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Sinterklaas [sɪntər'klaːs] or Sint Nicolaas [sɪnt 'nikolaːs] [ pronunciation (help·info)] is a traditional winter holiday figure based on Saint Nicholas. Other names for the figure include De Sint ("The Saint"), De Goedheiligman ("The Good Holy Man"), and De Goede Sint ("The Good Saint") in Dutch; Saint-Nicolas in French; and Kleeschen and Zinniklos in Luxemburgish.
Sinterklaas is celebrated annually with the giving of gifts on Saint Nicholas' eve (5 December) in the Netherlands and on the morning of 6 December, the feast of Saint Nicholas, in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Northern France (French Flanders, Lorraine and Artois). He is also well known in territories of the former Dutch Empire, including Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Indonesia, and Suriname.
Other holiday figures based on Saint Nicholas are celebrated in some parts of Germany and Austria (Sankt Nikolaus); Switzerland (Samichlaus); Italy (San Nicola in Bari, South Tyrol, Alpine municipalities, and many others); parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia (Sveti Nikola); Slovenia (Sveti Nikolaj or Sveti Miklavž); and Greece (Agios Nikolaos), among others. See further: Feast of Saint Nicholas.
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.
Sinterklaas carries a big book that tells whether each child has been good or naughty in the past year.
A Zwarte Piet (Black Pete, plural Zwarte Pieten) is a companion of Sinterklaas, usually portrayed by 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 dowry. In recent years the roe has been absent to adapt to modern times.
There are various explanations of the origins of the helpers. The oldest explanation is that the helpers symbolize the two ravens Huginn and Muninn 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 ("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 is a head piet (Hoofdpiet), navigation Pieten (wegwijspiet) to navigate the steamboat from Spain to the Netherlands, packing Pieten (pakjespiet) to pack all the gifts, 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, but over the years, Zwarte Piet developed from a rather unintelligent assistant into a full assistant of the absent-minded Sint.
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. With the influx of immigrants to the Netherlands starting in the late 1950s, Zwarte Piet is felt by some to be racist. Verene Shepherd, chair of United Nations' Working Group on people of African descent, stated in an interview with the Dutch television news program EEN Vandaag on 22 October 2013 that, "The working group cannot understand why it is that the people in The Netherlands cannot see that it is a throwback to slavery [..] as a black person I feel, that I, if I were living in The Netherlands, I would object to it". The working group started investigations in 2012 and sent questions to the Dutch UN representative in January 2013. However, after a more thorough investigation it was announced that the UN would drop any 'racism' related charges against the Dutch.
Sinterklaas traditionally arrives in the Netherlands each year in mid-November (usually on a Saturday) by steamboat from Spain. He then parades through the streets on his horse, welcomed by children cheering and singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. His Zwarte Piet assistants throw candy and small, round, gingerbread-like cookies, either kruidnoten or pepernoten, into the crowd. The event is broadcast live on national television in the Netherlands and Belgium.
After this national 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, horse-drawn carriage or even a fire truck.
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, that 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.
In the weeks between his arrival and 5 December, Sinterklaas also visits schools, hospitals and shopping centers. He is said to ride his white-grey horse over the rooftops at night, delivering gifts through the chimney to the well-behaved children. Traditionally, naughty children riske being caught by Black Pete, who carried a jute bag and willow cane for that purpose.
Before going to bed, children put their shoes next to the fireplace chimney of the coal-fired stove or fireplace (or in modern times close to the central heating 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 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 a 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 gingerbread biscuits or and a figurine of Sinterklaas made of chocolate and wrapped in colored aluminum foil.
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' Eve, 5 December, became the chief occasion for gift-giving during the winter holiday season. The evening is called Sinterklaasavond or Pakjesavond ("gifts evening", or literally "packages evening").
On the evening of 5 December, 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 (pretending to be a Zwarte Piet) 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 it is replaced with chocolate the next morning.
Poems from Sinterklaas usually accompany gifts, bearing a personal message for the receiver. It is usually a humorous poem which often teases the recipient for well-known bad habits or other character deficiencies.
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. Instead of such gifts being brought by Sinterklaas, family members may draw names for an event comparable to Secret Santa.
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:
The Sinterklaasfeest arose during the Middle Ages. The folk 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, half of 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 half 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 boy known as Zwarte Piet. Because of the help he gave to sailors in his home town, Saint Nicolas was venerated as the patron saint of sailors, which is why he comes to the Netherlands on a steamboat. His anonymous gifts and kindness towards children had already secured him the patronage of children, by the elders of Lycia, his home province. Sinterklaas' fame spread throughout Europe. The Roman 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.
In the Reformation in 16th-17th-century Europe, many Protestants and others changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl, and the date for giving gifts changed from December 6 to Christmas Eve.
Sinterklaas is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dresses. These helpers are called Zwarte Pieten (Black Pete(r)s). 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.
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.
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, which also contained a significant Catholic population, protested. The government eventually allowed private family celebration of Saint Nicholas' Day.
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 grey 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 Netherlands.
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).
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:
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 his own dedicated task.
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.
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