Tag Archives: Santa Claus

Siinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (“Santa Claus and Black Pete” )


The informant is my father who was born and raised in the Netherlands. Siinterklaas is the Dutch version of Santa Claus. One of Santa’s helpers is Black Pete, a small black child who was Santa’s helper. Representation of Black Pete in festivals and tales have come under fire in the Netherlands for accusations of racism.


The story of Siinterklaas and Zwarte Piet was related to me over a phone call with my father.

Main Piece:

Dad: It’s pretty much the same as the American version of Santa Claus. Siinterklaas is based off of St.Nicholas and he has his little helper elves. Except I don’t think Siinterklaas has elves, just helpers. He has one named Black Pete, or we call him Zwarte Piet. Black Pete is a little, black boy who’s Siintreklaas’s main helper.

Me: Does he wear an elf outfit?

Dad: Uhhh, no. More like a jester’s outfit. But in the festivals and parades that used to happen throughout Losser and Utrecht, people would dress as Zwarte Piet and use makeup to paint their face black and jump around and dance. We thought nothing of it when I was a kid, growing up. Every town had a festival with Zwarte Piets. But now, of course, a lot of people are protesting against Zwarte Piet being in festivals with blackface. They’re trying to change the story to say that Zwarte Piet just has ash marks from climbing down the chimneys with Siinterklaas, so people don’t do black face but just have some ash streaks across their face.

Me: Black Pete is just like an elf, right?

Dad: He’s Santa’s main helper. He carries a big bag with gifts and treats, but also a switch to spank the children who were naughty.

Me: And do most people in the Netherlands today agree that Black Pete should be removed from festivals and parades?

Dad: No, a lot of the youths think it should be, of course, but most Dutch have grown up seeing Black Pete every year. He’s as common and important to Christmas as Santa is almost. There’s been a lot of protests happening year after year, though, so I think in the coming years more and more festivals are gonna get rid of him.


This folk belief is of particular interest and relevance to me, as the tradition of Christmas festivals showcasing Black Pete has come under fire recently for being a racist depiction. While I did not grow up in the Netherlands and, therefore, cannot view this tradition through an entirely emic perspective, the phenomenon of historical bits of folk lore clashing with contemporary customs and beliefs is one that I have witnessed in the United States. Just as fiery debates arose over the removal of statues of Confederate generals, Black Pete is a question of what will triumph in the end: A culture’s tradition and history or the culture’s contemporary standards? The Christmas parade with Siinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is deeply engrained in most Dutch towns and cities. Most of the Netherlands’ population has grown up inoculated with the association of Zwarte Piet with the joyful and festive mood that permeates throughout the Christmas season. Zwarte Piet has existed within Dutch folklore for nearly two hundred years. To remove the portrayal of Zwarte Piet as he has been known for two centuries would be to say that the Dutch beliefs and customs are dangerously malleable, and able to be uprooted and altered in accordance with the vacillation of the general public. However, variations and evolutions are integral to folklore and the culture that produces it. When new variations are authored, they reflect the beliefs and standards of contemporary times. When a belief or tradition of the past violates those of today, especially one as severe and prevalent as racism, there must be a serious examination into whether a new variation should be created. The debate over Zwarte Piet is a hot topic every year in the Netherlands around Christmas time. There is no doubt that protests against the use of black face to depict Black Pete in festivals will continue for years to come. Many protestors look to the Dutch judicial system to make an official ruling to ban blackface in these festivals. It will be interesting to see how law and governmental authority can greatly influence the evolution of folklore.

Christmas Eve Gift

Context: Informant has a sister, both have been celebrating the holiday Christmas since they were children together. The two sisters now live in separate states, but continue their Christmas traditions. Christmas Eve is the day before Christmas day, Christmas day is when presents from family, friends, and Santa are typically opened. Santa is a Christmas figure for children, who leaves presents on the night of Christmas Eve for the children to open on Christmas morning. Informant has passed down their Christmas traditions to their own children and family.

