversial since the 1970s, because Sinterklaas has a servant named "Zwarte Piet" ("Black Pete"),who is basically either a black slave or a white guy in blackface. Nobody in the Netherlands and Belgium sees this folkloric character as being racist, especially since it's often told that he's black because of the chimney dirt, but due to Values Dissonance tourists are often horrified when they see Dutchmen and Belgians celebrating blackface servants. As recently as 2013, the United Nations, under the authority of the High Commissioner for Human Rights were to investigate whether Zwarte Piet is a racist stereotype. The Dutch government responded by stating that the Sinterklaas celebration is a tradition for children in the Netherlands.
- Cool Boat: Sinterklaas travels by steam boat from Spain to the Netherlands
- Cool Horse: Sinterklaas' horse is able to ride on rooftops.
- Folk Hero
- Follow the Leader: Inspired Santa Claus.
- Good Cop/Bad Cop: Sinterklaas is always sympathetic, but Zwarte Piet can be menacing.
- How Can Santa Deliver All Those Toys?
- Manchild: Zwarte Piet
- Older Than They Look: Sinterklaas is almost a thousand years old.
- Planet of Steves: All of Sinterklaas' servants are called "Piet".
- Really 700 Years Old: Sinterklaas
- The Rival: Santa Claus, who is basically a rip-off of Sinterklaas, down to the name!
- Scare 'Em Straight: If you don't behave Zwarte Piet will punish you.
- Scary Black Man: Zwarte Piet
- Sidekick: Zwarte Piet
- Would Hurt a Child: Sinterklaas wouldn't, but Zwarte Piet might.