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There is no doubt about it – the period of Sinterklaas is the favourite time of year for Dutch children and actually for many adults too! It’s also an incredibly popular celebration in Belgium and some of the former Dutch colonies, that whilst sharing many similarities with Christmas, remains utterly unique.
In the traditional version of events, Sinterklaas (also known as Sint Nicolaas or simply the Sint) rides atop his impressive white horse accompanied by his trusty servants (Zwarte Pieten), to visit the rooftop of every Dutch child on the evening of 5th December. Not unlike Santa Claus he enters via the chimney and, providing they have been good all year round, places a number of gifts in the empty shoes that have been deliberately set next to the fireplace in anticipation.
Sint Nicolaas and the Roots of Sinterklaas
The mythical figure of Sinterklaas evolved from Nicholas of Myra – a very real bishop from the Lycian city of Myra, who was made a saint after saving the lives of three children. Today Sinterklaas still wears religious robes, carries an authoritative staff and dons an eye-catching mitre above his curly white hair, hinting at his pious background. Sint Nicolaas was revered in Eastern Europe until the thirteenth century, when western European countries also began to pay regular homage to him on 6th December. Following the Dutch Revolt in the sixteenth century, zealous Calvinists (who considered Sint Nicolaas Day excessively pagan and Catholic in nature) tried to ban the celebrations. However, the festival proved far too popular, even in a largely Protestant country, and they failed in their attempts.
By the nineteenth century Sinterklaas had matured into a stern disciplinarian who rewarded good children with presents and punished naughty ones with a couple of strokes of the cane, administered by Zwarte Piet. If children had behaved particularly badly, they were threatened with a worse fate – that of being stuffed into Sinterklaas’s sack and carried away to Spain. Thankfully corporal punishment is now forbidden in the Netherlands and Sinterklaas is no longer quite so strict!
Originally Sinterklaas had to make do with just one helper called ‘Zwarte Piet’, but as his workload expanded, so did his team. These days he is often assisted by more than twenty cheerful Zwarte Pieten.
The Moment Every Dutch Child Longs For!
Sinterklaas has a busy job and starts paying regular visits to Dutch homes up and down the country, several weeks in advance of the official Sint Nicolaas Day celebration. He formally arrives in the Netherlands on the first Saturday after Sint Marten (a catholic celebration), at a specially designated harbour. And he makes his initial appearance in true style, in an extravagantly decorated boat that he is reputed to have sailed all the way from Spain. Dutch TV is there to capture the moment and broadcast the colourful event for excited children who can at long last leave their shoe by the chimney breast in the hope of receiving their first present. The children check the shoe, which often contains a wish and a carrot for the Sint’s horse, almost immediately upon waking. It will most likely reveal small gifts including toys and a coveted ‘chocoladeletter’ (a solid chocolate initial). The Sint and his helpers also leave a trail of ‘pepernoten’ and ‘kruidnoten’ (delicious little Dutch biscuits flavoured with cinnamon) as an additional treat.
Presents a Plenty!
Sinterklaas celebrations culminate on the evening of 5th December with the delivery of the childrens’ main presents on what is known as ‘pakjesavond’. Animated children sing Sinterklaas songs and surround a merry Sint before solemnly taking their turn on his lap. There he reads out loud a report on their conduct that year from his large book and distributes their gifts. The children seem to accept that Sinterklaas cannot be everywhere at once and perfectly understand the need for the many ‘Hulpsinterklazen’ (special helpers) on his most hectic evening of the year!
Most Dutch children believe in Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet until they reach around eight or nine years old and they finally learn from school friends that it’s only a fun story. Yet older children and adults celebrate Sinterklaas with just as much enthusiasm. Grown-ups sometimes organise Sinterklaas Parties, known as a ‘surpriseavond’ (surprise evening) to which they invite family and friends. Well before the actual party, guests draw secret lots to discover the name of the friend or relative for whom they must choose an amusing gift. The presents, though usually not expensive, are often elaborately wrapped and contain a witty poem that makes fun of the recipient, albeit in a harmless way. And of course, they too enjoy all of the delicious Dutch food products that are typical at this special time of year.
If you’re planning a trip to the Netherlands, consider travelling during the Sinterklaas period. You’ll not only be able to take part in all the exciting festivities and sample some Dutch delicacies, you might even spot the Sint on one of his nightly visits!
Prefer to read this article in Dutch? Why not visit to our sister blog, heimwee.info, specifically intended for Dutch emigrants abroad.