Tradition: “We would have this game, that on Christmas Eve, whoever said “Christmas Eve Gift” to the other person first, got to open the first present on Christmas Eve. We, my parents and us, we open the presents from friends and extended family on Christmas Eve, and we would open Santa’s presents and family presents on actual Christmas. So, if you wanted to open the first present at all ever, then you needed to win the game. So, we would get up really early and wake up everyone else by telling them Christmas Eve gift. We weren’t as crazy about it as my kids are now. They’re out here writing stuff on walls, and sleeping on the couch, and staying up till 12. We weren’t that, uh, we weren’t quite that dedicated. Me and my sister still play together too. Although, she lives an hour ahead of me, so she pretty much always wins. She just sends a text message.”

Background Information: Informant was born into a Christian family, and has been a Christian basically all their lives, and as such they have celebrated Christmas every year of their lives. The holiday holds a lot of meaning to them, and passing down their Christmas traditions to their children is very important to them. They have many other traditions associated with the holiday, such as specific foods, movies, activities, music, ect.. Christmas is definitely the biggest holiday of the year for them, and they were happy when talking about their traditions.

Thoughts: I think this is a wholesome tradition which unites family and gets everyone excited for the holiday. Furthermore, since the parents have to set up the gifts from ‘Santa’ while the children sleep, the tradition might have started as a way to tire the kids out the night before. Whether or not this is the humble origin story, the tradition has grown from there, and become a much bigger tradition. I think it makes sense that children would embrace it and lean into the competitive side of the tradition. It’s also a way to unite the family, and obviously it works, seeing as informant still practices the tradition with their sister despite living in different states. Family both physically present and not are able tp connect through this tradition.

Rice Pudding for Elves

The following conversation is transcribed from a conversation between me (HS) and my friend/informant (AB).

HS: So can you tell me a little bit about the special form of rice pudding that you leave out on Christmas eve?

AB: Yeah, so it’s a tradition that has been in my family for as long as I can remember. The technical term for it is Risengrød, and it is made by boiling rice and milk at a low temperature for a few hours and then you serve it with some cinnamon sugar and butter. It’s supposed to be the food of Santa’s elves and we eat it on Christmas Eve. And then on Christmas day, we have a version without cinnamon called Risalamande. It’s also a little more watery and you put cherry juice on top of it. Leaving out Risengrød for elves is basically the Danish version of leaving out cookies and milk to Santa.


My informant is one of my friends from high school. He immigrated to the United States from Denmark when he was 15 and still carries on many aspects of his Danish culture. He is fluent in Danish and English.


I was at my informant’s house with him, his sister, and his parents. They were happy to elaborate on some of their Danish traditions.


I enjoyed getting to learn about the parallels between Danish and American culture. I thought that leaving cookies out for Santa was a tradition unique to the United States, and I believe it is, but it seems to be derived directly from Danish culture. This is just another example of how broad trends show themselves all throughout the realm of folklore, just with smaller, more nuanced iterations that reflect regional and cultural context.

For another version of the Risengrød tradition, see:

“A DANISH CHRISTMAS.” Scandinavian Press, vol. 15, no. 1, Scandinavian Press, 2008, p. 17–.

Jõulu Vana – The Estonian Santa Claus

Informant’s Background:

The informant, in this case, is my mother, M, who was a first generation immigrant born to an Estonian family in the North-East of Canada. Her family had escaped from occupied Estonia, and had settled in Canada before she was born. She moved with my father to Los Angeles, in the United States, to take a job as a university professor. My brother and I were born a few years after.


I mentioned collecting folklore to my mother, who I regularly call on the phone now that I have moved out of our house, and she told me that she wanted to help. I told her yes, and she emailed me the following description of Estonian Christmas celebrations growing up, and more specifically her experiences with Jõulu Vana, the Estonian version of Santa Claus. Her Email was lengthy, but I decided to include the full text so as to preserve her performance of the traditions she grew up on.

