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Sinterklaas [sɪntər'klaːs] (or more formally Sint Nicolaas or Sint Nikolaas; Saint Nicolas in French; Sankt Nikolaus in German) is a traditional winter holiday figure still celebrated today in the Low Countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as some parts of Germany, French Flanders, Lorraine and Artois. He is also well known in territories of the former Dutch Empire, including Aruba, Suriname, Curaçao, Bonaire, and Indonesia. He is one of the sources of the holiday figure of Santa Claus in North America.
Although he is usually referred to as Sinterklaas, he is also known as De Goedheiligman (The Good Holy Man), Sint Nicolaas [sɪnt 'nikolaːs] [ pronunciation (help·info)] (Saint Nicholas) or simply as De Sint (The Saint).
He is celebrated annually on Saint Nicholas' eve (5 December) in the Netherlands and on the morning of 6 December in the other countries. Originally, the feast celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas – patron saint of children, sailors, philatelists, and the city of Amsterdam, among others. Sint Nicholas being a bishop and this geographical spread make clear that the feast in this form has a Roman Catholic background, although the papacy has never officially recognized his existence.
Closely related figures are also known in German-speaking Europe and territories historically influenced by German culture, including: Switzerland (Samichlaus), Germany and Austria (Sankt Nikolaus); the region of South Tyrol in Italy; Nord-Pas de Calais, Alsace and Lorraine in France – as well as in Luxembourg (De Kleeschen), parts of Central Europe and the Balkans.
Pre-Christian Europe 
Parallels have been drawn between the legend of Sinterklaas and the figure of Odin, a major god among the Germanic peoples, who was worshipped in Northern and Western Europe prior to Christianization. Since some elements of the Sinterklaas celebration are unrelated to Christianity, there are theories regarding the pagan origins of various customs of the holiday stemming from areas where the Germanic peoples were Christianized and retained elements of their indigenous traditions, surviving in various forms into modern depictions of Sinterklaas. Non-Christian elements in Sinterklaas that arguably could have been of pagan origin:
- Sinterklaas rides the rooftops on his white horse which has various names; Odin rides the sky with his gray horse Sleipnir.
- Sinterklaas carries a staff and has mischievous helpers with black faces, who listen at chimneys to find out whether children are bad or good and report to Sinterklaas; Odin has a spear and his black ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who report what happens in the world to Odin.
Middle Ages 
Originally, the Sinterklaas feast celebrates the name day, 6 December, of Saint Nicholas (270–343), patron saint of children. Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. In 1087, his relics were furtively transported to Bari, in southeastern Italy; for this reason, he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari. Bari later formed part of the Spanish Kingdom of Naples, because it was previously conquered in 1442 by Alfonso V of Aragon. The city thus became part of the Kingdom of Aragon and later of Spain, until the 18th century. Because the remains of St. Nicholas were in Bari (then a Spanish city), in this tradition St. Nicholas comes from Spain and has a black helper depicted as a Morisco page. St. Nicholas is well known in Spain as the patron of sailors, which is why he comes to the Netherlands on a steamboat. St. Nicholas fame spread throughout Europe. The Western Catholic Church made his name day a Church holiday. In the north of France, he became the patron saint of school children, then mostly in church schools. The folk feast arose during the Middle Ages. In early traditions, students elected one of their classmates as "bishop" on St. Nicholas Day, who would rule until 28 December (Innocents Day), and they sometimes acted out events from the bishop's life. As the festival moved to city streets, it became more lively.
Sinterklaas is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dresses. These helpers are called 'Zwarte Pieten' (Black Petes). During the Middle-ages Zwarte Piet was a name for evil. Although the character of Black Pete later came to acquire racial connotations, his origins were in the evil figure. Good and bad play an important role in the feast: good is rewarded, bad and evil are punished. Hence the duplication of the one Saint in a saint and a (frolicking) devil.
