Dutch Christmas tradition

December 02, 2012  •  Leave a Comment
One of the big differences between England and the Netherlands is the whole tradition around Christmas.

The Christian religion elements are the same but the traditions around giving and receiving presents, and the story around Father Christmas, also known as Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas is different.

From my childhood in England, I know that Father Christmas lives with his wife in the North Pole and for most of the year supervises a large team of Elves in a toy making workshop. Each Christmas Eve he loads his sleigh with toys, and pulled by a team of reindeer delivers the toys to children around the world.

You can write to him to explain what you would like to receive, but to be honest my attempts at this were not very successful so I am still waiting for many of my childhood wish list items to be delivered. Each year I hope he will have found my letters hidden in his workshop or fallen behind a workbench but so far no luck.

In the Netherlands the children explain to me that Sinterklaas actually lives in Spain, where he also spends most of the year making presents assisted by his helper Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). A few weeks before Christmas he sets off from Spain in a boat ( a steamship usually) arriving in The Netherlands at the bargaining of December. On the 5th of December the children leave out their clogs or shoes for Sinterklaas to fill with presents and sweets. The 6th December is of course the feast day of St Nicholas.

Sinterklaas does not look like Santa Claus, but has a more religious appearance. According to wikipedia and other reliable sources both are based on Saint Nicholas of Myra, who was a 4th century Greek Christian Bishop of Myra (now called Demre) in Turkey. In his role as Sinterklaas in the Netherlands St Nicholas is portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes.




The surprising thing though is not Sint himself but his helper Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) because this seems out of place in todays world.
As part of the celebrations and build up to Christmas, many people dress up as Zwarte Piet and parade in the towns dressed in bright clothing, and with black make up on their faces and arms, distributing peppernotten ( a small biscuit type sweet) to the children.

Many of the young children in the crowds, or even just shopping with their parents have Piet style outfits and even a few of them can always be found with blackened faces.

I cannot think of any other occassions when it would be felt appropriate to have people made up in black make up.

Every year there are articles in the news about this issue and the accusation of racism in this tradition, but most of my Dutch colleagues see this as harmless fun, and few of them recognise this as being offensive in any way.

Dutch people both collectively and individually are socially tolerant and responsible. The Netherlands is home to many foreign and immigrant people, and overall the country appears well integrated and largely free of any racial tension.

The arrival of Sint and Piet is a happy event with everyone enjoying themselves.


For myself, I live in the Netherlands and I respect their social customs and norms, but all the same I still find it a bit strange to watch the Festive parades involving people "blacked up" as Sint's helpers.



However a bit of wikipedia style research also reveals that English Santa is not quite what he seems and over the years has been enhanced mega-botox style

Before the 1930's Santa was pictured in many ways as a bishop as in The Netherlands, tall man, thin man, chief elf and more. His coat started as brown and over some years changed to red.

His current more fat and jolly image has much of its roots in Coca Cola advertising starting from the 1920s

The Coca-Cola Company began its Christmas advertising in the 1920s with shopping-related ads in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. The first ads used a rather strict-looking Santa Claus.

In 1930, artist Fred Mizen painted a department-store Santa in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke. (You have to remember that there were no computers or any of the modern image manipulation techniques such as Photoshop, which we take for granted today)

In 1931 Coca-Cola ads appeared in popular magazines, they wanted to picture a version of Santa that was both realistic and symbolic. As in any advertising campaign the image had to be memorable but also positive about the brand.

An illustrator caled Haddon Sundblom developed advertising images based upon a poem description of Santa as warm, friendly, and pleasantly plump.

So our modern fat jolly Santa seems to have more to do with Coca Cola than any other traditional image.






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