Sinterklaas, a fascinating cultural tradition celebrated every year in the Netherlands, is arguably the most exciting event of the year for Dutch kids. And their parents. Big and small, young and old, we ALL get excited when mid-November rolls around. He is “back in town” to bring us presents!
History & Origin of Sinterklaas
The name Sinterklaas, from which the modern Santa Claus is derived, is itself an alteration of Saint Nicholas. Revered as a great gift giver, Saint Nicholas (270-343) is the basis to much of the Christmas-time traditions. His feast day of December 6 follows the day after the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas Eve, or “Pakjesavond”.
Historically, Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop of Myra, which is now part of Turkey. However, he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari, because half of his relics were moved to the Italian city of Bari in 1087. Bari would later become part of the Spanish Empire, and thus Sinterklaas is represented as coming from Spain.
Nicholas’ kindness to children and his love of gift giving continued to be venerated in the province of Lycia. European Christendom propagated these celebrations throughout the Middle Ages, until the focus was transferred from Nicholas to Christ during the Reformation and formed the modern Christmas tradition. Saint Nicholas also maintained a fervent following from sailors, who favored him as their patron saint. To this day, Sinterklaas can be seen coming to town aboard a great steamboat.
Zwarte Piet, the famed black companion to Sinterklaas, is based on a nineteenth century construct. Piet is often depicted as a Spanish Moor, a link to Saint Nicholas’ Spanish heritage and an explanation for his black appearance. [His complex origins actually feature devil iconography and various racially charged backgrounds, but that could be the subject of a post in and of itself.]
Another, much simpler explanation for his ‘blackness’, and one that is far easier to explain to young children, is the fact that Piet has to climb down the chimney of every house to deliver the presents on “Pakjesavond”. 😉
Veneration of Saint Nicholas and the celebrating of Sinterklaas was prohibited by Dutch Protestants following separation from Spain. However, the Catholic population kept the holiday alive. Sinterklaas would grow, and become more secularized from the nineteenth century onward. Over time, everyone young and old, no matter race or religion, would get excited about the festivities. I would even go as far as to say that Sinterklaas is the most popular family holiday in the Netherlands. I mean, really. Who doesn’t like to receive presents?
Interestingly, the folklore tradition of Sinterklaas in North America was honored by the Dutch population long after New Amsterdam became New York. Our modern conception of Santa Claus actually grew from that basis!
“Intocht” in the Netherlands: Arrival of Sinterklaas
In 2015, Sinterklaas and his helpers arrived in the Netherlands on November 14th in the city of Meppel. Each year, the “Sint” (a.k.a. the Dutch government) selects a different city to celebrate his grand arrival. The Dutch people – especially families with kids – travel far and wide to catch a glimpse of the incredibly popular holy man and his silly ‘black peters’.
The latter – currently under discussion in a controversial racial debate that has even reached political levels, but that’s a whole different story I’d rather not get involved in – smile and wave at all the excited children, tell all sorts of funny jokes, and some might even bust out a clumsy dance, while all of them reach out to give each and every child a handful of mixed sweets called “strooigoed”.
It’s the best and most anticipated party of the year. Sinterklaas is back in town!
Have you missed him in person? Don’t worry!
Since 2001, you can follow Sinterklaas on TV by tuning into the “Sinterklaas Journaal”: a special news broadcast on the crazy adventures of Sint Nicolaas and his Pieten from a few days before their arrival to the country up to the night of December 5th.
And then on December 6, Sinterklaas’ birthday, it is time for us to say goodbye. See you next year Sint Nicolaas!
Sinterklaas traditions, games & songs
“Schoentje zetten”: Placing the shoe
As soon as Sinterklaas arrives in the country, kids have the opportunity to ‘place the shoe’. This means that they are allowed to place one of their shoes in front of the fire place, hoping that Sinterklaas will be so kind to fill it up with a little present. Usually, we leave a poem or a wish list for Sinterklaas to read, and a carrot for his horse “Schimmel” to snack on.
Sometimes, we even make and decorate our own ‘shoes’ (and even carrots in this case).
Throughout the Sinterklaas period, kids are allowed to repeat this process several times. At home, but also at supermarkets and other (local) stores, which might hold creative shoe-placing competitions. But in the end, just how many times you will be allowed to place your shoe will likely depend on your parents. 😉
Creating a “Surprise”
When you grow up, the Sinterklaas traditions transform into something more creative. Instead of receiving gifts from the man himself, adults draw each other’s names, get cracking on the most awesome arts & crafts projects they can think of for this particular person, buy and hide their gift(s) inside, and then get together one faithful night to exchange their creations and show off their talent for rhythm and rhyme.
Writing & reading poems
Huh? Yes indeed! Sinterklaas is not the only one to “climb into his pen” during the month of December. All participants of this so-called “surprise night” have to write a poem for the person they have drawn! Preferably mocking or otherwise funnily teasing the recipient of your presents.
Personally, writing the poems is the part I like best about our Sinterklaas celebration. Nothing better than trying to crack your skull to come up with something witty to write about your ‘lucky’ draw. I promise you, it will make for a night of hilarious hysteria!
Here’s my 2014 attempt to raise some literary laughter with a poem to my friend Cassie:
Singing traditional Sinterklaas songs
I will spare you the pain of having to listen to me sing, but as you might imagine we have a whole arsenal of songs to sing during the Sinterklaas period. We have songs for greeting Sinterklaas, songs requesting him to fill our shoes, other songs begging him to also visit our house, and finally a song to wave him off on his way back to Spain.
Especially, on the night of December 5, so-called “Pakjesavond” or “Presents Night”, we gather around the fire place, living room, or kitchen table, and start singing like there is no tomorrow. Make sure it is loud enough, so Sinterklaas will hear you!
