Why Santa Claus comes from Spain, according to the Dutch

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Why Santa Claus comes from Spain, according to the Dutch
For the Dutch, Sinterklaas is still a bishop from Spain who arrives by boat and brings gifts on December 5th. Photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain

In the Netherlands there's no cheery old man from the North Pole with his flying reindeer, there's Sinterklaas from Spain who rides a white horse called Amerigo.


You might believe that it’s common knowledge that Santa lives in the North Pole and delivers his gifts in one night with the help of a sleigh and magic, flying reindeer.

In the Netherlands however, it’s a different story. Children there believe in Sinterklaas instead of Santa Claus from Spain and arrives to bring presents to Dutch children on his boat.

It’s a very different picture from cosy toy workshops in the snow and Santa sitting in front of a roaring fire. In the Dutch version, Sinterklaas is living it up in sunny Alicante, or Madrid as some people believe, and sails the open waves. 

According to the legend, Sinterklaas arrives by boat from Spain around two weeks before December 5th. His arrival is typically celebrated across cities with big parades, similar to Spain’s Three Kings’ parades on January 5th.

READ ALSO: Why Spain loves the Three Kings more than Santa

It is said he rides over the Dutch rooftops at night on his white horse, giving gifts to children who have put their shoes out in anticipation. Then on the night of December 5th, he brings sacks filled with presents for the whole family.

Sinterklaas is based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas (270–343), A Greek bishop from Myra. Photo: Remko de Waal/AFP


But why do the Dutch believe he comes from Spain?

There are various theories about the original Saint Nicholas. Some historians believe he was a Bishop of Myra or Mira in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey, during the first half of the fourth century.

It’s said he died on December 6th and his remains were enshrined there, but then later in 1087 his body was stolen by Italian sailors and transferred to Bari in Italy.

There, he became even more popular and pilgrims from all over the world travelled to pay their respects and he started to become known as the Bishop of Bari instead. Today, his tomb can still be found in the Basilica of San Nicola in Bari.

At the time, this part of southern Italy belonged to the Spanish Hapsburgs and later the Spanish Kingdom of Naples, which is why it is thought that Dutch legend associates him with being from Spain.  

Another theory is that Spanish sailors arriving in the Netherlands brought the legend of Saint Nicholas with them to prepare them for the special celebrations on December 5th.

During the late Middle Ages, people began celebrating Saint Nicholas on the anniversary of his death and he became known as the patron saint of children. At some point during this time, the celebrations also changed to the night of December 5th instead of the 6th.

18th century artwork and poem referring to St Nicholas's travels between "Amsterdam and Spain". Image: Alexander Anderson (1775-1870), verse by John Pintard (1759-1844), New York Historical Society/Wikipedia


Evolution of the legend

After the Protestant Reformation (1517-1600), many European countries stopped celebrating Saint Nicholas and forgot all about him, but not in the Netherlands. Dutch colonists took the tradition with them when they moved to America in the 17th century, where he became known as Santa Claus instead of Sinterklaas.

Over the years, this somehow got mixed up with the Scandinavian legends of the Norse God Odin with his long white beard, who flew through the night on a magic horse each December during the winter solstice, and how the modern-day stories of Santa Claus or Father Christmas were born. 

But for the Dutch, Sinterklaas has nothing to do with Santa Claus and is still a bishop from Spain who arrives by boat and brings gifts on December 5th.


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