Ethical Marketing? A brief history of Santa Claus and Sinterklaas

January 18th, 2022

Ryan Ketelaar

Admittedly, this article is a little late to the party, but hey, it is never too late to learn about something interesting. I have always been somewhat confused about Santa Claus and Sinterklaas, is it the same, is it something else, is it related at all? None of my family members could answer these questions during Christmas and Sinterklaas, so apart from clearing some things up for international students about Sinterklaas, this will also be interesting for Dutch readers who don’t know the origins of their tradition. And, when the holidays come around again, you’ll be able to impress all your curious family members with your knowledge of these traditions.


It all started in 4th century Myra, a town in modern day Turkey, then part of the Roman Empire. Here lived Nicholas of Myra, also called Nicholas of Bari and later Saint Nicholas, member of a rich Greek family. Nicholas decided to become a bishop, and during his career he gained a grand reputation of benevolence and generosity. The most famous story about his generosity is the story of the poor man and his three daughters. In those times it was customary, when marrying, for the father to pay the husband of his daughters a dowry. People who could not afford this could not marry, and so was the case with the poor man and his three daughters. This meant that the man would have to sell his daughters into prostitution. One day however, a stranger threw gold coins through his window, which landed in the shoes drying in front of the fireplace. This happened another time, and the third time the father chased the benevolent giver, and it was Nicholas.

In another story he saved three innocent persons from execution in Myra. The army commanders leading this execution, back in Constantinople, were then themselves sentenced to death by the emperor on the basis of a conspiracy. In their dungeon the commanders prayed to Nicholas, who appeared to the emperor in a dream, showing him the consequences of executing these innocent commanders, leading him to set them free.

His reputation also led to some legends and miracle stories. For example, legend says he could stand up straight right after birth. Or that he brought back to life three children who were cut up into pieces by a butcher, and put into a tub of brine (maybe leave this part out when you’re telling your younger family members).

His death

After his death on December 6th 343, his reputation kept growing, and in 550 he was declared a saint. At this time he was already locally worshipped, but this would only grow in coming centuries.

In 1087, Italian sailors stole his remains from Myra, out of fear from the Islamic Seljuks. This increased his popularity even more. His remains were brought to Bari, Italy, where he rests to this day, although fragments of his remains were acquired by a number of other churches around the world. During the Middle Ages churches from all parts of Europe became devoted to him, and he became patron saint for children, sailors, the countries Russia and Greece, unmarried girls, merchants, and a number of cities including Amsterdam.

Current day traditions in the Netherlands

Many traditions come from the story of the three daughters. Nicholas threw coins through the window, into the shoes at the fireplace. This is why during Sinterklaas kids place their shoes by the fireplace. This is also the source of strooigoed; the throwing of candy (most notably pepernoten).

If you are wondering about the more sinister side of Saint Nicholas, where he punished children: this developed later, in relation to the protestant reformation which banned Saint Nicholas. In the north of the Netherlands, the image of Saint Nicholas merged with an old Nordic folktale of a magician that punished naughty children and rewarded good ones. During this time he was depicted as all black with chains on his feet, who beat naughty children and put them in his sack. This was used to intimidate children into good behaviour. This image is also the basis of Zwarte Piet ('Black Pete').

In the second half of the 19th century Jan Schenkman added the folklore of Spain, the steamboat, the black helper Zwarte Piet, and the characteristic appearance of a red robe and mitre. The name for helpers in other books had often been piet (pete), and zwarte piet became the term for this helper. Traditionally there had only been one or two Zwarte Pieten, but after World War 2 the Canadians organised a Sinterklaas with a horde of Pieten, and this has been the standard since then. In 1930 the first criticism of the appearance of Zwarte Piet was made, saying it represented a slave, but it was not until 2014 that the image and the name would slowly change, towards a Piet with brushes of soot.

The origin of Santa Claus

The Netherlands brought this tradition to their American colonies, particularly New Amsterdam (modern day New York), where it was adapted under the name Santa Claus. Over the years it developed into its own story and folklore. This was particularly shaped by authors, just as Jan Schenkman had done in the Netherlands. The image and tradition was first influenced by a book containing Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, and later a poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas (better known today as "The Night Before Christmas"). Here lies the origin of the Elves, the sleigh, the reindeer, and Santa Claus as a jolly figure in a red costume. Thomas Nast was one of the first to illustrate Santa Claus in this way.

Coca Cola and the image of Santa Claus

The second big influence, which permanently set the image of Santa Claus in the Americas and all over the world as we know it today, was Coca Cola. Artist Haddon Sundblom painted many illustrations for advertisements and marketing for Coca Cola, and the image he used here was adapted as the image of Santa Claus. Many different countries have increasingly taken over this image, such as in England where Father Christmas has traditionally always had a green cloak, which is now changed to red. It wasn’t Coca Cola however that decided Santa’s costume should be red, as is often told as an interesting marketing tale. It was already red in the poems described earlier. However Coca Cola did shape the current image of Santa Claus, where before many variants existed.  

The power of marketing

It might be somewhat eerie to hear that one of the most iconic and most beloved images, and mainly a symbol for children, has been shaped mostly by a corporation. And a corporation selling unhealthy drinks at that. This brings up many ethical questions, such as should any company have that much power? Is it ethical to associate an unhealthy product with such an important symbol for children? It may or may not surprise you that marketing towards young children, especially of unhealthy products, is very prominent to this day. As a child you don’t have a choice, you don’t have a choice of how you see Santa, and many adults still don’t know this was mainly the work of a marketing team. Should we as a society protect children against unethical marketing, especially of the food industry? What right do children actually already have? Someone who knows a lot about this topic is Leonie Barelds-Cramer, former employee of Pepsico, but now specialist at UNICEF on the impact of food industry on children’s lives. If you are interested in hearing more from her about this, check out the online New Year’s event, Tuesday 25 January from 4.30 - 6.15 pm, where she will speak about this topic.