The Evolution of Sinterklaas (And Lessons For Marketers)

 

Who is Santa Claus, exactly, and how did he come about?

It’s interesting how so many of us take him for granted. If Christmas is about the birth of Jesus (and as Caleb pointed out in our last post, it isn’t nearly that straightforward), where did Santa Claus come from?

Why are we all so comfortable with this weird image of this fat old white man dressed in something that looks somewhat like a velvety bathrobe and pants?

Saint Nicholas was the earliest known iteration of Santa Claus.

Saint Nicholas of Myra
Austere, bookish, and maybe even a little grumpy-looking?

He was an actual person, a Greek bishop based in who was known for gift-giving.

As you can see, he was portrayed as a bit of a bookish figure, a stern looking man, seemed to have been balding a little, dressed in robes. He’s a popular figure in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and you might be forgiven for oversimplifying him as “the Russian Santa Claus”.

St. Nicholas Day is still celebrated today on either the 6th or 19th of December, and interestingly, there’s a tradition of putting up boots to be filled, not stockings.

Sinterklaas appears to be an iteration of Saint Nicholas.

Sinterklaas
Unlike Santa, Sinterklaas looks like a badass who might’ve had magical powers. It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to describe him as “terrible”, in the old-fashioned sense.

What’s interesting about him is the range of companions he’s had over the years. Most terrifyingly, there’s this idea of a demon or monster called Krampus who outright kidnaps naughty children altogether.

If that sounds somewhat “unchristmassy”, it’s probably because it predated Christianity. There’s a helper called “Zwarte Piet” (“Black Whipper”), who has rather racist undertones. In France, Sinterklaas “Pere Fouttard” (“Father Whipper) actually goes around whipping naughty children!

Here’s how terrifying Krampus can be, immortalized in a greeting card:

krampus
By far the most terrifying Christmas card ever.

Father Christmas is another idea that gets spread around.

The Russian corollary might’ve been “Grandfather Frost”, who seemed a little sinister, even wicked.

There are many other ideas that I haven’t even begun to talk about- the Christkind, for instance, which is a little cherub-like figure who replaced the idea of Sinterklaas for a while. There is an incredible wealth of cultural information that’s all over the internet if you’re curious enough to take the trouble to find out.

What can a marketer learn from all this? 

The only thing we can be clear about is that nothing is clear. There hasn’t been a neat, tidy and linear progression of the idea that is Santa Claus today. There have been many different sources and iterations, many of them having absolutely nothing to do with Jesus or Christianity whatsoever. People have been having all sorts of Winter Solstice festivals all around the world for a long, long time- in China, Persia and even Africa.

The world is bigger than you think. Researching this, I found myself overwhelmed by the variations and complexity of traditions outside of the mainstream English-speaking American and British spaces. There are all sorts of rich cultural traditions from all over the world, many of which we are never even made aware of because of language differences.

As the internet and ecommerce connects the world, we will increasingly be drawn into contact with people from different cultures and backgrounds, and we will have to be both aware and sensitive to that.

I think it’s also interesting how we seem to see a trend of things getting “infantilized”. St. Nicholas appeared to be a rather grumpy, austere man, and had legends about him saving murdered children. Sinterklaas came later, cutting an imposing figure with his bold colours and headgear. He with him some ugly demons and beasts, and later, with a bumbling slave of sorts.

Father Christmas looked rather jolly with his luxurious fur coat. Finally, Santa Claus comes across as this jolly old man who’s not out to hurt or punish anyone, simply spreading a little Christmas cheer, ho ho ho! Things used to be a lot darker and morbid back then. Does this have any implications for the future?

Things have become more politically correct over the years. This is kinda related to the “infantilization” idea, but it’s also about social justice and fairness. People these days make jokes about Santa overworking his elves, who might be slave labor- are they being adequately repatriated?

Also, what is up with the moral absolutism? Is Santa spying on everyone? It’s clear that festivals and cultural ideas are fluid and they are reflective of their times.

Nothing is set in stone. Things can and do change all the time. It’s never obvious when it’s happening, because we tend to construct simple narratives on hindsight to explain how things evolved since the past.  But these rarely withstand serious scrutiny. Where did the sleigh come from? I

f it were so simple, we should be able to predict what Christmas is going to look like in 50, 100 years. That’s a surprisingly difficult task. The future is perhaps up to the most savvy marketers to create, by tapping into the spirit of the times and anticipating what people want or need.

Lots of fun food for thought, if you ask me. I have more questions than answers.

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