Sinterklass, Christkindl, St. Nicholas, and Santa Claus: I’ve met them all

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 55, No. 10, December 2013, Pages 455,479 President's Comment

Vienna Rathaus

I love Christmas. For all the usual reasons—the lights, sounds, smells, colors, and good cheer, but also because of the great memories I have of Christmastime as a child. 

Christmas has always been joyously celebrated in my family. I was raised in Europe. We moved frequently as my father was not only a physician but also a diplomatic attaché, and since he was Presbyterian and my mother Roman Catholic, my brothers and I got to celebrate both traditions. On top of that, we also got to celebrate Christmas as the locals did in whichever country we happened to be living at the time. 

My earliest memory is of Christmas in Holland, which seemed to last the whole month. The big celebration kicked off when Sinterklass arrived by canal boat on the eve of 5 December (at least in Wassenar, where we were living), accompanied by his trusted companion, Zwarte Piet. Together they distributed sweets and presents in little baggies to all good children. As well, the Canadian embassy in Holland always had a big celebration that began with the arrival of Santa Claus. Over the years, this resulted in my accumulating a sizable collection of little cars: first Corgis, then Matchbox, and later Hot Wheels. 

I remember our huge Christmas trees with electric candles that looked real, and I remember a lot of homemade decorations, especially straw stars that we boys helped my mother make. We also had lots of Christmas baking—mince tarts, traditional Christmas pudding, and fruitcake. 

On Christmas Eve my family and I celebrated in the Catholic tradition, first with a visit from Christkindl (when we received most of our presents), followed by a traditional fish dinner and apple strudel and whipped cream dessert. We would then all attend church for the midnight service.

On Christmas day we celebrated further with turkey or goose and all the fixings followed by Christmas pudding set aflame by a match touched to the warmed cognac. We got to eat that with whipped cream, too. I think it’s safe to say my mother really liked whipped cream—and so did the rest of us.

When we moved to Austria, we discovered that St. Nicholas was accompanied by Krampus when he made his rounds on the evening of 5 December. Although Krampus represents evil, he was under St. Nicholas’s control—an affirmation that evil is not to have the last word. 

I remember St. Nicholas and Krampus towing a sled while snow fell all around, handing out bags of goodies filled with treats from the village bakery. Unlike in Holland this was not the major gift-giving day, but it was still loads of fun. Advent played an important role there, and in Vienna itself there was a large building that looked like a giant Advent calendar. A new window was lit each day as Christmas approached. 

Santa Claus came to both the embassy and the American school my brothers and I attended. We sang carols in many different languages since there were children of more than 60 nationalities attending the school. 

When we moved to Scotland we continued our previous traditions of celebrating Christmas in all its different variations, but we had little to do with Hogmanay, the celebration on the last day of the year. 

When my family eventually moved to Victoria, our happy combination of traditions continued, beginning with the Advent calendar, and then the arrival of Sinterklass, St. Nicholas, Chistkindl, and Santa Claus. It’s no wonder I loved Christmas.

As an adult I moved to Yukon after my residency and continued with many of the traditions that had left such an impression on me. I even added a new custom—a trip out to the forest in my snowmobile to cut down a Charlie Brown Christmas tree and then haul it back on the trailer. We were guaranteed snow over Christmas in Yukon. 

My own children have been brought up with the same blend of traditions. And we added something else to the mix: a musical Christmas in which the family and guests each bring and play a musical instrument—we’ve had more than a dozen musicians. 

However you enjoy this festive season, I wish you happiness and laughter, good food and good cheer, and time spent with friends and loved ones.
—William Cunningham, MD

William Cunningham, MD, CCFP, CCFP (EM). Sinterklass, Christkindl, St. Nicholas, and Santa Claus: I’ve met them all. BCMJ, Vol. 55, No. 10, December, 2013, Page(s) 455,479 - President's Comment.

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