Something that many Americans don’t know is that Santa Claus is not actually an American creation. Of course his personage changed when entering the American consciousness, but the original source of Santa Claus was the Dutch Sinterklaas (which means Saint Nicholas) and the name was later corrupted to the English ‘Santa Claus’. The Sinterklaas character differs in a lot of ways from the American Santa Claus.
First of all, Sinterklaas is a skinny religious figure with a staff and large pope-like hat. He comes from Turkey via Spain to the Netherlands on a boat, rather than from the North Pole in a sleigh. Furthermore, he has helpers named Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) (in place of elves) who deliver presents and candy by placing them in the shoes of children. The zwarte pieten descend down the chimney instead of Sinterklaas himself. Oh, and, finally, he rides a white horse through the city (rather than using reindeer). Obviously, the American version has changed a lot from the original, but a few of the same themes are present.
Sinterklaas could be said to be the most important winter holiday in the Netherlands and Flanders, and is also celebrated in Wallonia, parts of Western Germany and French Flanders. Sinterklaas takes place on December 5th and 6th, instead of December 25th and the customs that go along with it differ significantly from the American version.
Part of celebrating Sinterklaas includes a secret Santa exchange where you draw names (lootjes trekken) and exchange gifts. However, unlike the American tradition, a deprecating rhyming poem should accompany the gift in the Flemish version. Some culinary traditions from Sinterklaas include eating pepernoten (kind of like ginger snaps, though this is only found in the Netherlands), marzipan, chocolate letters, and speculaas/speculoos (Dutch gingerbread).
Immediately after Sinterklaas, Christmas markets (kerstmarkten) throughout the Netherlands and Belgium crop up, and some of these markets are absolutely amazing. I wanted to introduce the other Fulbrighters to the Sinterklaas holiday and the city of Maastricht, so I took the initiative to lead a trip there for the weekend. Since I lived in Maastricht previously for four months, I knew it would be a perfect place to celebrate Sinterklaas and enjoy the wonderful Christmas market.
I started the morning with a surprise from Sinterklaas lying in my kitchen and a view of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet at the Antwerp Central Station!
After celebrating Sinterklaas by exchanging gifts in a wonderful, spacious AirBnB, the troupe headed to the Maastricht Christmas fair to enjoy Glühwein (hot German wine) and other great German and Dutch snacks, such as Bratwurst, Reibekuchen (potato pancakes), Apfulmus (applesauce) and Poffertjes (tiny pancakes with sugar and butter). We also had a great ride on a giant Ferris wheel (reuzenrad).
The following morning we explored the city of Maastricht and caught a great view from Fort. St. Pieter, built on a hill nearby Maastricht in the 1700’s. The whole weekend was a great way to learn about a great Dutch/Belgian holiday and learn more about Belgium and its northern neighbor.
Happy Sinterklaas everyone! Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!