For most of us, Christmas is the highlight of winter celebrations and traditions. It’s the day kids look forward to and which is surrounded by magic. For grown-ups, it means slowing down and taking a moment away from work to focus on family.
Well, well, well… Dutch people do things differently. Christmas is still happening there (actually they even have a Christmas Eve, First Christmas Day and Second Christmas Day… I keep that for another story), but Sinterklaas feels like it’s so much more important.
What (or who?) is Sinterklaas?
Sinterklaas (mainly known as Sint-Nicolaas or St. Nicholas) is a legendary character based on the religious patron saint of children. He originally came from modern-day Turkey, but then chose to live in Spain according to the story.
Just like Santa, he keeps track of children who behave well and those who do not. The good kids get presents deposited in their shoes. For the naughty kids, rumours say that they are being kidnapped in their sleep and taken to Spain…
In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is celebrated during Sinterklaasfeest (the party of Sint-Nicolaas) on December 5th, even if the day of St. Nicholas is on December 6th.
Dutch people and children are crazy about the old man with a white beard. In the Netherlands, the excitement does not only build up around the 5th of December. It starts way earlier…
Who is Zwarte Piet?
Sinterklaas is always accompanied by Zwarte Pieten (literally Black Peters). They are his helpers.
Now, we mainly call them Pieten, due to polemics around Zwarte Piet being a symbol of colonialism and racism (for being represented with his face painted black and red lips).
The arrival of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands: a Sunday in mid-November
The story goes like this: Sinterklaas comes to the Netherlands (in a different city every year) by boat from Spain with his helpers, the Black Peters (Zwarte Pieten).
Every year, there is a big gathering at the harbour to welcome Sinterklaas who leaves his boat on his white horse – Amerigo – and parades in the city. The kids dress up in cute little Pieten and welcome the old man, as well as his helpers. This day starts the festivities which will last until December 5th.
Fun fact (or not!): in 2020, due to corona, Sinterklaas’ arrival was pretty quiet as the old man had to quarantine for 10 days. You know, he just came back from Spain, which was an orange zone.
Traditions during Sinterklaas
You know Sinterklaas is coming soon when you start seeing pepernoten or kruidnoten in the supermarket. These can be in the aisle as early as the end of August (yes, for real!).
Around October/November, you start seeing chocolate letters and St. Nicholas in chocolate.
Getting presents in your shoe
Once St. Nicholas has arrived in the Netherlands, children can lay out their shoes before bedtime 1-2 times per week. They usually put letters and wish-lists to Sinterklaas in it, hoping that there will be a little gift in it by morning.
Traditionally the shoe was put in front of a chimney along with water and a carrot (or apple) for the horse.
Nowadays, children would mainly put a letter and a carrot in the shoe. By the morning, these would have disappeared and been replaced by small presents.
Singing songs for the Pieten
Children and their parents also usually sing songs together to get the Pieten’s attention. They are rewarded with candies like chocolate letters and pepernoten.
What happens on Sinterklaasavond (December 5th)?
Although the day of Saint Nicholas is on December 6th, the evening of 5th is the main gift-giving occasion. It is called Sinterklaasavond (Sinterklaas evening) or pakjesavond (presents evening).
For kids… presents, presents and presents
On Sinterklaasavond (I mean D-Day – Dec 5th), kids are ecstatic and crazy-excited. It’s the most important day of the year!
The idea is that Sinterklaas is supposed to go back to Spain on Dec 6th and before leaving the country, he drops a sack full of presents on the doorstep of each house.
Usually, there is a big family gathering with all the kids dressed up, decorations and treats. At some point, everyone hears a huge knock on the door! It’s Sinterklaas!!!
- In most cases, a neighbour would have been asked for his help in advance. The parents would drop the presents in a bag at the neighbours’ and ask if he could kindly knock on the door loudly and drop the presents in front of the door. Well, guess who did it for our neighbours’ kids!
- Sometimes, the families rent a Sinterklaas and Pieten for the event. So the kids get the real deal.
The exchange of poems and gifts
If there are no kids in the family, Sinterklaas is still a big thing. The inner-child of every Dutch person awakes and aches for a good party with gezelligheid.
The opening of the presents is usually accompanied with poems! The idea is that the poem is read first and tells something about the person receiving the present and the present itself.
For instance, my boyfriend explained that there was a year during which he (as a teenager) had done something naughty… he emptied the bike tires of a kid from school. That year, his uncle who knew about the story picked his name for Sinterklaas. Guess what he got… a roasty poem about how to fix a bike and a tire repair kit as a gift!
For my first real Sinterklaasfeest, the deal was “no stress”. So as a foreigner I thought, as a first-timer I will avoid stressing out about the poem and only focus on the gift. Big mistake… it’s only on D-Day that I realised the presents were supposed to be related to the things said in the poem and that it was actually the most fun part (for grown-ups). Oh and yeah, I got a 4-page poem!