Performance (Written Over Email):

M: Estonian Christmas — “Jõulud”, which comes from the Swedish “Jul” (Old English ‘Yule’) — is a pagan holiday, a celebration of the end of the year. When I was growing up in Canada, a first generation immigrant, with two Estonian parents, our holiday celebrations began at the beginning of December, with Advent calendars, and continued to New Year’s Eve, when we melted candles and poured the liquid wax into buckets of cold water, where it became solid again with intricate shapes that were supposed to tell our fortune during the coming year. But the most important day for me and my brothers was the day that North Americans call Christmas Eve, December 24th, because it was on the evening of that day that Santa Claus (Jõulu Vana) would come.
I loved everything about Christmas as a child because it happened so slowly. We woke up in the morning to the delicious smell of the special Christmas bread my mother was baking (“pätsi sai”, a white bread made with raisins and almonds and flavored with cardamom that my mother ground in a special grinder). We went to the living room to admire the Christmas tree. When we were very little, my brother and I sometimes crawled under the tree to look up at the ornaments and the lights which we thought were magical. (When we were even younger, there were real candles on the tree.) After breakfast our parents gave us each one small present; the other presents would be coming from Santa.
The excitement grew during the day until we could hardly stand it. Finally, it was evening. My father, a doctor, announced that he was on duty at the hospital and had to leave. This happened every year, and I never wondered why. Awhile later my mother told us that we should go to the window to watch for Jõulu Vana. We could see him coming from a distance, through the snow, pulling a sled piled high with presents. Sometimes he would seem to get lost, approaching one of the other houses. (We were the only children on the block except for one other Estonian family who lived in the apartment directly below us.) We would knock on the window and call out frantically ‘’ “this way, Jõulu Vana!”
Before he gave us our presents, we had to each sing a Christmas song for him. We had been practicing these songs for weeks, but I remember still being nervous and even a bit scared. He always clapped and told us that we were fine singers. (Singing is a very big tradition for Estonians.) And then, finally, he handed us our presents.
As a child I did not really believe in God – most Estonians are pagan at heart, not Christian. (My mother once told me that she found it odd that Canadians go to church so often, every Sunday. In Estonia, she explained, there were only four occasions for reasons for going to church: to be baptised, to be confirmed, to be married, and to be buried.) But my faith in Jõulu Vana was strong. I must have been a gullible child. I never wondered why Jõulu Vana always came straight to our apartment, rather than the apartment of the Estonian family below us. I didn’t even wonder when I noticed, one year, that their Jõulu Vana was shorter than our Jõulu Vana. And when my Estonian friend told me: “You know, there isn’t really a Jõulu Vana; it is just our fathers wearing costumes from the hospital”, I looked her right in the eye and said: “Maybe your father pretends to be Jõulu Vana. But we have the real Jõulu Vana.”


I’ve always been fond of childhood beliefs in Santa Claus or other versions of the figure. While discussion can be brought up of the commercialization of Christmas by the US, and by companies like Coca-Cola (who created the iconic imagery of Santa Claus we all know today) there’s something very pure and wholesome in the participation on the parts of parents in the myth of Santa Claus. Parents claiming that the presents under the tree are from this jolly red figure is a wonderful example of letting child’s imaginations run wild, and nurturing those imaginations by playing along with them, and I’ve never really understood claims that telling your children Santa Claus is real is actually cruel because they’re going to “discover you were lying” or something. Childhood wonder and magic doesn’t last forever, and I think rather than stamping it out, it’s something that should be protected, loved, and cared for by parents and other adults. I remember when I was a child my father would put on a big boot while we were asleep and cover it in soot before stomping around the house so that in the morning it would look like Santa came down from the chimney and had a wander about the house. Real effort was put into making Santa feel real, and I can see now after reading this from my mother, why that mattered so much to her, and the magic from her own childhood that she was trying to recapture for us in ours. The Estonian tradition of Jõulu Vana, where the father dresses up as the jolly red figure, is a perfect example of how putting in effort into creating this myth and captivating a child’s imagination can lead to wonderful memories that can last a lifetime.

