Dutch Language Blog

Sinterklaas IIII Posted by on Dec 25, 2008 in Dutch Language

For now, this will be the last post about Sinterklaas. If anyone has more questions about him and the Zwarte Pieten, please do no hesitate to ask.

Now, finally, the link between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus. A little history:

December 1931. Suddenly he was there and there was no way to avoid him. He was everywhere; on billboards, in advertisements, in the shop windows – the chubby, round faced, white bearded good guy was a fact. To this day, this is the standard image of Santa Claus and you can hardly imagine a time he just wasn’t there.

Haddon Sundblom was responsible for this public appearance of Santa Claus or ‘de kerstman’ as we call him in the Netherlands (free translation: the Christmas man, comparable to ‘father Christmas’). Sundblom drew this version of Santa Claus on a direct order from the Coca-Cola Company. They wanted to promote the brown drink a little extra around Christmas time and the most convenient way was to use Santa Claus. To this day, people still believe that Sundblom designed this modern image of Santa, but in his days the many Santa’s had been reduced to one type for about twenty years: the fat, jovial guy with moustache, short beard, rosy cheeks, dressed in some sort of Russian peasant outfit, brown boots and red ‘sleeping cap’ included.

What Sundblom did do, was develop this standard image a little step further and give it public attention. The cola-commercial with the ‘kerstman’ started in the renowned paper/magazine Saturday Evening Post. This would determine the image of Santa Claus for years to come; as a sneaky good hearted guy, plundering the refrigerator, binging down cookies and gulping down the cola. A figure parents could identify with, a figure children didn’t need to fear, like Sinterklaas.

The Swedish American had modelled the appearance of Santa Claus after the looks of his neighbour, a Mr. Lou Haddon, a retired trades man. After Lou passed away, Sundblom used himself as a model. In the 35 years he was drawing Santa’s for the Coca-Cola Company, he kept changing little details.

In 1863 Santa had already received a facelift. This happened by Thomas Nast, an American who immigrated from Germany. In a book for children, he changed the strict and solemn Klaas into an elflike figure with human features. Still, Santa held the slightly threatening list in his hand, with the names of all children: the good and the bad!

Nast refined his original image in Christmas drawings he made for 23 years for the magazine Harper’s Weekly. He also invented Santa’s workshop on the North pole, where elves made the presents destined for the good children on Christmas eve.

So, how did Santa Claus come into existence? Believe it or not, he started out as a spin-off of Sinterklaas/Sint Nicolaas. When Dutch immigrants settled down in sixteenth century New York, they took the phenomenon Sinterklaas with them, or ‘Sinty Claus’ as English speaking children soon called him.

The transformation from the regal bishop of Myra/Madrid on his horse, to chubby children’s friend from the North pole in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, was a slow one. If we are to believe the newspapers from those days, Dutch immigrants in 1774 celebrated a party that closely resembles Sinterklaas on the 4th of December.

In 1809 the popular writer Diedrich Knickerbocker (pseudonym for Washington Irving) described a bearded figure, riding a horse over rooftops, in his satirical novel: History of New York. This figure however didn’t wear a ‘mijter’ or bishops robes, but a broad rimmed hat and red baggy pants.

Twelve years later, William Gilley wrote a poem about ‘Santeclaus’ dressed in fur, riding in a sleigh, pulled by one reindeer. A year later Sinterklaas had completely transformed into Santa Claus. In his poem ‘The night before Christmas’, another American, Clement Moore, tells how Santa hides presents in stockings near the fire place and how he drove around in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. The poem was a regular hit and a bestseller. Moore describes Santa as an old man with a found face and a round tummy. Shortly thereafter, the reindeer received names: Dasher, Prancer, Donner, Blitzen, Comet, Cupid, Prancer and Vixen. And what about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? He appeared for the first time in 1939 as a creation of Robert May an employee with the Montgomery Ward Company. According to him, Rudolph was an outcast in the group because of his odd red nose. But rehabilitation followed when it appeared that Santa couldn’t go out on a foggy Christmas eve, but Rudolph saved the day by guiding them all to safety with his shiny red nose. As a reward, he became the ninth reindeer.

Ever since 1841, Santa Claus travels the rooftops, just like Sinterklaas, throwing gifts down the chimneys. Another feature taken from Sinterklaas and used by shopkeeper J. Parkinson who hired a stuntman that year. This guy, dressed like Santa, crawled onto the rooftop and sat down next to the chimney.

In the entire nineteenth century, there were all kinds of images of Santa Claus co-existing. On one he was small and fat, on another he was tall and skinny. He also had changing outfits. In 1885 Louis Prang, a printer from Boston, published Christmas cards with a Santa Claus in brown boots, red outfit, carrying a large bag over his shoulder. Slowly, this image replaced all others so finally in 1920, on November 27, the New York Times was able to print: Everywhere in town, children see the same Santa Claus. Eleven years later, Sundblom would perfect this image.

In December 1925, American newspapers mentioned that Santa Claus did not live on the North Pole, but in Lapland because there was grass for the reindeer. Two years later the Finnish radio revealed the exact location: Korvatunturi.

During the WWII, Santa took a ride with the American troops to West-Europe and here to he became a familiar figure. Since the fourties, when the U.S. said goodbye to the Great Depression and money started to roll again, Santa’s popularity only increased. Also in Europe.

We also know a different ‘kerstman’ who is much older than his American colleague. In England he is known as Father Christmas, in France as Père Noël and in Germany as ‘der Weihnachtsmann’. He has nothing to do with Sinterklaas, but appears to be a christened version of ancient gods like Neptune and Thor. Even though Sinterklaas also has misty ties with these ancient gods, he’s still based on a completely different historical person. Still, Father Christmas is more and more replaced by the boisterous Santa Claus yelling ‘Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas’.

As a protest, the American artist Robert Cenedella put a controversial painting on display a few years ago in the window of the New Yorks Art Students Leagye. A painting on which you could see Santa Clause hanging on the cross. Their was great indignation in the orthodox Christian circle. But all Cenedella ment to do, was show how a materialistic Santa Clause replaced the figure of Christ during Christmas time. And whether you believe or not… he did have a point.

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