News - December 3, 2009

Sinterklaas versus Santa Claus


Some interesting differences between the United States and The Netherlands can be seen in the ways that Christmas is celebrated. What I've found most interesting is the the distinction between Christmas (25 December) as a religious holiday and Sinterklaas (5 December) as a more secular holiday.

Sinterklaas versus Santa Claus
The Dutch Sinterklaas legend, as I understand it, is that he comes from Spain on a boat with his Turkish/Ethiopian servant/assistant (depending on who is telling the story) Zwarte Piet, to deliver gifts to good girls an boys on December 5th, with bad children being taken away back to Spain (or worse) in a sack by Piet. Christmas, as a religious celebration of Jesus' birthday, seems to be largely distinct from the Sinterklaas tradition.
In contrast, Santa Claus (Sinterklaas' anglophone analog) and Christmas are entirely collapsed into one holiday in the US. The legend in the US is that Santa Claus comes from the North Pole on a sled pulled by flying reindeer, delivering presents and candy to good girls and boys. These toys are supposedly made in a workshop by elves and bad children are said to receive nothing, or perhaps just lumps of coal. All of this happens on the night of December 24th, and is directly associated with Christmas. Overall, the similiarities outnumber the differences, but the split holiday in the Netherlands gives the season a somewhat different feeling.
I must admit, however, that Zwarte Piet remains a problematic figure for me. In the US, the image of the black-faced servant acting as comic relief to the good and powerful white character is largely associated with the bad old days of institutionalized racism in the early post-slavery era. While I do strive to understand Dutch culture in its own terms, because of my own background, it remains difficult to see Zwarte Piet as something other than a damaging and offensive stereotype. However, I'm always interested to hear Dutch debates on the subject.
One final difference is that Christmas in the US (like so many other things), is intensely and aggressively commercialized, with ads, songs and d├ęcor increasingly saturating media and public spaces from early November to December 25. While Sinterklaas is clearly a significant marketing event in the Netherlands, the media commercial blitz doesn't seem to be quite so over-the-top, which I find a very pleasant difference. It is entirely possible that I'm just more out of touch with it here than I was in the US. Todd Crane, Technology and Agrarian Development Group.
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