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The name Santa Claus comes from the word Sinterklaas, or St Nicholas, who travels to towns and cities in The Netherlands, wearing his distinctive red bishop’s robes. That isn’t the only difference between Sinterklass and the Santa Claus we know and love here in the UK.
Instead of moving around with the help of reindeer and a sleigh, Sinterklass prefers to turns up to the Dutch celebrations on a steam boat with a white horse.
Together they proceed through the town and if St Nick is in Amsterdam he goes to meet the Dutch queen at her royal palace.
That evening children leave their traditional clogs or shoes by the fireplace or a windowsill, and sing special Sinterklaas songs. Instead of putting presents or sweets in stockings hung over a fireplace, they go in the children’s shoes.
So far, so wholesome. But the Dutch celebrations are far more controversial than the Santa Claus tradition enjoyed in the rest of the world. It’s all down to the appearance of Sinterklaas’s helper Zwarte Pieten, or ‘Black Peter’.
Children are told that if they misbehave during the year Black Peter will put them in a sack and take them to Spain for a year to teach then how to behave. Dutch tradition says that St Nicholas lives in Madrid,
Controversial Christmas: Traditional parades where people black up to become ‘Black Peter’ have been accused of being racistThe character has jet black skin, which is explained to Dutch children today as coming from soot in the chimneys. Traditionally though the character is black because he is supposed to be a Moor from Spain.
It is part of Holland’s Christmas rituals for people to dress up as the mischievous character alongside Santa Claus, but this has lead to charges of racism due to the blacking up involved.
Traditional Parade: On the St Nicholas festival Sinterklaas and his helpers parade through town, but the Black Peter character has attracted strong criticism
It even resulted in a UN investigation due to outrage that the some would say outdated tradition still exists. But last year Marc Jacobs, a member of the UN’s cultural arm UNESCO assured the Dutch it will not be interfering with their festivities.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has always defended the character, arguing that it is a children’s tradition. Sinterklaas parties are held that include treasure hunt games with poems and riddles to give the children clues to find presents left behind by St Nick.
Much like we might chomp on a mince pie, St Nicholas Day Eve has its own special treats too. One type of biscuit produced for the day is called ‘letter blanket’ or ‘banketletter’ which is made from marzipan or pastry.
And if all that wasn’t enough, on top of the St Nicholas Day celebrations, Holland also enjoys Christmas Day events on December 25 as well.
With the UK now adopting American pre Christmas traditions like Black Friday,
who knows whether one day we’ll have our own St Nicholas Day on December the fifths to come.