The feast was both an occasion to help the poor, by putting money in their shoes (which evolved into putting presents in children's shoes) and a wild feast, similar to Carnival, that often led to costumes, a "topsy-turvy" overturning of daily roles, and mass public drunkenness.
16th and 17th centuries 
After the rebellion of the Dutch provinces against the Spanish Empire, Calvinist regents and ministers prohibited celebration of the Saint. The Republic of the United Provinces became an officially Protestant country following the Reformation, and its governments abolished public celebrations. The South, however, remained Catholic. People there and students in Amsterdam, also Catholic, protested. The governments were forced to allow celebration within the family.
19th century 
In the 19th century, the saint emerged from hiding and became more secularized at the same time. The modern tradition of Sinterklaas as a children's feast was likely confirmed with the illustrated children's book Sint Nicolaas en zijn knecht (Saint Nicholas and His Servant), written in 1850 by the teacher Jan Schenkman (1806–1863). Some say he introduced the images of Sinterklaas' delivering presents by the chimney, riding over the roofs of houses on a gray horse, and arriving from Spain by steamboat, then an exciting modern invention. Perhaps building on the fact that Sint Nicholas historically is the patron saint of the sailors (many churches dedicated to him have been built near harbors), Schenkman could have been inspired by the Spanish customs and ideas about the saint when he portrayed him arriving via the water in his book. Schenkman introduced the song Zie ginds komt de stoomboot ("Look over yonder, the steamboat is arriving"), which is still popular in the nation.
In Schenkman's version, the medieval figures of the mock devil, which later changed to Oriental or Moorish helpers, was portrayed for the first time as black African and called Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). He is a black boy who accompanies Sinterklaas and helps him on his rounds (possibly derived from the Dutch colonial experience, or the Moorish occupation of Spain, the main Catholic nation.) Traditionally Sinterklaas only had one helper, whose name varied wildly. "Piet(er)" the name in use now can be traced back to a book from 1891.
World War II 
In the lean times of the German occupation of the Netherlands (1940–1945), Sinterklaas nonetheless came to cheer everyone, not just children. Many of the traditional Sinterklaas rhymes written during those times referred to current events. The Royal Air Force (RAF) was often celebrated. In 1941, for instance, the RAF dropped boxes of candy over the occupied Netherlands. One classical poem that was turned into a contemporary one was the following:
- Sinterklaas, kapoentje
- Gooi wat in mijn schoentje,
- Breng wat in mijn laarsje,
- Dank je Sinterklaasje
- which became the contemporary version
- R.A.F. Kapoentje,
- Gooi wat in mijn schoentje,
- Bij de Moffen gooien,
- Maar in Holland strooien!
- R.A.F. Capon,
- throw something in my shoe
- throw [bombs] at the Krauts
- but scatter [candy] in Holland!
This is a variation of one of the best-known traditional Sinterklaas rhymes, with "R.A.F." replacing "Sinterklaas" in the first line, (the two expressions have the same metrical characteristics in the first and second, and in the third and fourth lines) with the Dutch word "Kapoentje" capon is traditional in the rhyme, (but in this case it also alludes to "flying bird"). The second line is straight from the original rhyme, but in the third and fourth line the RAF is encouraged to drop bombs on the Moffen (slur for Germans, like "krauts" in English) and candy over the Netherlands. Many of the Sinterklaas poems of this time noted the lack of food and basic necessities, and the German occupiers having taken everything of value; others expressed admiration for the Dutch Resistance.
Originally Sinterklaas was only accompanied with one (or sometimes two) Zwarte Pieten, but just after the liberation of the Netherlands Canadian soldiers organized a Sinterklaas party with many Zwarte Pieten, and ever since this has been the custom, each Piet normally having its own dedicated task.
Late-20th and 21st centuries 
The arrival of Sinterklaas into town became a huge event and is broadcast on national television. Numerous people dress as Zwarte Pieten in various cities and towns across the Netherlands. Traditionally their faces are blackened because Zwarte Piet is a Spanish (Moorish) servant of Sinterklaas (though some people said Zwarte Piet was originally a slave who, when Sinterklaas bought him his freedom, was so grateful that he stayed to assist him). Today, sometimes the more politically correct explanation that Pete's face is "black from soot" (as Pete has to climb through chimneys to deliver his gifts) is used.