Baking ‘pepernoten’ & ‘speculaas’ cookies
Well, this one does not need too much explanation. Baking is fun, cookies are yummy, so what are you waiting for?!
All I can say is that I hope everyone will get a chance to eat “pepernoten” (pepper nuts) and “speculaas” at some point in their lives. These spicy and crunchy cookies made with ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and pepper are simply too delicious!
I can’t resist to make them at least once a year. No matter where I live.
In Buenos Aires, my pepernoten were so popular I found a market for them amongst my own colleagues (!). And then years later, in New Orleans, I baked the biggest Speculaas cookie EVER. Mmm…
“Pakjesavond”: Sinterklaas Eve
Pakjesavond – loosely translated: “presents night” – is by far the most exciting night of the year. In fact, in the days before Sinterklaas, or even weeks, Dutch kids get so worked up they don’t even seem to remember how to listen to mom, finish their plates, or play nicely.
All they can think of is what Sinterklaas will bring them this year. Will I get the presents on my wish list? Have I been good (enough) this year? Will we actually get so see him?!
By the time December 5 has arrived, kids have lost all sense of control. Pure adrenaline is running through their veins. You know HE is going to drop off presents, you just don’t know when (or where) yet.
Suddenly there is a loud bang on the door. Zwarte Piet! It must be him!
The whole family storms into the hallway trying to catch a glimpse of Sinterklaas or one of his loyal helpers. To no luck. They are gone without a trace. All they left behind is a floor full of “Strooigoed” (“throwing” or “scattering” candy).
Look mom! Look dad! …Dad?
At this point, your kids might dive into the sweet treats like there is no tomorrow. Or, if you are less fortunate (hide!), they run right back into the house frantically looking for the “Zak van Sinterklaas”, in other words the – originally burlap – bag in which he drops off the presents.
“Daddy daddy! You’ve missed Sinterklaas! He was just here!” they might manage to utter right before they realize Dad is standing around a massive pile of beautifully wrapped boxes, bags and other packages.
“Wow!! Did you see him Dad?!!” they shriek before storming towards the gift pile. “No, I didn’t! I just went to the bathroom and when I came back all this was lying here! I haven’t heard or seen a thing!”
Either mom or dad will step in at this point to try to organize the gift unwrapping process. When I was a child, me and my brother would take turns picking up a present and giving it to the person whose name is on the label. We would (ever so patiently, ahem) wait for each person to read the poem, unwrap and open their present, show it to us, maybe even explain what it is, before diving onto the next present.
And as if this day couldn’t get any better, you are allowed to eat “pepernoten”, chocolates, “speculaas” cookies, and schuimpjes (super sweet sugary “foamy” candy) all night long!! 😀
Oh, what a night.
There are no words to describe the magic of Sinterklaas.
It’s an absolutely mesmerizing and wonderful family event. Great fun for young and old!
Sinterklaas around the world
Sinterklaas is a fair and honest man. Not only does he manage in one night to give presents to all kids in the Netherlands that have been good this year, but he then sets off to travel all around the world (!) to also surprise Dutch kids (and adults) that live far away from our homeland.
And let me tell you, celebrating Sinterklaas is truly magical wherever you are.
I always figured I must be one sweet girl, or Sinterklaas must really like me, because I have been lucky enough to receive presents while living in Buenos Aires, New Orleans, and Melbourne. On some occasions, I even got to see him in person! 😀
Thank you Sinterklaas! Danku, Sinterklaasje!
Sinterklaas in Buenos Aires
Every year, Sinterklaas would pay a visit to us Dutchies at the Van Koning bar in las Cañitas. After his birthday on December 6, he would take the effort to fly out to Argentina, and then ride his horse all across Buenos Aires just to come and say hi, shake our hands, share some embarrassing anecdotes, and have his Pieten hand out some yummy “Strooigoed”.
Sinterklaas in New Orleans
In New Orleans, a large group of Dutch expats would get together for the holiday in one of the lovely family homes to welcome Sinterklaas and his Pieten. The kids would be invited to come close to Sinterklaas (most toddlers freak out about the idea of sitting on this strange old man’s lap 😉 ), after which he would read from his Great Big Book about how well they have done in school, what funny adventures they have gotten up to with their siblings and/or their parents, and what gift they had asked Sinterklaas this year.
And then the Pieten would continuously give everyone handfuls of candy and cookies!
Besides this amazing day on which we celebrated as a community, Sinterklaas went even further out of his way to make a special visit to our house! We were sitting around singing Sinterklaas songs with the girls, when all of a sudden we heard a loud noise at the basement door. We all ran to the back of the house, checked the doors and the stairways, but… we didn’t see anyone!
When we then got back to the living room, there were presents spread out across the floor in front of our fire place. He was here! Sinterklaas had just paid us a visit!
Sinterklaas in Melbourne
Even at his respectable age (or maybe due to the very fact that he is hundreds of years old?), I must say Sinterklaas is getting more and more creative about delivering his presents across the globe.
This year, my presents arrived directly in the mail!
And maybe they came with a hint of a message? I don’t know. You tell me. 😉
Without even making a wish list, I received a Dutch design apron, oven mittens, and fridge magnets… and a deck of UNO cards!
Baking AND playing games… I think I’ll be able to keep myself busy next weekend!
Has Sinterklaas visited you this year? In the Netherlands, or abroad?
(If you are not Dutch) Had you ever heard of Sinterklaas before?
To all the kids (and parents) who received Sinterklaas presents this year: Enjoy!
And last but not least, of course: THANK YOU SINTERKLAAS! 😀