Sinterklaas vs. Santa – Eight Humorous Differences

November and December can be a very confusing time of year for expats in The Netherlands, especially for those who have never heard the name Sinterklaas or seen a Zwarte Piet before.

Who is Sinterklaas?

If you were to ask a Dutch Person to describe Sinterklaas they would probably say something along the lines of, “He is a very nice old man who has a long white beard, dresses in red and gives gifts to all the good girls and boys in December.”

Sinterklaas vs. Santa

Whatever you do, do not follow this up by asking them how that makes him any different from Santa, not unless you want to seriously damage diplomatic relations between The Netherlands and your own country. They are two very different people. They just happen to work in the same area of business. Here are eight differences that will help you tell them apart.

1) North Pole vs. Spain

Santa lives in the North Pole but Sinterklaas lives in Spain and (as a result) gets to enjoy more sun and less hyperthermia.

2) Fat vs. Thin

Santa has not yet found a diet that works for him and as a result tends to be on the overweight side. Sinterklaas however manages to remains thin and in good shape for his age.

3) Late December vs. Early December

Santa delivers gifts under cover of night on Christmas Eve (December 24th) for children to open on Christmas morning. Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands in the middle of November, does some sightseeing, delivers kadootjes on pakjesavond (December 5th) and returns home in time to enjoy a quiet Christmas.

4) Flying vs. Sailing

Santa flies to his destination by sleigh but Sinterklaas sails to The Netherlands by steam boat. It is still unknown if this is because Santa is afraid of water or Sinterklaas is afraid of flying.

5) Twelve Reindeer vs. One Horse

Santa’s sleigh is pulled all around the world by twelve over worked reindeer but Sinterklaas travels around the Netherlands on a single white horse called Amerigo. As a result he saves money on animal feed and has to remember less names.

6) List vs. Book

To keep all the names of the girls and boys who have been naughty or nice organised Santa has a list (which must be several thousand miles long by now) but Sinterklaas has a book (which never seems to get bigger despite the growing population).

7) Tree vs. Shoe

Traditionally, Santa puts the presents for children under the Christmas tree but Sinterklaas puts them in their shoes. However, he’ll sometimes leave the gifts in a sack by the front door if the shoes are too smelly.

8) Helpers

Santa has an elf equal opportunities program which has helped keep the fairytale creature unemployment rate down. Sinterklaas also has an equal opportunities program and employs Zwarte Pieten who are extremely hyper and regularly get their shoe polish mixed up with their face cream.

Bonus Fact

So there you have it, proof that the two jolly gift givers are two very different people… or are they?

In 1625 the Dutch founded a small colonial town known as New Amsterdam, which would later change its name to New York City. A lot of the traditions the Dutch took with them to ‘The New Land’ were forgotten over time. However, during the American War of Independence, when the Americans wanted to highlight their non-English past, one particular Dutch tradition was resurrected. Something’s were changed of course. It’s even suggested there was a miss translation or two which led to the new name… Santa Claus.

More Info

Want to read more posts about this Dutch tradition? Check out my post on Why I Love Sinterklaas.

53 responses to “Sinterklaas vs. Santa – Eight Humorous Differences”

  1. Alison says:

    Brilliant! Despite having been here a few years and even participating in pakjesavon our first year, I didn’t realize until this year that the Dutch get a bit prickly if you try to translate Sinterklaas as Santa Claus for your American friends. Oh, the clatter they made! I have learned my lesson and hopefully won’t be stuffed in a bag and beaten with twigs on my way to Spain. ;)

  2. Alcyon says:

    May I make it a little bit more complicated?
    In some parts of Flanders, there’s yet another saint that gives presents to the children. Saint Martin visits our homes around 11 November, dressed up like Saint Nicholas, but having only one Zwarte Piet, living in Heaven en riding on a donkey… There are even laws to keep all those saints from fighting each other in the streets: up until 11/11, every saint you see in the streets, is Saint Martin. After that, it’s time for Saint Nicholas, and no Santas are allowed on the streets until after 6 December…

    We lived for some time in a region where Saint Martin was celebrated, while my parents lived in traditional Saint Nicholas territory. Our children were used to getting presents almost every weekend from half November right up to New year… :-)'s_Day

    • Stultum says:

      In some parts of the Netherlands we celebrate saint Martin’s too (Sint Maarten), but we do it a bit differently: the children go around town with lanterns, sing songs at every door and get candy.

      Now, when an expat compares this to Halloween…

  3. Invader Stu says:

    Alison – I used to make that mistake for a while as well and it is still funny seeing new expats in the office make the same comment during there first December and hear all the Dutch people around them suck in their breath.

