Sinterklaas or Santa Claus?

Sinterklaas, Odin, Father Christmas, Sint Nicolaas, Sint Nikolaas, Kris Kringle, De Goedheiligman (The Good Holy Man), or Santa Claus, are they all one in the same? Outside of parallels to Odin, the “Santa Claus” we know today seems to be stemmed from the Dutch belief of a jolly old man that was the Christian Saint “Sinterklaas” accompanied by his blackened sidekick – Zwart Piet. Our story seems to take place in the frosty month of December when this gift giving or coal tossing jolly old man visits the good and bad kids around the world. The original “Sinterklaas” in Dutch tradition would visit the children on December 6th of every year – this quickly was taken over by North America’s Coca-Cola image of the same character as “Santa Claus” to take place on December 25th of every year instead. The original Dutch man would be a town resident dressed up as Sinterklaas – wearing a red bishop’s tall hat, cape, shiny ring, jeweled staff, and elegantly garbed mounted on a white steed with his sidekick “Black Peter”, Zwart Peit, or the Grumpus as a half-man, half-beast carrying a bag full of toys and coal. They would visit houses late at night and knock on doors delivering gifts or coal. The Grumpus would rattle chains and threaten to steal away the naughty children in his big black bag.

The Original Sinterklaas and Zwart Piet:
Some say, the original Sinterklaas was modeled after the Germanic God “Odin” who presided over the traditions of Yule. This is believed to have come from pre-Christian times. The parallels modelled towards Odin come from the fact that Odin rides through the sky on his grey horse Sleipnir, and Sinterklaas rides the roof tops with his white horse of many names. Odin carried a spear and had black ravens as his attributes, and Sinterklaas carried a staff and was accompanied by mischievious helpers with black faces. Some of this come from the “Prose Edda” a 13th century manuscript that describes Odin riding an 8-legged horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances which is compared to today’s Santa with flying sleigh and 8 magical reindeer. It is said, during Yule, children would place their boots filled with carrots, straw, or sugar near the chimney for Odin’s flying horse to eat. Odin would then reward the kindness of the children in exchange of Sleipnir’s food with candy and/or toys. This mutated to hanging stockings at the chimneys. Historically as a real person, there was Saint Nicholas (280-342), the Patron Saint of children who was a Greek bishop of Myra in present day Turkey. Sinterklaas was born in the 4th century in Myra, Asia Minor and became a bishop who was very fond of children. It is said that once a local innkeeper chopped up three young boys into a stew after they ditched paying for a meal at his restaurant. Once Nicholas heard about this, he went to the innkeeper and told him if could find one little piece of each boy that was good, he would perform a miracle and bring them back to life which he did. After that, Nicholas became Sinterklaas going around finding young children who were good to reward them. In 1087 his relics were translated to Bari, in southeastern Italy, where he became known as Nikolaos of Bari. Around this time he became the Patron Saint of Sailors. His legend and tales spread to Italy, Spain, and Northern Europe to where it was a widespread belief by the 11th century and he became the Patron Saint for Children, Unwed maidens, sailors, and the City of Amsterdam. He arrived in Amsterdam via ship on December 5th from Spain and is supposedly greeted by a group of Grumpuses. When one of them became his servant as Black Peter and joined him, is unknown. However, the tradition became so widespread in Holland to honor the old Bishop and Zwart Piet, that parties were established as get-togethers for present exchanges, candles, cookies, and pots of hot chocolate. Every year since on December 5th, people go down to the docks to greet him and great parades, parties, special songs, and pastries are done for his arrival in Amsterdam and Rhinebeck.

