Sinterklaas — A Dutch Tradition

St. Nicholas

Here in the low-lands, we have a funny holiday called Sinterklaas. If you’re in the Netherlands now, or planning to visit around the 5th of December, you most propably will be seeing some strangely dressed up people on the streets…

St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra (Turkey) in the third century. He was known for his goodness and generosity: he was quite rich but used his entire fortune to assist the poor. Furthermore he was known for his love for children and as such he became their patron saint. Apparently he was also very concerned about the welfare of sailors and ships but that has nothing to do with this. He died December 6 AD 343, and the anniversary of his death has (weirdly enough) been celebrated ever since. In Holland, we like to be different and celebrate St. Nicholas day (‘Sinterklaas’) on December 5th. But for weeks leading up to that, Sinterklaas keeps everybody busy!

Traditionally, Sinterklaas arrives from Spain (nobody knows why) on a steamboat (nobody knows why) somewhere in November; in 2008 it will be the 16th. On his boat, he brings alongside millions of presents for all the children in the Netherlands, his white horse Amerigo and many, many naughty ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (Black Peets), who throw candy to the crowds. This event is broadcasted on National Television. At the same time, Sinterklaas arrives in every single town or village in the Netherlands, and all little children go out to welcome him by singing the traditional Sinterklaas songs.


From that moment onwards, little children can put their shoes (yes, traditionally the wooden ones but nowadays even leather shoes are available in Holland!) in front of the fireplace before they go to bed. Sinterklaas will come in the middle of the night, riding his horse over the rooftops, and Zwarte Piet will climb down the chimneys (hense his black color) and gather the hay and carrots that the children have left in their shoes to replace it with a small gift, a chocolate letter, some traditional gingerbread mini-cookies called peppernuts or a mandarin (bad luck I suppose). Of course he only comes if the child has been listening to his parents perfectly well, didn’t wee in his pants, slept through the night etc.


Sinterklaas is dressed as a saint – red robe, red mitre, cross around the neck and holding a gold staff with a big curl in the top. He wears white gloves and an enormous ring with a precious stone around one finger (I guess he didn’t give it all away). He has a huge, white beard. He also carries a big book in which he keeps track of the behaviour of all children in Holland.

The weeks before December 5th, Sinterklaas visits schools, hospitals etc. We welcomed Sinterklaas at my children’s crèche last Friday. Of course the children are initially dead scared of this weird looking man with his black companions but when they understand they can eat as much candy as they like and get presents on top of that, they are even willing to sit on the good man’s lap (Kodak moment for all the parents).

The night of December fifth is when it’s really happening. Children are supposed to sing St. Nicholas songs in the early evening while dad sneaks out of the house and starts knocking on the windows and eventually the front door. When the front door is opened, a basket full of presents is found. In the meantime daddy re-enters the room pretending he has been to the loo (the older the children get, the more of a theater the whole thing becomes)! There are loads of presents for the children and also some for the grown-ups, and traditionally they are supposed to be accompanied by a poem.

When children are getting too old to be fooled by the whole thing, the evening is converted into a ‘surprise’ night, where everybody makes each other funnily wrapped presents with poems – all aimed at gently mocking the other person.

If you want to know more about this silly tradition, you should read this article – it is all true, and it makes me laugh every time I read it: Sinterklaas, a Dutch tradition

xxx Esther


Sinterklaas Avond (Saint Nicholas’ Night)
December 5th



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