    Alcyon – I love the fact that they actually have to have a law to stop saints fighting. That just gives me a brilliant mental image. I’d heard abit about Saint Martin before as well I think. I know Santa is supposed to be based of Sinterklaas but is Saint MArtin as well or visa versa.

  4. orangesplaash says:

    Nice list – There is also the Sinterklaasdicht (Sinterklaas poems) tradition that I believe is not there for Santa Claus.

  5. julia says:

    So he brings his horse with him on the steam boat?

    • G127 says:

      No: the horse stays in the Netherlands. Sinterklaas is always very happy to see him, when he lands.

      • Willem-Jan says:

        Actually: The horse goes with him to Spain a lot too. The years where we see him on the boat beforehand and those where we don’t see him there rate about 50/50.

  6. dragonlady says:

    Does Sinterklaas get mince pies and sherry and a carrot for the horse like Santa or does he have to wait till he gets home.Or maybe you leave some Tapas out for him.

    • Maartje says:

      Children often leave food for the horse, usually carrots, in their shoes when they put them out at night.

    • shasz says:

      Don’t forget to leave a beer for zwarte piet, (aka dad). Or this is ore something from the binnenvaart schippers (inland navigators if i’m correct)

  7. Tiffany says:

    What a riot! Loved em all, but #7 got the loudest laugh! Always wondered what the difference between the two was… guess now I know :) Thanks for this!

  8. French Bean says:

    Hm. I thought Santa had 8 reindeer and then an extra one with Rudolph. *shrugs*

    I will make a note to NOT get the two mixed up! Nor wonder why there is a penury of black shoe polish.

    • Sonja says:

      Santa does have eight reindeer well really nine with Rudolph, there’s Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen :)

  9. Jules says:

    Brilliant! Especially “Whatever you do, do not follow this up by asking them how that makes him any different from Santa, not unless you want to seriously damage diplomatic relations between Holland and your own country”

  10. Invader Stu says:

    Orangesplaash – You’re right. I forgot about that while making the list. There is no poem tradition with Santa.

    Dragonlady – Amerigo does get carrots left out for him but I’m not sure if anyone leaves anything out for Sinterklaas.

    Tiffany – That is one of my faves too

    French Bean – You are right. I correct this mistake and fire my researcher right away. Oh wait… I am my researcher… Darn.

    Jules – I know this one because I might have damaged Dutch/English relations beyond repair with it :p

    • Petra says:

      Children might leave a bucket with water, carrots, straw, for the horse. And drawings, letters and wishlists for zwarte piet, who brings them to Sinterklaas.
      No food or drinks for the visitor. Our zwarte piet used to leave a little note, using our paper and pen. And sometimes he drank something, leaving the glass with some black en red stains.

      • Rik says:

        In Belgium, Sinterklaas gets a beer when the kids put out their shoes. True story.

    • Sonja says:

      We May have poems? Not sure But we have Lot’s of Song’s :)

  11. Lonneke says:

    @Alcyon: Flanders is a part of Belgium….has nothing to do with the Netherlands……

    • Stephen says:

      Flanders and the Netherlands (and some other bits) were all part of the “Low Countries”. Netherlands split off after the Dutch wars against the Spanish 16th & 17th Centuries (the whole area was the Spanish Netherlands) (and of course Netherlands means Low Countries), Flanders, and Duchy of Liege and other areas remained Spanish Netherlands and then became Austrian Netherlands, now modern Belgium. In reality it is even more complicated.
      And (deep breath) Sinterklaas was surely originally Saint Nicholas (Sint Niklaas – or whatever the Dutch spelling is)?

      • Likeahike says:

        It’s the other way around. Sint Nicolaas got shortened to Sinterklaas by the Dutch. And when they emigrated to America in the 18th century, they took their saints with them. And because the Americans could not pronounce Sinterklaas, they turned it into Santa Claus.

  12. Ian says:

    This is my first experience of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. I work in a Dutch international school and have seen first hand, the diplomatic carnage it can cause

  13. belle says:

    Zero tolerance policy, great stuff!

  14. Tweets that mention Invading Holland » The Sinterklaas Guide -- says:

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  15. French Bean says:

    And I just HAVE to ask…is it really *that bad* to ask what the differences between Santa Claus and Sinterklaas are?

    As a foreigner, I would just think it’s an innocent-enough question that is merited by curiousity, not a subject so severe that it would evoke World War III between Holland and the U.S.

    Or worse: have Sinterklaas himself horde me off to Spain with my skin sporting twig-like bruises.


  16. Invader_Stu says:

    Ian – I know how much of a shock Sinterklaas can be your first time but I can’t imagine what it must be like doing it for the first time surrounded by kids.

    Suus – It’s not spam about Viagra so no problem :p

    Belle – Thanks :)

    French Bean – No but you will be told in no uncertain terms that they are not the same person and that Santa copied Sinterklaas. And I always thought getting dragged to Spain does not sound so bad… they have nice weather there.

