St. Nicolas, Sinterklaas or Santa Claus?

Photo credit: Hans S

I grew up in the US, where a jolly big-bellied Santa Claus comes from the North Pole on a sled pulled by reindeer, bringing presents to all the children (or coal, if you’re naughty) on Christmas eve.You would leave out some cookies and milk and he would come down your chimney.

However, my parents, being Portuguese, always told us they didn’t grow up with a Santa tradition. Instead it was baby Jesus who would leave a gift in their shoe on Christmas eve. This, of course, was until consumerism took over Portuguese tradition and brought Santa to Iberian lands as well. Still, easy to follow what’s going on.

Then we move to Belgium. I hear about Saint Nicolas. OK, I’ve always known Santa as St. Nick as well. No problem, I get it. Except, then I find out he doesn’t come at Christmas, he comes December 6! And in Flemish it’s Sinterklaas. OK, no biggie. Well, at least not until we had kids!

They way we ‘do the Holidays’ in our family, like most expats living in Belgium, is to go ‘home’ (whatever that means!) for the winter holidays, rushing across Portugal from one set of parents to the other, dragging presents and our belongings behind.

Once Eldest Sprout came along, things got more hectic, especially regarding presents. There were always too many to bring back with us on the plane and we could never give a big-ticket item because it was logistically impossible. On top of that, last year Eldest Sprout was 2 and really got Santa. What we did was buy his present, leave it under the tree in our house here and when we got back from Portugal, showed him the box Santa left when passing through Belgium.

This year, he’s in preschool. Belgian preschool. Saint Nicolas has finally made it into the picture, so I decided to dig deeper. I even thought I’d buy him a children’s book explaining the legend. So, while at the supermarket I saw some children’s books on Saint Nicolas and started to read through. It was like a Brothers Grimm tale! A butcher kidnaps some children and is going to cut them into pieces and pickle them in brine to eat up when along comes Saint Nicolas to the rescue. What?

I figured it was time to look into this a bit more and this is what I found. Saint Nicolas, or Sinterklaas, is celebrated in many European countries, mostly Central and Eastern European it seems. He’s actually based on a real person, the Saint Nicholas of Myra, hailing from what is now Turkey.

It turns out the American Santa, jolly old Saint Nick, is a modified version of this brought to the US by Dutch settlers. In Belgium and the Netherlands, he comes from Spain (don’t ask me why!) on a steamboat (again, why?) accompanied by white men painted black (!!!!), known as Père Fouettard in French and Zwarte Piet (literally Black Pete) in Dutch.

You are supposed to leave out beer for Saint Nicholas, and carrots and turnips for his donkey – although I’ve also read he comes on a white horse. Children leave out their stockings for him to leave a treat, if you’ve been nice, of course. This tradition comes from another of the Saint’s legends, and is also why in many other countries you put out stockings on Christmas eve.

Now, if you’ve been naughty, you really better watch out! Père Fouettard comes around with a whip (fouet in French) for the naughty boys and girls! In some places, he may also put naughty children in a bag and take them back to Spain. Yikes!

If I got it right, Père Fouettard and Zwarte Piet are one and the same in Belgium, but not so in regions of France. If anyone would like to clarify in the comments, I’d greatly appreciate it! Besides all this brutal stuff, there’s also the connotation of a black Pete following Santa around. He’s said to be Saint Nicolas’ slave from colonial times. The more recent, more politically correct version is that he’s his helper and is black with soot from going down chimneys.

So, what have we told Eldest Sprout? For now, Saint Nicolas delivers presents to children in Belgium on December 6th and Father Christmas (Pai Natal in Portuguese), who I also call Santa Claus (oops, too much confusion?), delivers presents to children in Portugal. Our lucky Sprouts get to celebrate twice! As for the book on the legend of Saint Nicholas… it stayed in the shop.

I would love to hear in the comments how you handle disparaging holiday traditions!

Fans of Flanders
This post was originally written for the Fans of Flanders website, with whom I have a regular contribution. Go check them out!

4 thoughts on “St. Nicolas, Sinterklaas or Santa Claus?

  1. Lovely post Sandra! I have also encountered the confusion in my children’s lives. Coming myself from Mexico with the commercial version of the American Santa Claus, raising my mixed race/religion little ones in England with Father Christmas and with their Papa being muslim!! well, what can I say!, My eldest son is already 5, the little one 2 and basically copying everything and believing anything her brother does. We normally celebrate Xmas in Mexico, not this year though. So, after having seen “Santa” parasailing along a Mexican coast of the Pacific Ocean :D, I had it harder this year. But well, we read through the legend you commented of the real person based on St Nicholas of Myra and have been reading about the tradition of Father Christmas in here who originally dressed in green. We decided to leave it as that, as legends and traditions and my very factual boy is quite happy with that. We will be preparing gifts to give to our loved ones and pretend Santa/Father Xmas delivers our presents on Christmas eve, 24th, still a surprise to be found under the tree on the 25th. We’ll leave it for them to remember that Christmas is only a time to give and therefore receive, and to share special moments with people we love and who loves us very much too.
    Happy season!

  2. Hello Sandra!

    I was directed to your blog by Lau after I asked her some questions about breastfeeding (yes, I also struggle with my own feelings/instincts vs society’s general ideas!). I am Lies, and I got married to your friend Paulo last year in April – you were there too!

    Anyways, I’ll stick to this topic for now 🙂 I am Flemish and I grew up with Sinterklaas (Santa Claus was made up by Coca-Cola is what I was told when I was small), I consider myself to be kind of an expert 😉 As far as I know, the tales and traditions of Sinterklaas are the same for Belgium and neighbouring regions, though I suppose it is possible that there are small variations. I myself grew up with the story (and songs of) the chopped up children, the threats of “behave or we’ll tell zwarte piet and he’ll take you in his bag back to Spain for a full year!” etc. It really worked though, I would instantly do what was expected :))

    From what I understand, in the past 20 years these stories have softened up a little, as some child psychologists claimed that these kind of threats and stories could traumatise children. Personally, I have no mental scars, only the greatest memories of the times that I believed in Sinterklaas. When I was told the Truth, I cried and I was angry at my parents for telling me because I liked my life better believing the story.

    If you want to learn more about Sinterklaas, I highly recommend you buy the dvd’s from “Dag Sinterklaas” with Bart Peeters. The VRT would every day air a short episode a few weeks before December 6 when I was a kid. All topics related to Sinterklaas are addressed in these episodes, it’s really well made and explained. My sisters, myself and all the kids I knew were glued to the tv screen, it was part of the magic! Not sure if the dvd’s come with subtitles though.

    Paulo and I have already decided that mr. Baby will have the advantage of celebrating both Sinterklaas and Pai Natal. After all, the world is a big place, so Sinterklaas and Pai Natal made a deal for each working in a certain region. So Sinterklaas will bring presents to Belgium and Pai Natal will take care of Portugal!

    PS: minor detail, here Sinterklaas delivers to shoes 😉

  3. OMG!!!! I can’t believe you’re having (already had?) a baby! Congratulations! It’s great to hear from you, hope all is going smoothly! I’ll send you an email with my contacts if you don’t have them.
    Yes, we did both this year as well, only I forgot the treats and shoes, bad mommy! Sprout 1 didn’t notice and Sprout 2 is too young to know what’s going on.
    A hang up about Sinterklaas is Zwarte Piet, and not because of the threats really, but because of the racial aspect. I have a black friend whose finding it quite hard to explain to her son… We chose to ignore it this year. Any suggestions?

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