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' Eve, 5 December, became the chief occasion for gift-giving during the Christmas season. The evening is called Sinterklaasavond or Pakjesavond. For Belgian and Dutch children, it is customary to put one shoe in front of the fireplace from the day Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands, usually in the third week of November, sing Sinterklaas songs and go to bed. A carrot and/or hay, an apple, etc. may put in the shoe as a treat for Sinterklaas' horse. The next morning the carrot would be gone and the children may find candy or a small present in their shoes. Drawings made by the children are put into the shoes as a present to Sinterklaas. In houses without a chimney and fireplace the shoes are put in front of the backdoor. The rationalisation is that Sinterklaas has a key for every door, or one key that fits every door.
On the evening of 5 December, ("pakjesavond") the main presents will somehow arrive, or a note will be "found" that explains where in house the presents were hidden by Zwarte Piet who left a burlap sack with them. Sometimes a neighbor will knock on the door and leave the sack outside for the children to retrieve; this varies per family. When the presents arrive, the living room is decked out with them, much as on Christmas Day in English-speaking countries. On 6 December, Sinterklaas departs without any ado, and all festivities are over.
In Belgium, most children have to wait until the morning of 6 December to receive their gifts, and Sinterklaas is seen as a festivity almost exclusively for children. The shoes are filled with carrots and sugar cubes on the evening of the fifth and often, a bottle of beer for Zwarte Piet and a cup of coffee for Sinterklaas are placed next to them. Sinterklaas largely replaces Christmas as a gift-giving occasion, usually for as long as the children are living at home. Also, when it is time for children to give up their pacifier, they place it into his or her shoe ("safekeeping by Sinterklaas") and replaced with chocolate the next morning.
However in the Netherlands it is not uncommon to give (small) presents to adults, this can be done in the same way as for the children, however it is not uncommon to attach a small poem reflecting the receiver. This is called a "surprise" pronounced in a Dutch way. When the children reach the age when they know "the big secret of Sinterklaas", some people will shift to Christmas Eve or Christmas Day for the present giving.
Older children in Dutch families where the children are too old to believe in Sinterklaas anymore, also often celebrate Christmas with presents instead of pakjesavond, but often there is a period of a few years where pakjesavond is still celebrated, but the family members (children as well as grownups) give one other family member (chosen by sortition) a special present called a "surprise". The surprise is normally personalized for the receiver, and often comes with a personalized "Sinterklaas poem". A surprise (from the French word) is a present that has been packaged in a special way, for example in a large cardboard gamecomputer.
Sinterklaas is an elderly, stately and serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape or chasuble over a traditional white bishop's alb and sometimes red stola, dons a red mitre and ruby ring, and holds a gold-coloured crosier, a long ceremonial shepherd's staff with a fancy curled top. He carries the big book of Saint Nicolas that tells whether each child has been good or naughty in the past year. He traditionally rides a white horse.
Zwarte Piet 
A Zwarte Piet (Black Pete, plural Zwarte Pieten) is a servant of Sinterklaas, usually an adolescent in blackface with black curly hair, dressed up like a 17th-century page in a colourful dress, often with a lace collar, and donning a feathered cap.
Sinterklaas and his Black Pete usually carry a bag which contains candy for nice children and a roe, a chimney sweep's broom made of willow branches, used to spank naughty children. Some of the older Sinterklaas songs make mention of naughty children being put in the bag and being taken back to Spain. The Zwarte Pieten toss candy around, a tradition supposedly originating in Sint Nicolaas' story of saving three young girls from prostitution by tossing golden coins through their window at night to pay their father's debts.