  17. Wezz6400 says:

    “French Bean – You are right. I correct this mistake and fire my researcher right away. Oh wait… I am my researcher… Darn.”
    Stu? YOU’RE FIRED!

    In other news, anyone who get’s fired will be deported to Siberia. Good bye.

  18. French Bean says:

    The nice weather happens to be in the Barcelona/Alicante area, I think.

    Now, if I were dragged to France, I would be more tolerant of the beatings!

  19. Just a Plane Ride Away says:

    #8 is the whole reason we moved back to England.

  20. Alcyon says:

    @ Lonneke: thank God it doesn’t!

  21. Aledys Ver says:

    Very informative indeed!! :D
    What has always amazed me is that, being Sinterklaas from Spain, unlike most of his countrymen, he manages to arrive way in advance to distribute all the presents before Christmas! And, how come his Dutch is impeccably perfect? :D

  22. jimbo says:

    Aledys ver: even expats from Spain can, given a few hundred years, learn the language eventually

  23. Sinterklaas and Racism | Famsterdam Life says:

    […] notably arrives in November on a steam boat from Spain. But the differences with Santa Claus don’t stop at vehicle and land of origin. Sinterklaas adds an über-controversial side to the […]

  24. Alexandra says:

    I know this is an old post, but Santa is actually based on Sinterklaas :)
    A lot of people know this already, but some don’t: The character of Santa was ‘invented’ by Coca Cola (based on Sinterklaas)
    You can also see it in the similarity of the name:
    Santa Claus

  25. Lea says:

    I hope your not to mad at me for resurrecting this post from the grave, but I would like to remark that in Flanders, the horse is actually called “Slechtweervandaag”. This name comes from the series “Dag Sinterklaas”, which is part of the collective childhoods of many people.

  26. Toni says:

    Sinterklaas horse – “Slechtweervandag” – Bad weather today
    Literal translation.

    • Invader Stu says:

      Isn’t the name Amerigo?

      • Willem-Jan says:

        It is in The Netherlands. In Flanders it’s Slechtweervandaag.
        Some people in the Netherlands do joke that his actual name is not Amerigo but O-zo-snel. Also from a Sinterklaas song. It translates to oh-so-fast. (“Yes he comes in deep dark nights, on his horse, oh so fast.”)

  27. gesina bernstein says:

    if you giving the liberals their way and get rid of zwarte piete,,i will denounce my dutch heritage!!!! not that that matters,however,zwarte piet kept me in line in my misspend youth..

    • Invader Stu says:

      I’d be surprised if the Dutch ever get ride of him. He might change a little but there will be places in The Netherlands where he won’t change at all.

      • Petra says:

        Most heared comment on the racial discussion in my region.. Try to unemploy all black people in a normal company. That would be something to be punished for.
        All zwarte pieten were black. All politically incorrect songs were sung as they were written.
        Second sommend i hear a lot is when will there be no more reindeer in front of the sleigh. And what about the elves that work for santaclaus, that is wrong.

  28. Margot says:

    Brilliant! This is my first Christmas here so I’m very excited to come back to my first memory when I was a 4 years old girl…Sinterklaas! I’m half spanish half dutch and I’ve been always curious about the fact that Sinterklaas come from (the sunny) Spain in a boat…who knows why? (apart from what wikipedia says…)
    Ready to tell my spanish friends and family about dutch traditions and write them on my blog, hehehehehehe.

    • G127 says:

      The link to Spain comes from the time that the Netherlands was still a part of the Spanish empire: the real Sinterklaas came from Turkey. He was a catholic Saint that saved some children.

    • the wife says:

      Sinterklaas is also the patron of the sailors, that’s why he travels by boat…

  29. Rosie says:

    Of course Sinterklaas saves money…hes’s Dutch!!! Why have the additional cost of elves and reindeer? Surely it’s far more cost effective to live in Spain and enjoy the weather for the rest of the year.

  30. puurgenieten says:

    for those how can read dutch i woud advise the book of wildgeraas its about the history of sinterklaas santa and all realed things

  31. […] you do not know what Sinterklaas is, check this link and you learn something […]

  32. Laura says:

    I never saw the punishment in getting dragged to Spain, but somehow I was never naughty enough for Sinterklaas to take me there… ;)

  33. Fenneke says:

    After living in the us for almost 30 years I can’t wait to see sinterklaas arrive now that we are back in the Netherlands. Best part for me we’re always the poems we wrote with the gifts and the pepernoten. If you have not discovered VanDelft, pepernoten fabriek go and taste the new and improved candy.

  34. vallypee says:

    All perfectly true of course, Stu. I shall have to remember this!

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