For the Dutch, Santa is tall and skinny. What happened to him in America?

December 21, 2023

Man with blond/brown hair wearing a collared white button down shirt  with a dark jacket on top, smiling while standing outsideWhy do we leave Santa a cookie to eat the night before Christmas? UC Berkeley professor Jeroen Dewulf says we can thank the Dutch for that.   

In fact, the Santa Claus Americans know and love today — plump, riding in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, cookie-loving — is a direct descendant of Sinterklaas, brought to New York by Dutch settlers in the 17th century. Sinterklaas, unlike his American relative, is lean, tall and delivers oranges. He’s a little spooky too: Legend goes that especially bad children were put in his bag and taken to Spain.    

For Dewulf, who is the Queen Beatrix Professor of Dutch Studies and director of the Berkeley’s Institute of European Studies, the story of Sinterklaas becoming Santa Claus is an example of America’s deep cultural connection — by way of New York City’s hold on entertainment and media — to ancient European customs and traditions. 

And Dewulf teaches an American Cultures course — Dutch 171 AC: From New Amsterdam to New York: Race Culture, and Identity in New Netherland — that delves into that history.  

Berkeley News recently spoke with him about the differences between the Dutch Sinterklaas and what Americans now know as Santa Claus, and how Americans changed the narrative of that Dutch tradition over the years.  

Berkeley News