Santa Claus vs. Sinterklaas

Santa Claus vs. Sinterklaas

Today would be the perfect day to put Sinterklaas and Santa Claus (also known as St. Nick) into the ring. It snowed today, after all. The first snow.

First snow in Amsterdam

And today I’m reading N.T. Wright, and Nietzsche. And nothing says Sinterklaas and Santa like a British theologian and a man who is known for the phrase “God is dead.” (I’m only partially kidding.)

But I like the way our friend Diederik (also the organist in our wedding), added some history to the comment section of Halloween vs. Saint Martin’s Day, so I’ll begin with some history to give both gentlemen a fair fight. This is a photo of Diederik.

Church Ceremony (14)

Santa Claus (also known as St. Nicholas, St. Nick, and in Great Britain, Father Christmas)


There is a little rumor out there that Santa Claus was the creative genius of the Coca-Cola. Although Coca-Cola did jump on the Santa figure as a marketing ploy in the 1930s, the figure of Santa Claus was prominent in the United States long before Coca-Cola even existed.

As early as 1821, a book published in New York with a really long title, but meant for children, described “Old Santeclaus” as a man on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children.

In the well-loved poem, “ T’was the Night Before Christmas”,  Santa Claus is given one of his first descriptions by poet Clement Clarke Moore in 1882:

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!

Behold, the power of words.

Moore’s poem spread, and with it, the lasting image of Santa Claus (sans spectacles).

You’ll need to be conscious of American Santa when comparing to Sinterklaas, so let’s review: Santa’s an unaffected, cheerful, fat little smoker. No one could be less intimidating. He’s jolly, playful, likes to eat and laugh…a ripe old Bacchus. Santa Claus is everybody’s friend; he’s invited to everyone’s parties.

Sinterklaas (Sint Nicolaas, de Goedheiligman or the Good Holy Man, or De Sint)

A drawing from an old picture book (by Rie Cramer) copy

Just as I was upfront about Santa not being an invention of Coca-Cola, as is sometimes thought, I will be the first to admit that Sinterklaas is Santa Claus’s great, great, great, grandfather. (Oh, you already noticed the similarities in the name?)

That’s right. Along with much of the world’ s culture and tradition, Santa Claus originated right here with the Dutch. (Okay Nederlanders, go ahead and gloat. But don’t consider this your knockout punch quite yet.)

St. Nicholas of Myra (in Turkey) was a pious young man devoted to God. He was generous, and lived out his generosity, even providing dowries for a poor family with three daughters so that the girls wouldn’t be forced into prostitution.

(Blog idea: how serving those in Amsterdam’s Red Light District could show the most ‘peace on earth and goodwill toward men.’)

St. Nicholas’s remains were buried in Spain, and so the tradition goes that Sinterklaas comes by steamboat to the Netherlands every year from Spain, accompanied by his many, mischievous servants, all named Zwarte Piet (Black Piet). The story about Zwarte Pieten is a whole other post…

Sinterklaas parades through the streets on a white gray. He represents all that is good and holy, and is very distinguished, dressed in his red robes and cap, carrying a gold staff. He is serious, dignified, and old. Think of Gandalf the Grey who, instead of joining in the fun with the Hobbits, chastises them severely for any fun they might have. Sinterklaas, you see, demands respect.

So what do you think? Who is winning?

Some more facts to help you make up your mind:

Santa Claus: lives at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus and all of his elves, along with his 8 flying reindeer.

Sinterklaas: lives in Spain with his trusted servant, Zwarte Piet.

Santa Claus: travels by sleigh the world over in one night, December 24th, also known as Christmas Eve. He arrives in the house through the chimney, and delivers presents to children’s stockings and under the Christmas tree.

Often a plate of cookies and a glass of milk is left out for him. The disappearance of the milk and cookies is evidence to many children that Santa is real.

Sinterklaas: and travels by steamship to Holland accompanied by Zwarte Piet (or many Zwarte Piets) and his trusty gray and white steed. He possesses a key that fits every door, and leaves presents in a child’s shoe. On December 5th, the actual Sinterklaas Day, a burlap sack filled with presents, carried by Zwarte Piet, is delivered to the family’s home.

Often a carrot or apple is left for Sinterklaas’s horse. Its disappearance has the same affect on Dutch children as American children with milk and cookies.

So the question remains: do we want a Christmas figure we can love or respect?


2 thoughts on “Santa Claus vs. Sinterklaas

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