Sinterklaas- A Dutch Tradition

St. Nicholas

Here in the low-lands, we have a funny holiday called Sinterklaas. I know I’ve been trying to explain the concept to you before, but I thought I’d give it one more try.
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; this year it was the 17th. 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 whole evening is converted into a ‘surprise’ night, but I’ll tell you about that next year. 🙂

If you are Dutch or just 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



Comments (9)

December 5, 2007

Happy Sinterklaas. I completely forgot about this but when I was a kid in Germany we also celebrated St Nicholas. It was almost more exciting than Christmas.

December 5, 2007

It’s such a cute tradition. I love the idea of the kids getting something small every day. (And it really is good bribery material). 🙂

November 19, 2008

[…] If you don’t know what I am talking about, you can read more about Sinterklaas in the post I wrote last year. Also – the good man is basically the origin of the North-American Santa […]

November 27, 2010

St. Nicholas is also celebrated in Romania. It’s very similar with the dutch version, except for the part involving Spain and the boat. The pictures are very nice.

November 25, 2011

[…] Sinterklaas is back in the country! The yearly national craze has started again here in the Netherlands, with an old man dressed as a saint (Sinterklaas, or: Saint Nicolas, who is the predecessor of Santa Claus!). After his long trip on a steam boat from Spain (where he lives), he arrived last weekend and has been personally welcomed by the majors and burgomeisters of every little and big town of the Netherlands. Children are in a continuous state of nervousness and excitement, because the Good Man knows everything and writes every act of mischief in his big book. And good behaviour will be rewarded of course, on those days that the kids may put their shoes in front of the fireplace… Sinterklaas has a lot of helpers, the so called Black Peets, and they bring the most delicious little ginger-cookie like treats called ‘Pepernoten’ (pepper nuts) with them. They traditionally leave them in the pre-mentioned shoe in front of the fireplace, together with a little gift. Making your own pepernoten is super easy and a fun activity to do with children (and also really delicious even if you’ve never heard of Sinterklaas in your life). They taste especially good with hot chocolate, I feel. […]

Anton Sinclair
December 6, 2011

“He died December 6 AD 343, and the anniversary of his death has (weirdly enough) been celebrated ever since. ”

Saint Nicholas is a Roman Catholic saint, listed in the Roman Martyrology. After the persecutions and martyrdoms ceased, especially holy men and women had their feast day celebrated on the anniversary of their death. So to us Roman Catholics there’s nothing weird about it at all.

April 19, 2013

[…] a little obsession going on in our house since the kind Saint Nicholas brought my kids little Sylvanian families in their shoes last year. Those little figurines with […]

November 29, 2013

[…] a typically Dutch delicacy that traditionally is eaten this time of year, when Sinterklaas is in the country. They are actually crunchy mini cookies, and taste a bit like gingerbread… […]

December 21, 2017

I did feel the need to leave a comment about the ‘naughty Black Petes’ in your story. There’s nothing naughty about them, they’re usually joyful, show off their amazing tricks to the children (acrobat-like, on the boat) and furthermore, they are considered cool, epic and superhero-ish.
Maybe you could change the ‘naughty’ because I don’t see why they would be naughty.

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