The secret Dutch side of Santa Claus

Sinterklaas has left the Netherlands on his steamboat and is probably recuperating by his pool in Spain. But do not worry, another bearded, red-clad old guy is already on display in every store window and movie on TV! You might not want anything to do with this poster boy of American capitalism but think again: because Santa Claus is actually a Dutchie.

You might be thinking: Santa Claus, Dutch? What are you talking about; he’s from the North Pole! And you’re obviously right. But what many people don’t know is that Santa Claus actually originates from the Dutch version of the old man that brings presents, Sinterklaas.

The history of Santa

Of course, Sinterklaas comes from Sint Nicolaas, or Saint Nicholas in English, who originates from Saint Nicholas from Myra, a Greek-Christian bishop from the 4th century. He lived in Myra, Lycia, in the area that is now Turkey. He is well-known for his generous and secret gifts to the poor and became known in history as a patron saint for sailors and children.

Historians believe that Dutch immigrants in the 17th century brought the Sinterklaas festivities with them when they went to the New World. There he merged with other influences, foremost the English figure of Father Christmas. Father Christmas is a merry old man just like Santa but did not bring gifts as Sinterklaas did; he only encouraged adults to drink and eat (like they needed encouragement). Sinterklaas together with Father Christmas slowly turned into Santa Claus. The first mention of the Americanisation of Sinterklaas into Santa Claus was on December 23, 1773, when an issue of the New York newspaper Rivington’s Gazette stated:

“Last Monday, the anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called Santa Claus, was celebrated at Protestant Hall, at Mr. Waldron’s; where a great number of sons of the ancient saint the Sons of Saint Nicholas celebrated the day with great joy and festivity.”

Santa gets Christmas trees… so he must win, right? Image: Greenstock/Pixabay

The popularity of St. Nicholas was further enhanced by the book A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, a satirical work written by Washington Irving in 1809, telling the world about the Dutch history of New York. In this book, St. Nicholas lost his bishop attire and was described as a jolly pipe-smoker.

“The good St. Nicholas would often make his appearance in his beloved city of a holiday afternoon, riding jollily among the treetops or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets and dropping them down the chimneys of his favourites.”

A brief history of Santa told by someone who talks really fast.

The Santa Claus image

There are a few noticeable moments in history where Santa Claus turned into the figure he is today. Before these moments, there were many differences in the way he was depicted. First of all, there was the poem published in 1823, “A visit from St. Nicholas”, also known as “The night before Christmas.” Authorship is later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, who was said to be influenced by the historical character St. Nicolas. Later contributions to the appearance of the Santa Claus we know today are the 19th-century cartoonist Thomas Nast and the Coca Cola advertisements starring Santa Claus from the 1930s.

The differences between Santa & Sinterklaas

Throughout the years, Sinterklaas and Santa grew apart and there are now some distinct differences between the two. While Sinterklaas is a somewhat distinguished elderly gentleman, Santa Claus is the prime example of feestelijkheid (festivity). Sinterklaas has a lean physique while Santa is shaking his belly ‘like a bowl full of jelly’ while laughing. Sinterklaas sits on a horse, while Santa is leaning back in a sled (seems easier, being a little overweight).

There’s also the difference in hometowns. Santa lives at the North Pole (hence the warm outfit) and Sinterklaas resides in Spain (no explanation for his outfit whatsoever — I hope he loses the robe and gloves while chilling next to the pool and wears swimming trunks. But honestly, I don’t want to think about Sinterklaas wearing swimming trunks).

Then there is the difference in transportation, helpers, hat, etc. Another a noticeable difference: Santa has a wife (Mrs. Claus) while Sinterklaas is the asexual type that you would imagine reading a good book in front of the fire late at night, while Santa cuddles up next to the Mrs. to watch Jimmy Fallon.

If you had to choose, would it be Sinterklaas or Santa Claus you’d keep? Let us know in the comments below. 

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in December 2016 and was updated in December 2020 for your reading pleasure. 

Feature image: Eric Bro/Wikimedia Commons. 

Ciska Schippers
Ciska Schippers is an almost-historian from Amsterdam and loves everything that has to do with the wonders of American culture, politics and history. Biggest guilty pleasure is watching reality tv shows of which she is convinced are real. Suffering the hardships of being a Feyenoord fan in Amsterdam.

5 COMMENTS

  1. well guys, it seems actually Santa is GREEK! No? I mean that’s what it says here…and was only usurped by the Dutch and then the Americans…WOW the politics of Xmas…. 😀

  2. one major problem, he is a saint, saint nickolas, last time I checked the Dutch tend to be protestants
    That being said the celebration would likely be carried on as unlike cromwell the republic didn’t seem to outright want to ban celebrations, (though protestantism did make Dutch cooking bland for most of it’s destinct history )(no frivolity without cause)

  3. More than half (54 percent) of Dutch people aged 15 years and over do not consider themselves part of an ideological group. In 2019, 20 percent of the Dutch population belonged to the Catholic Church, 15 percent were Protestant, 5 percent Muslim and 6 percent belonged to another religious group. Religious involvement has continued to decline in recent years. In 2017, for the first time more than half of the Dutch population aged 15 years and over did not belong to a religious or ideological group.

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