The “Santa Claus” that we see walking around in shopping centers before Christmas is a caricature of the real Santa Claus; he is like a clown. I can say this in all sincerity, because I know the history of the phenomenon called Santa Claus.
The real Santa Claus originated from Holland, the country where I was born and grew up as a child. In the Dutch language, Santa Claus is called “Sinterklaas,” and this word is derived from Saint Nicholas whose feast day we celebrate in the Catholic liturgy on Dec. 6.
Saint Nicholas was the bishop of Mira in Spain, who was known for his great generosity, especially toward children. As far as I know, it was only in Holland where Saint Nicholas was venerated as such. In the 17th century, many people from Holland emigrated to America and formed a Dutch colony in New Amsterdam, presently called New York. These people introduced in America the idea of a Santa Claus, and they connected this with the celebration of the Christmas season.
As I have said, this Santa Claus is for me a big caricature. Some Filipinos may be offended when I say this, but they must admit that this way of celebrating Christmas is also foreign to Philippine culture. The Americans introduced to the Philippines this tradition when they colonized the country, and they got it all wrong with their interpretation of Santa Claus. Originally, Santa Claus had nothing to do with Christmas, and when I see this clown walking around in the malls during this season, I feel irritated because I remember what the feast of Sinterklaas meant to us when we were children.
According to our belief, Sinterklaas would come every year to Holland during his feast day. He would arrive in Amsterdam by steamboat, bringing along his horse and his servant Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who would be carrying a sack full of presents and candies to be distributed to the children. Sinterklaas, sitting on his horse, would walk on the rooftops. If he had time, he would personally visit the children’s houses. Or he would send Black Peter down through our chimney to bring us presents and candies.
On the evening before Dec. 6 we would place our shoes in front of the chimney with a carrot inside for Sinterklaas’ horse. Early the next morning we would go down in great excitement to check if the carrot was gone, and if there were presents and candies. But if our house would be honored with a visit by Sinterklaas himself, we would welcome him with songs. And then Sinterklaas would sit down and open his book, and he would call us by name, one by one, and he would invite us to sit on his lap. Then he would read from the book the times that we had been obedient and also the times that we had been disobedient, and he would urge us in a fatherly way not to be disobedient again. It made such a big impression on me as a child that Sinterklaas knew all these things, and I sincerely promised not to do those bad things again.
Later when I had grown up and did not believe anymore in Sinterklaas, I learned that it was my mother who had supplied all the information to Sinterklaas, who would be played by one of our neighbors. One time it happened that our next-door neighbor, a woman, was willing to play Sinterklaas. After the visit I told my mother that Sinterklaas had the same voice as our neighbor. My mother immediately skipped the subject, but I myself never suspected that Sinterklaas was our next-door neighbor, so strong was my belief in him.
I am writing this to impress on readers the psychological value of this Sinterklaas celebration. It would also be good for our Filipino children to know this story. But regarding what I have said that Santa Claus has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, I must qualify that there was also a custom of exchanging gifts during the feast of Sinterklaas. All the adults in the family would buy presents for each other. They would wrap up the presents and usually would include in each package a self-made poem addressed to the receiver. On the evening of Dec. 6 there would be an exchange of gifts, everyone would unwrap his/her gifts, and there would be a lot of enjoyment over the different poems. This custom of exchanging gifts during the feast of Sinterklaas was passed on also by Santa Claus to the feast of Christmas. This, of course, is a very meaningful custom at Christmas—to exchange pamasko with each other in celebration of the birthday of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the greatest gift of all from God to mankind.
As a last comment I wish that here in the Philippines, we can go back to the celebration of Advent as preparation for the birth of the Child Jesus in Bethlehem. And I wish also that we will stop singing those exotic carols like “White Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” We should sing real Christmas songs on Christmas Day itself, which give various descriptions of the Christmas event. (Merry Christmas to everyone, and especially to my Dutch compatriots in the Philippines.)
Arnold van Vugt is based in Cagayan de Oro City. For comments, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.