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The many shapes of Sinterklaas

The many shapes of Sinterklaas

The Sinterklaas tradition is arguably the biggest annual festivity in the Netherlands, but a long history precedes the celebrations as we know them today.

Sinterklaas appears in various forms, in different cultures. In the Netherlands, the red-robed do-gooder has played multiple roles, making his tradition an ever-evolving one that has changed throughout the centuries.

Here is a short report of the various shapes of Sinterklaas in different cultures and points in history.

The real deal

The real Saint Nicholas was born in (what we now know as) Turkey, around 270 AD. Fact quickly merges with myth in the recounting of the many good deeds that earned this bishop the title of “Saint”. The most famous stories range from him leaving gold coins in the shoes of poor children, to bringing children who were chopped up and pickled back to life.

Saint Nicholas probably gained fame in the Netherlands because of the country’s seafaring history. In early stories he was a protector of sailors, so his legacy travelled over the seas, much like his later representation who is said to travel by steam boat.

Sinterklaas; past vs present

In the history of Sinterklaas celebrations in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas has played the role of boogeyman as well as that of children’s friend. The event started out as an early Catholic holiday, which was banned by the Protestants for about 400 years.

When the holiday was reinstated, so were old traditions like eating “speculaas” and “setting the shoe”. New traditions appeared as well. Children would generally receive more presents, but there was also a harsher attitude towards punishing children. Stories emerged of naughty children being hit and abducted in sacks by Sinterklaas’ helpers. This punishment aspect has been toned down, although old songs still refer to these practices.

The appearance of Sinterklaas is pretty classic, but there have been some changes there too. In recent years, his religious robes have become slightly more neutral, replacing the golden cross on his “mitre”, or cap, with a vertical stripe.

Santa Claus

The most famous incarnation of Saint Nicholas is Santa Claus. His story travelled along to America with Dutch immigrants in the early 17th century. The immigrants kept his legacy alive, although his name was altered throughout the years, and the appearance of the holy man changed to a jollier and, eventually, more rotund figure as “St. Nick” merged with Father Christmas.

Santa Claus kept various aspects of his old self, such as his white beard, his red and white dress colours and his tendency to deliver presents through the chimney. He also kept a mount, which changed from a white horse to a sleigh with flying reindeer, and his helpers changed from Zwarte Pieten to a whole population of elves.

His living quarters did become rather chillier, moving from Spain to the North Pole. In many stories, he is an elf rather than a human being.

La Befana

La Befana is not based on Saint Nicolas, but she does fulfil a role in Italian folklore that is, in many ways, similar to that of Santa Claus in the US. She is known as a sort of Christmas Witch, tied to the Day of Epiphany (January 6). She is said to ride around on her broomstick and give candy to nice children, and coal or dark candy to naughty children.

La Befana sweeps the floor while she’s at it, and she appreciates an offering of wine and nibbles while she works. People who spy her get a whack on the head with her broomstick, although she is generally a kind old lady.

Sinterklaas in other countries

Sinterklaas, or a form of Saint Nicholas Day, is celebrated in certain communities in the US, separate from Santa Claus, as well as other western Christian countries.

In many cases it is celebrated on December 6 rather than 5, since this is the official day that Saint Nicholas died.

  • In Germany and Poland, boys dress up as bishops and ask for alms for the poor.
  • In Ukraine, presents appear under children’s pillows.
  • In Poland, families hang up white stockings to be filled with nuts and tangerines.
  • In parts of France, a little donkey carries baskets filled with children's gifts, biscuits and sweets, and stories are told of Saint Nicholas and Père Fouettard, described below.
  • In parts of Italy, Saint Nicholas is not only a protector of children, but also of maidens who want to find a husband, and women who are about to be married.

The companions of Sinterklaas

Perhaps the most versatile of the different interpretations of Sinterklaas, are the companions he associates with. They are generally pretty frightening, to serve as the counterbalance to Sinterklaas’ rewarding nature. Here are a few examples:

Zwarte Piet

Zwarte Piet is the traditional companion of the Dutch Sinterklaas. He is not as old as some might think. Sinterklaas had been portrayed with nameless helpers before, but it wasn’t until 1850 that a picture book included an image of Zwarte Piet, and even then, he wasn't named yet. Lately, Zwarte Piet has also appeared as a multi-coloured Piet, rather than a person with black makeup, as a response to negative comments.

Krampus

Krampus appears in Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. He is an evil, demonic creature who accompanies Sinterklaas to punish naughty children.

Père Fouettard

Père Fouettard appears in France and Belgium. “Father Whipper” used to be an innkeeper. In a time of famine he killed three children, pickled them and stored them in a vat. After Sinterklaas revived them, Père Fouettard dedicated his life to serving him as the punisher of naughty children.

Knecht Ruprecht

In German folklore, Knecht Ruprecht is a farmhand who either rewards or punishes children, depending on their behaviour.

The Houseker

The Houseker appears in Luxembourg as a companion of Sinterklaas. He wears a dark monk’s habit, and, like the others, he tends to intimidate children.

Alexandra

Author

Alexandra van Kampen

English and Japanese theatre and culture are my forte. My mother was raised in England, and my grandmother in Japan. I studied Japanese Language and Culture, and Film and Photographic...

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