This 1798 illustration shows the Dutch gift-giver Sinterklaas in bishop’s garb riding his horse through the streets of Holland while tossing gifts to a trailing mob of children.

On November 14, 2020, the Dutch gift-giver Sinterklaas will arrive by steamboat in the imaginary town of Zwalk, Netherlands.  The arrival of Sinterklaas on the first Saturday after November 11, a ceremony that initiates the celebration of Christmas, is a long-standing tradition in the Netherlands, and normally takes place in a real city large enough to accommodate the hoards of Dutch boys and girls who arrive to watch Sinterklaas ride off the board on a white horse.  This year, the Covid pandemic is forcing Sinterklaas to arrive virtually but we can still tell the full story of Sinterklaas.   

In 1571, at the height of the Protestant Reformation, the Dutch Royal Family adopted a Calvinist denomination, the Dutch Reformed Church, as the national religion.  The teachings of John Calvin were among the most conservative of the various Protestant denominations formed during the sixteenth century and influenced the Presbyterians of Scotland. the Puritans of England and several different Calvinist denominations that settled in New England.   Like all of the Protestant denominations, the Calvinists rejected the theology and practices of the Catholic Church, including the veneration of saints.   Unlike Protestant denominations such as the Lutherans, however, the Calvinists also rejected the celebration of Christmas entirely, believing it was a pagan or popish holiday with no basis in the Bible.  The celebration of St. Nicholas’ Day, of course, violated both principles. 

Accordingly, the Dutch government and the Dutch Reformed Church outlawed the veneration of St. Nicholas and the celebration of St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6).  The Dutch people, however, did not want to abandon their beloved St. Nicholas or his holiday and found what in hindsight seems like a simple way to avoid–some would say evade–the law.  Legally prohibited from celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas, the Dutch created a figure named Sinterklaas who looked almost exactly like St. Nicholas but was not a Catholic saint. 

Sinterklaas, the Dutch said, lived in Spain for most of the year but would travel to Holland by steamboat every year in mid-November.  Riding a white horse and wearing a bishop’s robes, Sinterklaas would participate in parades throughout the nation as his band of helpers known as Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”) would toss sweets to the watching children.  The finale of Sinterklaas’ visit was a visit to each child’s home on January 5, the day before St. Nicholas’ Day, leaving gifts in shoes the Dutch boys and girls had left on the porch.  When he was complete, Sinterklaas returned to Spain on a secret path through Germany.   

In the centuries following the establishment of the Dutch Reformed Church, there were a couple of changes in Dutch tradition that are worth noting.  One was that the hagiophobic policies of the Dutch church faded over time, and the name Sint Nicolaas became as common as Sinterklaas.  The other was that in 1850 a Dutch schoolteacher named Jan Schenkman wrote a children’s book, Sint-Nikolaas en zijn knecht (“St. Nicholas and His Servant”) that featured an unnamed black servant who appears to have been the inspiration for Black Peter.  That character quickly evolved into someone who looked more like a court jester in black face wearing the clothes of a sixteenth-century Spanish army officer.  These days, Sinterklaas attracts a throng of self-proclaimed Black Peters in black face who follow Sinterklaas and his horse in parades around the city. 

The Dutch love the Sinterklaas tradition and celebrate it even though the Netherlands has acquired a Christmas gift-giver, Kerstman, whose appearance and practices are virtually identical to the American Santa Claus.  Black Peter, however, has become increasingly controversial as a racist symbol with roots in American minstrel shows.  Some Dutch citizens vigorously defend Black Peter against allegations of racism on the ground that his skin is black because he performs the task of going up and down the chimney to deliver gifts on Christmas Eve.   

Tom A. Jerman