Sinterklaas vs. Santa Claus and Other ‘Merry-time’ Traditions

Angela Dansby

Many traditions this merry time of year have European origins, though the United States has added to them via storytelling and commercialism. Much credit goes to Germany for starting the traditions of decorating trees for Christmas in the Middle Ages, Christmas markets since the 1300s (modern versions in Belgium are pictured here), candy canes as of 1670 (introduced in America in 1847 by a German-Swedish immigrant and widespread in the 1950s with the invention of an automated candy cane-making machine), gingerbread houses popularized by the German Brothers Grimm who wrote the fairytale “Hansel and Gretel,” and advent calendars, the advent of which was in 1903 by German publisher Gerhard Land. The advent wreath, representing eternal life with candles symbolizing the light of Jesus, also has German roots, even though wreaths at large were created by ancient Greeks and Romans.

The yule log, a large piece of wood traditionally burned in the hearth on Christmas Eve, goes back to Norway with ancient winter solstice celebrations. “Yule” came from the Norse word hweol, meaning wheel, which symbolized the sun as a great wheel of fire that rolled towards and away from the earth. The yule log became a confection with rolled, iced cake in the 1800s with likely origins in France. (Who else would master the “bûche de Noël?”)

Mistletoe was considered magical by Celtic and Teutonic people as they thought it could heal wounds and increase fertility. Celts hung mistletoe in their homes for good luck and to ward off evil spirits. Surprisingly, the English romanticized the plant during the prudish Victorian era. They hung sprigs of mistletoe from ceilings and in doorways to justify kissing.

The English are also credited with both good and bad Christmas recipes. On the yummy side is Christmas pudding, also known as figgy or plum pudding dating back to the Middle Ages, as well as the precursor of eggnog. The latter came from posset, a drink made with hot curdled milk and ale or wine from medieval England. American colonists created their own version of it with rum, leading to what we know as eggnog today. On the yucky side of English Christmas heritage is fruitcake, the butt of U.S. culinary jokes, but a favorite of some Brits … Princess Diana and Kate Middleton served it at their weddings. The town of Manitou Springs, Colorado, treats it differently; it has been holding The Great Fruitcake Toss annually for almost three decades.

The English are better known for creating “The 12 Days of Christmas,” first as a poem in a 1780 children’s book called “Mirth Without Mischief,” then as a song by English composer Frederic Austin. Even though most hear this song in the days leading up to Christmas, the Christian 12 days of Christmas span the birth of Jesus and visit of the Magi Dec. 25 to Jan. 6. That said, Christian references to the song turn out to be a myth.

However, the mythical character Saint Nicholas is very much rooted in Christianity. St. Nicholas was a Christian monk born around A.D. 280 in Patara near the city of Myra in modern Turkey. He was admired for being pious and kind, giving away inherited wealth and traveling around to help the poor and sick. Over many years, St. Nicholas became known as the protector of children and sailors, supposedly stopping a violent storm to save doomed sailors, donating money to a poor father so he did not have to sell his daughters into prostitution, and reviving three boys who were dismembered by an evil butcher. On the anniversary of St. Nicholas’s death, Dec. 6 in an unknown year, a feast day began in his honor by both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

This tradition of more than 1,000 years was popularized in The Netherlands in the 1700s. St. Nicholas was depicted as a tall, white-bearded man in a red clerical robe with a pointy hat. He would arrive every Dec. 6 on a boat to leave gifts or lumps of coal in the homes of nice or naughty children. 

The Dutch nicknamed St. Nicholas (Sint Nikolaas in Dutch) Sinterklaas as a shortened form. Dutch immigrants in New York are thought to have brought Sinterklaas to America in the late 1700s, where his name morphed into Santa Claus. In an 1809 satire called the “History of New-York,” American writer Washington Irving portrayed this character as a rotund Dutchman who flew around in a wagon, dropping gifts down chimneys.

In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, an American Episcopal minister, turned the wagon into a sleigh with eight flying reindeer in a Christmas poem he wrote for his daughters. Entitled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” it became known as “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.” This poem, which Moore was initially hesitant to publish due to its frivolous nature, coined the modern image of Santa Claus as a “jolly old elf” flying from house to house on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to children.

In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast illustrated Santa Claus as he’s known today in Harper’s Weekly, featuring him in a red and white fur-trimmed suit with a sack of toys, workshop, elves and Mrs. Claus. Nast was the first to suggest that St. Nicholas did not live in Turkey or the Netherlands, rather the snowy North Pole. Similarly, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was invented by Robert L. May, a copywriter at Montgomery Ward department store, in 1939.

Leaving treats such as cookies for Santa and his reindeer supposedly dates back to ancient Norse mythology. But Americans popularized the tradition during the Great Depression in the 1930s to show gratitude during a difficult time.

Known for bringing the bling, Americans also invented Christmas tree lights. It was not Thomas Edison, who invented the light bulb, rather his partner Edward Hibberd Johnson, who had the bright idea of stringing miniature lights around a Christmas tree in New York in 1882. Mass production of these lights ensued in the early 1900s.

Mall Santas started either in Macy’s in New York in 1862 or in the shop of James Edgar of Brockton, Mass., who dressed up as Santa for a store promotion in 1890. Better documented is the origin of the poinsettia plant, which was brought from Mexico to the United States by the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, botanist Joel R. Poinsett, in the 1820s.

Christmas caroling originated in England, where wandering minstrels would visit homes of the rich in hopes of receiving money or a meal. The first official Christmas card was also born in England in 1843, which morphed into mailings in both Britain and the United States. But the Kansas City-based Hall Brothers, which became the Hallmark company, created the first folded card with an envelope in 1915 and the rest is history.

Last and certainly least, Canada is credited with popularizing tacky Christmas sweaters (see above) in the 1980s. That’s one tradition that hopefully will not be maintained over the centuries.

No matter your “merry-time” traditions, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

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Denmark is about 50 times smaller than Greenland with only 2 percent of its land space (43,000 vs. 2 million km2). However, Greenland has 1 percent of Denmark’s population (58,000 vs. 5.9 million).