I have always been puzzled why we sometimes refer to Santa Claus here in the United States as St. Nick. What does a plump, jolly old man with a white beard, red velvet suit trimmed in white fur, and black boots who rides in a sleigh driven by 8 reindeer have to do with a patron saint? Having been raised in the Protestant Dutch Reformed Church, I had no idea what a particular patron saint stood for as our church generally referred to saints as a collective whole and did not pay homage to any one in particular. Well it appears that our dear Santa Claus was inspired by the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas, which will occur tonight, December 5th, in The Netherlands.
Our jolly elf’s name is believed by many to have been derived from the old Dutch name, Sinter Klaas. There is no direct translation, but “Sint” means saint and “Klas” or Klaase” means class or classroom. Hence the reference to the patron saint of children. In fact, today’s Dutch Sinterklaas (formally known as Sint Nicolaas), although considered a non-secular figure, has his roots in Roman Catholism. Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (now modern day Turkey). He is best known as the patron saint of children, in addition to the patron saint of sailors and Amsterdam. So it is fitting that our beloved Santa Claus, who loves children, should be named after this saint.
There are some similarities between these two figures: both have long white beards, both of their attires are red and white, both love children and reward them for being good throughout the year, and in more modern times both arrive in town in November, being the main focus of a parade. However, the history and cultures of these two countries have shaped the rest of these two holiday icons quite differently. Sinterklaas’s story has evolved from the middle ages, where its roots mired the real saint’s life, and has been changed by the influence of The Netherlands’ changing culture, and particularly its secular and non-secular history. His attire, that of a bishop, dates back to pre-Protestant Reformation times, his arrival from Spain in a steamboat references back to the real Saint Nicholas (whose remains ended up in Bari, which at one time was part of the Spanish Empire; the arrival by steamboat is attributed to an 1800s writer, whose understandment likely refers to the patron saint of sailors), his sidekicks, “Zwarte Pieten”, derive from the Moorish occupation of Spain and also The Netherlands territories in Africa during its Golden Age, and Zwarte Pieten’s representation as bad and evil, likely shaped by the church’s belief that unacceptable behavior would not go unpunished.
Our American Santa Claus’s history is much shorter. It is widely believed that he was introduced by the early Dutch settlers in New York and Pennsylvania during the 1600s. But the Santa Claus we know and revere today was largely shaped by the poem “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore written in 1823 and by cartoonists of the 19th century, particularly Thomas Nast. Our beloved Santa Claus has always been viewed as a strictly non-secular image of Christmas.
By the time my great-grandparents arrived in America in 1890, Santa Claus was as much a part of the Christmas spirit as its religious counterpart, the celebration of the birth of Jesus. But the commercialization of Christmas around Santa Claus would have probably come much later, first with the invention of the radio and later the television. So the Reyst and Smouter families likely carried on the tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas on December 5th and 6th for a few years while their children were young. Among the sparse belongings that they brought with them, I am sure there were pairs of wooden shoes that their four small children placed out on St. Nicholas Eve in hopes that they would be filled with candy and small treats in the morning. As a parent I know that I would have told my small children that Santa Claus would find them no matter where we lived in the world, so I am pretty confident that my grandparents and their siblings were also reassured that Sinterklaas would find them in their new homes in America. In contrast to the celebration and gift-giving of Sinterklaas, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day would have been observed strictly as a religious event, attending church and spending time with family.
As I child I was fascinated with how different cultures celebrated the holidays. As a mother I had the opportunity to relive that awe through my oldest child, Erin. Every December her third grade teacher would depart from the usual curriculum and dedicate part of each afternoon to student reports on a particular country’s holiday celebration. In addition to the required poster board presentation, which would be proudly displayed on the walls above their lockers outside their classroom door, the children were encouraged to use other visuals as they reported on their chosen country’s traditions. The children bought in traditional holiday decorations, including homemade crafts, and even bite-sized samples of foods traditionally served during those holiday celebrations. Maybe this year, you can take your own children or grandchildren on their own adventure and explore how families elsewhere in the world are celebrating the holidays this year.