December is the month of festivities, and today, the Dutch celebrate ‘Sinterklaas’! A celebration of Saint Nicholas, who is remembered for ransoming a child slave (thus buying his freedom) and returning him to his parents. The modern celebration of this holiday depicts Saint Nicholas in his later years, and this former child slave all grown up at Nicholas’ side. Since the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas has been in a negative spotlight in the recent decade, due to the make-up used for Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), the story is changed, and people now claim that Zwarte Piet is black because of chimney soot. But what about Sinterklaas? And why does his name sound so similar to Santa Claus? We’ll explain that in this article.
If you were to ask people where the legend of Santa Claus started, they would probably begin by telling you that the word “Santa” was merely a moniker for Saint Nicholas, a man who had been around for a long time and who was known for his kindness towards children.
In carols like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and tales like The Night Before Christmas, we learn about Saint Nicholas, but beyond that, the guy remains a bit of a mystery.
By all accounts, in what is now modern-day Turkey, his story starts in the fourth century AD. The bishop of a village called Myra became a man named Nicholas. Later, he was canonized, and soon became one of the Catholic’s most famous saints.
That’s what we know for sure, but much of Saint Nicholas’ folklore speaks of his goodness and humility toward children in a world where it wasn’t easy to find such attitudes.
During the Feast of St. Nicholas (or Sint-Nikolaas) each year the much-loved saint was celebrated, where parents would leave presents for their children, who naturally assumed that Saint Nicholas had paid them a visit during the night.
The Dutch version of Saint Nick sat on a horse and wore a tall pointy bishop’s hat, unlike current representations of Santa.
Dutch kids will fill their clogs with straw and set them out for Sinterklaas’ horse to eat, just as kids today leave out a glass of milk and a few cookies for Santa and his reindeer.
They will find the straw gone and their shoes filled with gifts when they wake up the next morning.
Santa’s transfer to America
As other stories over the years, the tale of Saint Nicholas grew and became embellished and, considering their love for him, it is hardly shocking to hear that the legend of Saint Nicholas spread across the Atlantic to New Amsterdam’s Dutch colony in 1664; or as it is called today, New York City.
This article will continue after this image.
In the 200 years that followed, a community of Dutch intellectuals came together and called themselves the “Knickerbockers.” as a way of maintaining their culture and traditions in the face of British settlement.
A prominent member of the group was a writer named Washington Irving, who published a book with satirical versions of Dutch customs and stories called “The Knickerbocker’s History of New York”.
There were several dozen references to “Sinter Klaas” in the novel—an adaptation of “Sint Nikolaas”—followed by descriptions of him riding in a wagon through the sky and throwing gifts for good little girls and boys down chimneys.
New Yorkers quite soon became acquainted with Washington’s wild, endearing portrayal of the saint. Enthusiastically, the English settlers welcomed the happy Dutch festivities of St. Nicholas’ Day and eventually started to merge them with their own Christmas and New Year rituals.
When it comes to pronunciation, when you add the accent of an English-speaking New Yorker, it’s simple to see how “Sinter Klaas” might translate to “Santa Claus.”