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Saint Nicholas trumps Santa Claus

We cannot study our family history well without looking at the context in which things took place. Traditions play an important role in our own life as well as that of our ancestors. Especially in the last weeks of the year traditions are key; whether it is Thanksgiving Day, Sinterklaas or Christmas. Sinterklaas has been one of the most important holidays in Dutch society for many centuries. This Saint even had an international career!

Saint Nicholas resurrecting the three children, in Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne, 1503-1508 (photo credits: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The Legend

Saint Nicholas lived from 270 to 343. He was a bishop of Myra, nowadays Demre in Turkey. His parents were wealthy Christians, probably of Greek descent. Few documents mentions his name, we do not know much about the Saint’s life or work.

In contrast, many legends have arisen about him in the centuries since his death – which occurred on December 6. Some stories say that he helped three young women, whose father was too poor to give them a dowry. Saint Nicholas threw small bags of gold or coins through the window of their house. In another story, the Saint saved three innocent men, who were sentenced to death. In one legend, he calmed a storm. And finally, he resurrected three children, who were put in a barrel of brine by a butcher. The man wanted to sell the children off as ham!

Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors (for calming the storm), merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes (for helping the three young women), children (for resurrecting the children), brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, and students. A colorful collection of people and professions! His feast day is 6 December. [source]

A family celebrating the Saint Nicholas feast, fragment of a painting by Jan Steen, 1665-1668 (photo credits: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, object SK-A-385)

Dutch Traditions

Dutch families already celebrated Sinterklaas in the 16th and 17th century. Children got gifts and sweets. A world-famous painting by Jan Steen shows the celebration by a Dutch family. In the picture we see a girl and a doll. A boy is crying on the side. He probably did not get anything, as he had been naughty. In the foreground we see cake and candy.

When we were growing up in the 1970s, Sinterklaas was – we dare to say – one of the most important holidays of the year, especially for children. Three weeks before the actual feast day, the Saint would arrive in the Netherlands with his steamer. All the way from Spain! We would sit in front of the television for this tense moment. Usually a day later, we would see the his arrival in our city: riding majestically on a white horse, the mayor officially greeting him.

We made drawings, we wrote letters and we made lists of the presents we wanted to receive. Every evening we put a shoe by the chimney or the front door. Sometimes we put a carrot in it, for Sinterklaas’ horse. And every morning we were curious to see if there was something inside.

Sinterklaas came to school, to the sports club, to the shopping center and even to the retirement home where our grandparents lived. Sinterklaas was in all places, and everywhere we stood watching him anxiously when he came closer. We sang songs for him and if we had enough guts we would walk up to him for a hand and a few words. We would get candy or little presents from his assistants.

For the real presents we had to wait until the morning of 6 December or, if we were lucky, the evening before. Those sleepless nights!

And to be fair… not much has changed!

Sinterklaas, 6 December 1974 (photo credits: private collection, John Boeren)

The Real Santa

When Dutch colonists came to New Amsterdam, nowadays New York, they also introduced Sinterklaas. Dutch families remained faithful to this tradition. In time, others started to celebrate the feast as well.

Some elements of the stories and traditions have changed over time: Sinterklaas became Santa Claus, 6 December became 25 December, Spain became the North Pole and a white horse became a reindeer. Though, in essence the story of Santa Claus is still the same as that of Sinterklaas: a good man, helping others – young and old – in need.

Traditions are important. They give us a grip in difficult times, they connect us to the past and they bring families and friends together. Even now that everything is different, we manage to find wasy to help each other. Just like Sinterklaas or Santa Claus.

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