I have always been a bit of an oddball, an outlier if you will. Some of it's just personality, but I like to blame part of it on my somewhat fractured understanding of Australian culture. And for that of course, I attribute to spending my upper-primary years living in the Netherlands.
You don’t really notice most of the gaps unless you’re sitting with me to watch organised sport (why does cricket have so much jargon?), trying to excite me about bush poetry, or interest me in any history between Botany Bay and federation. But something that living overseas has given me, apart from an intense interest in international and local politics, is a fascination with foreign interpretation of This Most Joyous Time of the Year.
Although closely contested by the Japanese version of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (a summary of which can be found here http://www.tofugu.com/2008/12/23/japanese-version-of-rudolph-the-red-nosed-reindeer-rudolph-gets-the-shafto/), the Christmas tradition that sticks most in my mind belongs to my old friends and host nation the Dutch. Strap in folks, because I am here to talk to you about Sinterklaas, aka “Dutch Santa”.
Sinterklaas was not exactly that Santa I’d known for the first eight years of my life. Sint is a skinny Turkish bishop, currently living in Spain, who leaves small presents in the shoes of children who had been good. Also instead of coal, Sint leaves bad children a bundle of switches with which parents are supposed to beat them with. Visiting nightly for a period of a few weeks- he arrives in the Netherlands by steamboat in late November- Sinterklaas then spends his Saint’s day either handing out a final, big present or packing the worst of the worst into burlap sacks to take back to Spain with him.
At least with his Zwarte Pieten (“Black Petes”) and roof-jumping witte paard (“white horse”), Sint retained the magical animal(s) and some suspiciously exploitative undertones shared by his English-speaking counterpart (the idea of the elves making toys while Santa sat idly never did sit well with me, and not to mention the therapy Rudolph is going to need after the years of emotional and verbal abuse that the jolly old man let go on unchecked).
One video which is a Christmas classic in my family is David Sedaris’ recitation of his essay Six To Eight Black Men, which details from an English-speaker’s (if American’s) perspective some of the more problematic elements to both the Sinterklaas and Santa narrative.
Despite the some uncomfortable questions surrounding the Petes (I too was fed the “just good friends” line) I have always preferred Sinterklaas over Santa. And all jokes aside, Sint is a lot closer than Santa to the actual Saint Nicholas, a religious scholar and bishop who was a signatory of the Nicene Creed, and who used his considerable inherited wealth to sneak gold coins in the shoes left out by needy children. Technically, he doesn’t even have a direct relationship with Christmas! (His saint’s day is December 5th) Instead I think we have adopted Saint Nick and his derivatives as symbols of Christmas because of what he represents: the love of God shown in the spirit of giving. And what great gift was there than that given on the first Christmas?
I feel like there is lot we Santa-lovers can learn from a man who dedicated his life to the church and the care of the less fortunate. So I encourage you all to spend some time these holidays contemplating the real Saint Nick, or at least his Dutch adaption, or even doing a little research. I think we all can benefit from using another culture’s take on the same figure to get a fresh perspective on the meaning of the holiday season.