Monday, December 6, 2010

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

Today is Sinterklaas in Belgium. Sinterklaas is the holiday, December 6, but it's also the name of the mythical figure behind the holiday, a man with a long white beard and red outfit who brings presents to good little boys and girls. And yes, "Sinterklaas" does sound a lot like "Santa Claus." But they're not the same. Oh no.

"Sinterklaas" is a corruption of the Dutch "Sint Niklaas" or Saint Nicholas, who in the Catholic tradition is the patron saint of children. Aha! you say. Santa Claus is also known as Jolly Old Saint Nick, and then there's that poem by Clement Clark Moore, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (otherwise known as "The Night Before Christmas"). So they must be the same guy, right?

Not exactly. It seems that our Santa Claus was based, at least in part, on the Sinterklaas legend of the Netherlands and Flanders (in other words, Dutch-speaking parts of Europe). But whereas our St. Nick is a jolly fat man who lives at the North Pole and hangs out with elves and flying reindeer, Sinterklaas has retained the appearance of a Catholic saint.

He wears red robes and a tall red miter, as befitting the fourth-century Bishop of Myra (in present-day Turkey). He carries a bishop's crozier too, and is portrayed as a sagacious but kindly old man. He is not fat. He is, however, accompanied by Zwarte Piet, a funny, black-skinned helper.

The sight of white people in silly costumes and blackface makeup strikes me as horribly inappropriate, especially in the context of a children's holiday. I mean, what are they teaching these kids?!

But to a Belgian, Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) is just a character, like Santa's elves. He doesn't represent a racial stereotype, or any race at all. Apparently, Zwarte Piet was originally a little devil that Sinterklaas had defeated, and later was portrayed as a Moorish slave that the good saint had liberated. Nowadays his skin color is attributed to black soot from popping in and out of chimneys to deliver presents on Sinterklaas' behalf.

Sinterklaas lives in Spain, not at a secret location in the Arctic Circle. No one seems to know why he lives there now, seeing as how the real saint lived and died in Turkey. But the Dutch and Flemish do love to vacation in Spain, so I'm guessing they just put Sinterklaas in their idea of the perfect place to live. I mean, if you're not real you can live anywhere, so why not Spain?

He arrives in the Netherlands and Belgium by steamboat every year in mid-November, and then proceeds on horseback, accompanied these days by a whole posse of Black Peters. Children start putting their shoes out by the fireplace, with a carrot for the horse, in the weeks leading up to December 6th so that Sinterklaas (or his Piets) can pop by and leave candy in them. But the best and final visit from Sinterklaas happens during the night of December 5th, when he leaves presents for good children.

In Belgium, Sinterklaas is just for kids, and although he is clearly a religious figure, he has nothing to do with Christmas. Which is not to say that it isn't a festive holiday, or that the decorations and sweets aren't mightily reminiscent of similar things you might see during this time of year in the U.S. But there is no link between the gift-giving saint and the anniversary of Christ's birth.

At first, I was incredulous. How can Sinterklaas not be tied to Christmas? But then I realized that the more important question, and one that I have often asked myself over the years, is this: What does Santa Claus have to do with Christmas? Nothing. In fact, there are some who wonder whether our focus on that jolly elf and his role in the uneven distribution of material bounty hasn't overshadowed the "real" meaning of Christmas.

What's really strange is that Sinterklaas, having traveled to the New World in the nineteenth century and undergone a transformation (and secularization) into a fat man with a sleigh, has now returned to Belgium... as the Kerstman. Yep, the American image of Santa Claus can now be seen infiltrating Belgian Christmas festivities, but here he goes by the euphemistic "Christmas-man." I wonder if Belgian children ever notice the similarity between Sinterklaas and the Kerstman and if so, what do they make of it?


  1. Hi Diana,

    good read, I actually learned something as well. I couldn't resist however and googled why he is supposedly based in Spain... Apparently, his grave was moved to Bari to prevent that his body would fall into the hands of muslims when they seized Turkey, and in those days Bari (nowadays in Italy) was ruled by the Spanish. It is either that or the fact that the Spanish also ruled the Netherlands in the middle ages, and they brought this catholic tradition (and candies and oranges which are still typically given by St Nicolas) with them to the low countries.

    Concerning the 'Christmas-man': not a lot of people really go trough the trouble of pretending he gives the presents under the Christmas tree, so we see him rather as a side-show in the Christmas tradition (the main focus is on the tree and on the 'Christmas stable' representing the birth of Christ, and the presents of course, but even children know which present comes from which uncle, grandparent or whoever).

  2. Actually, in the U.S., children get one or two presents from Santa Claus, but they also get presents from their parents and other family members.

    And thanks for the explanation of the Spain connection! I found out that his grave was moved to Italy, but didn't get how that led to Spain...