La Befana – Italian Christmas Witch

Description of Informant

AG (18) is an Italian-American dual citizen and high school student from Berkeley, CA. At home, she speaks primarily Italian, and spends her summers in Italy.

Context of Interview

The informant, AG, sits in the kitchen with her father and the collector, BK, her step-brother. Text spoken in Italian is italicized, but not translated.


AG: So, in Italy, obviously, they have Christmas. But here in America people usually hang their stockings over the fireplace during Christmastime, right? Santa Clause comes and brings them a few extra goodies in their stockings. But in Italy, what you do, is basically you get your gifts on Christmas. And the next month, in January, La Befana comes— I don’t remember if it’s before or after Christmas, but you know— umm, she comes. And she brings you, if you’re a bad child, no if you’re a good child she brings you candies and toys and a bit of money or spare change or whatever. And then, if you’re a bad child, she brings you coal! And our mom, all the time, there’s these candies in Italy that they sell a lot during this time period. They’re wrapped in black and it’s like hard chocolate, like chunky chocolate that looks like coal. So basically you would just put this candy in the stocking, and it looks like coal, so the child is like “oh no! I’ve been a bad child!” But then actually it’s just chocolate. You know?

BK: What is La Befana? Is it a human? Creature?

AG: Oh! Sorry, yeah La Befana means “The Witch.” But she’s a good witch.

BK: How is she depicted? What does she look like?

AG: Umm I don’t think it really goes into as much depth as Santa Clause. Kind of like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. Yeah like flying on the broom with the hat.

BK: Does she come on a specific day or is it always a surprise?

AG: No it is a specific day I’m just forgetting the date. I think it’s in January or February but I’m not sure. And then also, something I just remembered, here we have the Tooth Fairy. There you have Il… uhh… hmm I’m forgetting. But like, same thing with the Tooth Fairy like maybe everyone has a different version of the Tooth Fairy in their minds. Right? Like is she a pocket-sized fairy or is she a larger fairy?

BK: Or is she Dwayne Johnson. Have you seen that movie? Where he plays the Tooth Fairy.

AG: Oh that’s funny. Or is it Dwayne Johnson? Same thing with the witch, like who knows what she looks like?

BK: You mentioned coal-shaped chocolate. Is it a substitute for coal as-in you’d receive it if you were naughty? Or is it a trick to make good children think they got a punishment, when in reality they got a treat?

AG: I think it’s just a trick, yeah. We usually would get toys every year and then one year our mom did this to us and we were like “What!?” At first, we were really surprised and kinda hurt, but then it was just chocolate so we were fine. And it’s not like you get a big toy, it’s just a stocking stuffer, like a pen or a slinky.

*At this point, AG‘s father EG (52) interjects to correct the date*

EG: [La Befana comes] on “The Feast of the Epiphany,” which is January 6th. Or 5th?

Collector’s Reflection

EG is correct; La Befana comes on January 5th: “The Feast of Epiphany,” the celebration of the visit of the three kings to newborn Jesus Christ. She resembles a kindly old grandmother, and, in addition to depositing gifts for the children, is known for tidying up a bit.

La Befana‘s legend is tied to the religious origin of Christmas, which may reflect why she has not been widely adopted in the United States: a region where Christmas is a greater celebration of capitalism than religion. However, her role of stuffing stockings and leaving bad children coal has been co-opted by the American Santa Claus. In contemporary America, the practice of giving coal is kept alive in name only. Generally, all children who celebrate the holiday, good or bad, receive gifts. From the informant’s perspective, the same appears true in Italy. However, the introduction of the coal-shaped chocolate keeps the tradition alive, while not entirely punishing the recipient.


For the legend of La Befana‘s origin, and a discussion of the treats she brings, please see:

Thimmesch, Debra. “The Legend of La Befana.” ItaliaRail, 20 Dec. 2019, www.italiarail.com/culture/legend-la-befana.