SCHINNEN, The Netherlands -- To me, Christmas means snow, candles, nicely decorated open fireplaces, the smell of firs, warmth, coziness and family time. Christmas in the Netherlands is actually a religious family fest. Although, it is becoming more of a tradition to give presents on Christmas day, traditionally presents were only given on Dec. 5 or 6 during the fest of Sinterklaas.

I am often asked if the feast of Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicolas, is the same as Christmas. Every time, I have to say that it is not. Saint Nicolas is celebrated on Dec. 5 and 6 while Christmas is observed on Dec. 25. Sinterklaas rides on a white horse and delivers the presents in shoes lined up by the fireplace. Santa rides a sleigh drawn by reindeers and travels through the sky. He delivers the presents in Christmas socks hanging by the fireplace. Santa's helpers are elves. Sinterklaas has his companion called "Zwarke Piete" or "Père Fouettard." Sinterklaas wears an episcopate and carries a bishop's crosier while Santa's hat looks a bit like an old fashion nightcap. However, both men share one distinct feature -- they both have a white beard.

Legend has it that, in the 4th century, Saint Nicolas was the bishop of Myra in Turkey. He used his wealth to fight injustice and gave everything to the poor. Other stories about Saint Nicolas have been shared throughout the years. In one story, he used his wealth to help three maidens who were forced into poverty. Another story recounted how he brought three children back to life who had been murdered. In another, he is sailed the Ocean and, through prayers, saved his ship from sinking in storm. He was among others the patron saint for the seafaring. Historians think that Saint Nicolas' long white beard and his white horse can be traced back to the Teutonic God Wodan who flew through the sky on his beautiful white horse Sleipnir.

The Dutch colonists in America kept the tradition of Sinterklaas alive and after a while the English colonists adopted the legend as well. It is believed that the English-speaking children got as excited as the Dutch children and pronounced the Dutch "Sinterklaas" so fast it started to sound like "Santa Claus." Saint Nicolas is also the patron Saint of New York.

Until 1800, the Santa was pictured in the United States as a tall, skinny and stately man dressed in bishop's robes and riding on a white horse. This changed in 1809 when in Washington Irving's book Knickerbocker's History of New York, the author described Santa as a chubby and pleasant man dressed in trousers and wearing a wide-brimmed hat. In 1823, a New York newspaper published the poem "Twas the night before Christmas." In the poem, the author described Santa as a chubby and jolly person with twinkling eyes and a red nose dressed in a red suit with white-fur trimmings. He traveled through the sky in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer and delivered the presents on Christmas Eve. Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist with Harpers Weekly gave Santa a beard in a series of strips that were published in 1863 to 1886. However, the final stage in the evolution of the modern Santa Claus was brought about by Coca-Cola when they launched an advertising campaign in the 1930s with Santa Claus as a cheery, chubby fellow that millions of people throughout the western world know today.

In The Netherlands, Christmas has two festive days, Dec. 25 and 26. In the southern part of the Netherlands, which is predominantly Catholic, many people attend a night mass on Dec. 24. Christmas Day is observed Dec. 25 as many spend time with their families. During dinner that day, a special dish, consisting of rabbit marinated in wine is served. Dec. 26 or second Christmas Day is much the same. Although nowadays, people go more out for dinner on both days, but it is still very much a family-oriented time.

Personally, I always enjoy the time before Christmas, the Advent, more. Decorating the tree, visiting the Christmas markets and seeing all the preparations for the festive days are just wonderful to me. The Christmas markets are so inviting and fun. The largest and oldest Christmas Market is probably the Gingerbread and Toy City in Nürnberg, Germany. Almost every town in Germany has at least one market, but in the last couple decades the markets have become a tradition in the Netherlands and Belgium too.

I hope you will find time to visit these festive attractions in Europe and wish you already a peaceful and wonderful holiday season.