Built around the image of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, Sinterklass (the name resulting from the contraction of Sint Nikolaas) is a legendary Christmas figure celebrated and loved in the Netherlands. Although similar to Santa Claus in that he is an older man with a full, white beard who wears a red outfit, Sinterklass is a more serious figure, donning a bishop's headdress and carrying a long, curled shepherd's staff.
The Dutch celebrate the Feast of Sinterklaas honoring the life of St. Nicholas, and although St. Nicholas is always shown wearing his bishop's attire, the Dutch tend to see him as a kindly old man, rather than as a Catholic saint. The result is that Sinterklaas is celebrated by Dutch people of all ages and beliefs, without any real religious connotations.
The Feast of Sinterklaas
Saint Nicholas was born in the 3rd century to wealthy parents in the Patara region, Greek at the time, but currently in Turkey. He spent his life by giving away his wealth to the poor and doing good deeds. He died on December 6th, so his life is commemorated as the Feast of Sinterklass on December 5th and 6th.
The holiday, consisting of Saint Nicholas's Eve and Saint Nicholas's Day, is observed by exchanging gifts and chocolate letters of the recipient's first initial. It is also customary to make good-natured fun of your loved ones by way of humorous poetry and offering the infamous "surprise," which is a homemade gag gift that hides another present inside.
In Holland, it is more common to give presents on Sinterklaas than at Christmas, which remains a day to spend with family and attend a church ceremony. Most schools play a version of Secret Santa in which each kid has to bring a surprise gift for a classmate, whose name he or she picked out of a hat.
The Foods of Sinterklass
At the Feast of Sinterklaas, the Dutch indulge in a variety of sweets including cookies, candies, and bread. Traditional recipes are speculaas (spiced cookies), kruidnoten (mini spiced cookies, also called ginger nuts), pepernoten (small aniseed-flavored honey cookies), taai-taai (aniseed and honey-flavored figurines), banketstaaf (almond-filled pastries), chocolate letters, and duivekater (a festive sweet bread). A type of mulled wine, called bischopswijn, is also enjoyed.
Offering Carrots and Hay
Dutch children believe that Sinterklaas writes down whether they've been naughty or nice in his red book. By leaving their shoes near the door or chimney and placing carrots or hay for Sinterklass's horses inside of them, the kids expect a gift in return if they were good. Some parents leave a bag of gifts on Sinterklass's behalf by the door and the occasional "surprise" knock signals the kids that the gifts have arrived.
Sinterklass vs. Santa
It is said that Sinterklaas was the precursor of Santa Claus. Historians believe that Dutch and German settlers took the tradition with them to America. There, his Catholic garb was gradually transformed into the jolly non-sectarian red suit with the white fur trim we are all so familiar with. Additionally, his lithe frame gave way to a well-padded potbelly, and his trusty white steed was traded in for a troupe of reindeer. Either way, both Sinterklaas and Santa Claus stand for the generosity of spirit and kindness to children.