The tradition of "SinterKlaas" in the Netherlands actually pre-dates the Anglicized version of Santa Claus. In fact Dutch settlers brought the tradition with them in the early 17th century and it morphed through the years into the version most Americans know today. Clement Moore's poem " A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (you know, the one that starts out 'Twas the night before Christmas...) was first published in 1823. Christmas wasn't even a holiday in the US until 1870! Thomas Nast, a cartoonist for Harper's Weekly magazine, was inspired by Moore's poem and did a number of drawings that helped establish the image we have of the current "jolly old elf". And of course, you've probably heard about Coca Cola's contribution to the popular culture with its advertisement campaigns starting in 1931.
But the Dutch have remained faithful to the original "Sanct Herr Nicholaas" tradition that developed slowly from the 11th century, and today's Sinter Klaas wears the Bishop's clothes, miter, ruby ring and staff that are appropriate to the saint around which the legend has arisen. In the Netherlands, as in Belgium, Luxembourg, and parts of Germany, the celebration is on eve of the feast-day and is therefore celebrated on 5.December. However, the actual feast-day is 6.December (Catholics may know this as the feast-day or name-day for Nickolas), which is the anniversary of his death. So while many protestant parts of Germany celebrate on the 5th, the predominant Catholic regions celebrate on the 6th of December.
While Father Christmas in England and Santa Claus in the US have helpers who are elves and a workshop in the North Pole, in Holland SinterKlaas arrives by boat. And just as in the US you see Santa Claus and his helpers in various locations prior to Christmas day, in the Netherlands he arrives usually the second weekend in November, on a steam-boat from Spain! Harbor towns all along the coast of the Netherlands compete for the honor of receiving the much revered holy-man, and every year the celebration of his arrival is accompanied by a big party with television coverage avidly watched by children all over the county. In the weeks following his arrival all the other cities in the Netherlands welcome him into their locale with their own celebration. If they happen to have a canal in their town, then he may arrive on one of the smaller boats. Various elementary schools also welcome him and he has been known to arrive on various modes of transport including rowboat, coach, motorcycle, limousine, bicycle, horseback, and even with the friendly help of a local policecar or fire truck.
While in the US Santa Claus visits the children at their homes with the aid of a sleigh and eight magic reindeer, SinterKlaas makes due in the smaller country of the Netherlands on a magical white, grey-spotted horse named "Amerigo". This sure-footed beast is capable of jumping to the highest of roofs to carry the packages that are magically transported down the chimney by Sint's helpers. And for those who are not blessed with a fireplace, simply leaving your shoes by the door will guarantee that you will not be forgotten!
And while children in the US receive presents only on the 25th of December, Dutch children can actually receive a small gift or treat in their shoes every day from the time SinterKlaas and his helpers arrive in the Netherlands, and then the larger presents in a sack on 5.December! No wonder the kids love him so much!! And believe me when I tell you many a parent has used the threat of SinterKlaas and his helpers possibly peeking in the windows to help modify a child's behavior, especially in the evenings when any shadowy figure on the street could potentially be a "Zwarte Piet"...!