There are various explanations of the origins of the helpers. The oldest explanation is that the helpers symbolize the two ravens Hugin and Munin who informed Odin on what was going on. In later stories the helper depicts the defeated devil. The devil is defeated by either Odin or his helper Nörwi, the black father of the night. Nörwi is usually depicted with the same staff of birch (Dutch: "roe") as Zwarte Piet.
Another, more modern story is that Saint Nicolas liberated an Ethiopian slave boy called 'Piter' (from Saint Peter) from a Myra market, and the boy was so grateful he decided to stay with Saint Nicolas as a helper.
The Zwarte Pieten have roughly the same relationship to the Dutch Saint Nicolas that the elves have to America's Santa Claus. According to tradition, the saint has a Piet for every function: there are navigation Pieten ("wegwijspiet") to navigate the steamboat from Spain to the Netherlands, and acrobatic Pieten to climb roofs and stuff presents down the chimney, or to climb down the chimneys themselves. Over the years many stories have been added. Sometimes, the Pieten are quite bad at their job, for instance the navigation Piet might point in the wrong direction. This provides some comedy in the annual parade of Saint Nicolas coming to the Netherlands, and can also be used to laud the progress of children at school by having the Piet give the wrong answer to, for example, a simple question like "what is 2+2?", so that the child can give the right answer.
With the influx of immigrants to the Netherlands starting in the late 1950s, Zwarte Piet is felt by some to be racist. Today, Zwarte Pieten have become more modern servants and parents often tell their children that the Pieten have black faces because they climb down dirty, soot-filled chimneys. Although, this modern variation on the tradition is often critiqued by expatriates and locals as being a "cover story" because it does not explain the curly, black hair and large, red lips. 2011 marked "Slavery Remembrance Year" in the Netherlands, further fueling controversy and protests regarding Zwarte Piet 
Arrival and origin 
Sinterklaas traditionally arrives in the Netherlands each year in mid-November (usually on a Saturday) by steamboat from Spain. Some suggest that gifts associated with the holy man, the mandarin oranges, led to the misconception that he must have been from Spain. This theory is backed by a Dutch poem documented in 1810 in New York and provided with an English translation:
Trek uwe beste tabberd an,
Reis daar mee naar Amsterdam,
Van Amsterdam naar Spanje,
Daar Appelen van Oranje,
Daar Appelen van granaten,
Die rollen door de straten.
Saint Nicholas, good holy man!
Put on the Tabard, best you can,
Go, therewith, to Amsterdam,
From Amsterdam to Spain,
Where apples bright of Orange,
And likewise those granate surnam'd,
Roll through the streets, all free unclaim'd [...]
The text presented here comes from a pamphlet that John Pintard released in New York in 1810. It is the earliest source mentioning Spain in connection to Sinterklaas. Pintard wanted St. Nicholas to become patron saint of New York and hoped to establish a Sinterklaas tradition. Apparently he got help from the Dutch community in New York, who provided him with the original Dutch Sinterklaas poem. Strictly speaking, the poem does not state that Sinterklaas comes from Spain, but that he needs to go to Spain to pick up the oranges and pomegranates. So the link between Sinterklaas and Spain goes through the oranges, a much appreciated treat in the 19th century. Later the connection with the oranges got lost, and Spain became his home.
At his arrival Sinterklaas parades through the streets on his gray horse Amerigo, welcomed by cheering and singing children. In Belgium, the horse is named Slecht Weer Vandaag, meaning Bad Weather Today. This event is broadcast live on national television in the Netherlands and Belgium. His Zwarte Piet assistants throw candy and small, round, gingerbread-like cookies, either "kruidnoten" or "pepernoten," into the crowd. The children welcome him by singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. Sinterklaas visits schools, hospitals and shopping centers. After this arrival, all towns with a dock usually celebrate their own "intocht van Sinterklaas" (arrival of Sinterklaas). Local arrivals usually take place later on the same Saturday of the national arrival, the next Sunday (the day after he arrives in the Netherlands or Belgium), or one weekend after the national arrival. In places a boat cannot reach, Sinterklaas arrives by train, horse, or even carriage or fire truck.