Traditions believing in Sinterklaas was brought by Dutch settlers to America both as St. Nicholas and the holiday Sinterklaas. In 1642, Henry Hudson built the first church on the Island of Manhattan and dedicated it to Sinterklaas. In 1664 when the British took over New Amsterdam, they also adopted Sinterklaas and merged it with their observations of “Father Christmas” and the “Winter Solstice”, and so St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Father Christmas were merged into one. As America embraced the jolly fellow, and its literature popularized the mythology, made the myth more popular. Washington Irving’s 1809 Knickerbocker Tales made Sinterklaas a jolly old fella, and the 1822 Episcopal priest Clement Moore who wrote in his poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” introduced a jolly old elf coming down a chimney on Christmas Eve riding a sleigh drawn by 8 tiny reindeer. So forth “Santa Claus” was born from the Dutch “Sinterklaas”. Norse mythology also spoke of a elf called “Nisse” or “Tomte” who would deliver Christmas presents throughout Denmark. He was described as a short bearded man dressed in grey clothes and wearing a red hat. “Father Christmas” in Britain, from the 17th century, was a jolly fat beareded man dressed in a long green fur-lined robe who represented the spirit of good cheer during Christmas, often as the Ghost of Christmas Present as depicted by Charles Dickens in his classic “A Christmas Carol”. After Americanization, he was popularized as a large heavyset white haired old man with jolly cheeks and a smile by the 1863 cartoon of him by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly. White Rock Beverages used a red and white Santa to sell their mineral water in 1915 and their ginger ale in 1923, as well as imaged in red and white on the cover of Puck magazine. It was from this image, that Haddon Sundblom depicted him in his current image in a 1930’s advertising campaign by Coca-Cola to match their colors and logo.

Zwart Piet, or Black Peter, the Bel Snickle, the Grumpus, the Rupelz, Shab, the Krampucz is Sinterklaas’ cohert. Santa rewards the good children, Zwart Piet takes care of the bad kids. Sometimes they carried switches or coal with them in their darkened bags. Sometimes the threat of kidnapping bad children was made known at this time of year. Some say the Grumpus had black faces with colorful Moorish dresses due to the nationality at the time of Sinterklaas. These helpers, called “Zwarte Pieten” or “Black Petes” represented evil, as during the Middle Ages “Zwarte Piet” was a name for evil. The Saint or bishop travels in companionship with a frolicking devil – representing good and evil in their travels together. Early legend states that the Grumpus were derived from Odin’s two ravens, Hugin and Munin who always kept Odin abreadst of what was going on – and when Odin defeated evil, his helper Norwi, the black father of the night, carrying a staff of birch, came to represent the Zwarte Piet. These Grumpuses eventually evolved into the Elves at the North Pole that help Santa Claus in American lore. There is a “Piete” for every function – navigators, acrobatics to climb roofs or down chimneys, toy makers, and inventors. The image of the black faced Zwart Piet in the 1950’s was felt by many to be a racist depiction of slavery, causing further abolishing of the image and mutation into elves. Eventually as “St. Nicholas” or “Santa Claus”, the legendary man with his elves by the 1820’s were believed to live in the North Pole and such a homestead became popularized at the time by stories, songs, and poems.

Traditionally the holiday and lore surrounding Sinterklaas involve madarin oranges, hot chocolate, pepernoten, letter-shaped pastries filled with almond paste, chocolate letters of the children visited, speculaas, chocolate coins, marzipan figures, gingerbread, and cookies in the shape of Sinterklaas. Children traditionally leave Santa a glass of milk and a plate of cookies, though in Australia and Britain often left Sherry and mince pies instead, while in Norway and Sweden he is left rice porridge, and Ireland common Guinness or milk with Christmas pudding or mince pies. Children began writing to Santa Claus along with the evolution of mail. Eventually the post offices of most Western countries began handling the excess mail to Santa and some endeavour to answer each and every letter. In 1955, the Sears Roebuck store in Colorado Springs, Colorado accidentally misprinted a telephone number as a “Santa Hotline” to NORAD that led to NORAD developing a “Tracking Santa” program. Adults as well as children celebrate Santa throughout the world. Individuals dress up as Santa for charity drives, thrift stores, shopping malls, advertising slogans, publicity stunts, and drunken rampages or pub crawls called “Santarchy” or Santa Con. Some Christian faiths have recently started to boycott Santa due to his mixed Pagan and Christian roots or because of his representation for commercialism.


  • Bowler, Gerry
    2004 “The World Encyclopedia of Christmas”, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Limited. ISBN 978-0-7710-1535-9
    2007 “Santa Claus: A Biography”, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Limited. ISBN 978-0-7710-1668-4
  • Illes, Judika
    2009 The Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses. ISBN: 9780061350245.
  • McKnight, George Harley
    1917 “St. Nicholas – His Legend and His Role in the Christmas Celebration”
  • Sinterklaas Rhinebeck
    2011 Website referenced December 2011.

  • Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia
    2011 – Website referenced.

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