Sinterklaas vs Santa Claus

“Sinterklaas? Do you mean Santa Claus?” is easily our international clients’ most frequently asked question whenever we talk about this Dutch national holiday. Uhm no, I mean Sinterklaas. Followed by the usual explanation: “Sinterklaas is this old guy dressed in red, and he rides a white horse. He has hundreds of Black Petes who help him buy, wrap and ship all the presents for all of the well-behaved kids. It is a national holiday that is celebrated on December 5th…”

“He is a very nice old man who has a long white beard, dresses in red and gives presents in December to all the good girls and boys.”

If you work in marketing and PR for an international company in the Netherlands, you are probably familiar with the efforts to explain Sinterklaas to your foreign colleagues. Since we face the same challenge with our international clients, we decided we might as well explain the whole story in this blog. And so, for all of our international clients, who wonder what those Dutch people are talking about, we created this overview of what the national holiday of Sinterklaas entails and the differences with Santa Claus.*

Sinterklaas vs Santa Claus

Sinterklaas lives in Madrid (Spain) and usually arrives in Holland by steam boat somewhere around mid-November. On this date, you will see (steam) boats arriving in almost every village, town or city in the Netherlands, carrying Sinterklaas and his friendly helpers. The local brass band will be there providing upbeat Sinterklaas music, and the mayor will officially welcome Sinterklaas to the country. Hundreds, or even thousands of kids will be there with their parents to watch the arrival of Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas’ helpers, called Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes), carry around gingerbread-like, small treats to give to the kids.

“Between his arrival mid November and December 6th, which is when Sinterklaas goes back to Spain, kids put their shoes in front of the chimney right before they go to bed.”

Between their arrival and December 6th, which is when they go back to Spain, kids put their shoes in front of the chimney right before they go to bed. They perform a traditional Sinterklaas song, leave a treat for his horse, Amerigo, and hope that the next day he will have left them a nice present. It is rumoured that the Black Petes enter these kids’ houses through the chimney, and walk around on the roofs. If you listen very carefully, you might just hear them. But mind you, he only leaves presents for those who have been good. If you’ve misbehaved, he will take you back to Spain in a burlap sack!

On December 5th, Sinterklaas celebrates his birthday. On this night (pakjesavond), families with young kids come together to play games and unwrap a whole bunch of presents that were left by Black Pete, usually on the porch or in the garage. In the Netherlands, almost every kid grows up believing that Sinterklaas leaves presents for those who have been good, and that he takes misbehaving kids back to Spain in a burlap sack. During the months of November and December, parents warn their children of these consequences.  Somewhere around the age of 8 or 9 you will discover that the entire country has been fooling you and that Sinterklaas doesn’t really exist. It was really you parents who were buying you all those wonderful presents.

In short, an overview of the difference between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus:

  1. Santa Claus lives on the North Pole. Sinterklaas lives in Spain.
  2. Sinterklaas rides a white horse called Amerigo. Santa Claus rides a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
  3. Santa Claus delivers presents on the night of December 24th.
  4. Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands in the middle of November, for three weeks he and his helpers deliver small presents and on the 5th of December, his birthday, he delivers a whole bunch of presents, after which he returns home.
  5. Santa Claus dresses in red with a white trim. Sinterklaas wears red with a golden trim and carries an intricate staff.
  6. Santa Claus’ little helpers are elves, Sinterklaas’ helpers are Black Petes (who are currently a source of nationwide discussion*).
  7. Santa Claus flies to his destination. Sinterklaas arrives by steam boat.
  8. Santa Claus puts presents for children under a Christmas tree. Sinterklaas puts presents in childrens’ shoes.
  9. Sinterklaas tells Black Pete to put naughty kids in a burlap sack and take them back to Spain.

Just like many other nations, the Dutch also celebrate Christmas and the arrival of Santa Claus.

*Please note that we are aware of the ongoing nationwide discussion around Black Pete and racism. However, for the purpose of this blog, we have decided not to touch on this issue today. 

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