Sinterklaas is a holiday tradition in Belgium (and also in the Netherlands) which is celebrated on the morning of December 6 (St Nicholas's Day). In the days leading up it, young children put their shoes by the stove or fireplace and sing special Sinterklaas songs. Or, as my friend Sigrid tells me, they put carrots and sugar for St Nicholas's horse on their plates and leave them on the kitchen table overnight. If they've been good all year, the next morning he brings them presents. Sinterklaas wears a red bishop's dress including a red mitre, rides a white horse over the rooftops and is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dresses, who are called 'Zwarte Pieten' (black Petes).
These are Sigrid's children, Marten as Zwarte Piet and Elina with Sinterklaas.
Sinterklaas is the basis for the North American figure of Santa Claus. It was during the American War of Independence, that the inhabitants of New York City, a former Dutch colonial town (New Amsterdam) which had been swapped by the Dutch for other territories, reinvented their Sinterklaas tradition, as Saint Nicholas was a symbol of the city's non-English past. The name Santa Claus is derived from the older Dutch name Sinte Klaas.
So the Dutch gave Santa his name, but what we know of his appearance owes much to the Americans of the 19th century. In a poem written in 1822, often referred to as The Night Before Christmas, but originally titled A Visit From St Nicholas, the journalist Clement Clarke Moore describes the "jolly old elf" in detail, from his plump tummy, white beard and twinkling eyes to the soot on his clothes and the sack of presents on his back. A year earlier, a book had been published called The Children's Friend, which described the red costume and magical ability to cover huge distanced in one night. Funny how these images from 19th century American literature and poetry have influenced how we imagine Father Christmas to look to this day.
Happy Sinterklaas Day to all those who celebrate it! I hope you've been good ;-)