Traditionally, in the weeks between his arrival and 5 December, before going to bed, children put their shoes, traditionally next to the fireplace chimney of the coal-fired stove or fireplace (or in modern time close to the radiator). They leave the shoe with a carrot or some hay in it and a bowl of water nearby "for Sinterklaas' horse", and the children sing a Sinterklaas song. The next day they will find some candy or a small present in their shoes.
Typical Sinterklaas treats traditionally include: hot chocolate, mandarin oranges, pepernoten, letter-shaped pastry filled with almond paste or chocolate letter (the first letter of the child's name made out of chocolate), speculaas (sometimes filled with almond paste), chocolate coins and marzipan figures. Newer treats include pepernoten (a type of shortcrust biscuit or gingerbread biscuits) and a figurine of Sinterklaas made of chocolate and wrapped in colored aluminum foil.
Poems can still accompany bigger gifts as well. Instead of such gifts being brought by Sinterklaas, family members may draw names for an event comparable to Secret Santa. Gifts are to be creatively disguised (for which the Dutch use the French word "surprise"), and are usually accompanied by a humorous poem which often teases the recipient for well-known bad habits or other character deficiencies.
Sinterklaas, Santa Claus, and Christmas 
Sinterklaas is the basis for the North American figure of Santa Claus. It is often claimed that during the American War of Independence, the inhabitants of New York City, a former Dutch colonial town (New Amsterdam), reinvented their Sinterklaas tradition, as Saint Nicholas was a symbol of the city's non-English past. The name Santa Claus supposedly derived from older Dutch Sinter Klaas. However, the Saint Nicholas Society was not founded until 1835, almost half a century after the end of the war. In a study of the "children's books, periodicals and journals" of New Amsterdam, the scholar Charles Jones did not find references to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas. Not all scholars agree with Jones's findings, which he reiterated in a book in 1978. Howard G. Hageman, of New Brunswick Theological Seminary, maintains that the tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas in New York existed in the early settlement of the Hudson Valley. He agrees that "there can be no question that by the time the revival of St. Nicholas came with Washington Irving, the traditional New Netherlands observance had completely disappeared." However, Irving's stories prominently featured legends of the early Dutch settlers, so while the traditional practice may have died out, Irving's St. Nicholas may have been a revival of that dormant Dutch strand of folklore. In his 1812 revisions to A History of New York, Irving inserted a dream sequence featuring St. Nicholas soaring over treetops in a flying wagon – a creation others would later dress up as Santa Claus.
But was Irving the first to revive the Dutch folklore of Sinterklaas? In New York, two years earlier John Pintard published a pamphlet with illustrations of Alexander Anderson in which he calls for making Saint Nicholas the patron Saint of New York and starting a Sinterklaas tradition. He was apparently assisted by the Dutch because in his pamphlet he included an old Dutch Sinterklaas poem with an English translation. In the Dutch poem, Saint Nicholas is referred to as 'Sancta Claus'. Ultimately, his initiative helped Sinterklaas to pop up as Santa Claus in the Christmas celebration, which returned – freed of episcopal dignity and ties – via England and later Germany to Europe again.
The Saint Nicholas Society of New York celebrates a feast on 6 December to this day. The town of Rhinebeck in Dutchess County, New York, which was founded by Dutch and German immigrants, has an annual Sinterklaas celebration. It includes Sinterklaas' crossing the Hudson River and then a parade to the center of town.
During the Reformation in 16th-17th century Europe, many Protestants changed the gift bringer from Sinterklaas to the Christ Child or Christkindl (corrupted in English to Kris Kringle). Similarly, the date of giving gifts changed from 5 or 6 December to Christmas Eve.
See also 
- Culture of Belgium
- Culture of the Netherlands
- Dutch Americans
- Father Christmas
- Saint Nicholas
- Santa Claus
- Companions of Saint Nicholas
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