Celebrating Sinterklaas: A guide for parents
Traditionally, in mid-November, two weeks before his celebrated Feast Day, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands by boat from his home in Spain.
This guide to Sinterklass (Saint Nicholas) is to help parents navigate the Sinterklaas festivities and get their children involved in this local Dutch tradition. The arrival of Sinterklass by boat to the Netherlands is one of the top Dutch festivals loved by parents and children alike.
Accompanied by his white horse (Schimmel), Sinterklaas or Sint Niklaas (Saint Nicholas) arrives in the Netherlands with his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes), to signify the start of the holiday season. This event is broadcast live, and each year Sinterklaas arrives in a different city on a schedule (Sinterklaas intocht).
Sinterklass's official arrival to the Netherlands, typically on a Saturday each year, is followed on Sunday by Sint's arrival in Amsterdam. If you can't make it to either of those festivals, Sinterklaas arrives, unofficially, in most towns and cities across the Netherlands. You can check out arrival locations and times (intocht Sinterklaas) across the Netherlands here (in Dutch).
Some dates and locations for Sinterklaas intocht (arrival) are listed below.
- 12 November:Maassluis has been chosen as the official arrival location of Sinterklaas in 2016, where he will arrive in the harbour to greet the mayor and then tour the city; RotterdamThe Hague – Sinterklaas will sail around Scheveningen's waters; Nijmegen
- 13 November: Amsterdam – after entering from the Amstel and leaving his boat at the Maritime Museum, he will tour Amsterdam on his horse Amerigo, following a new route; Utrecht
- 18 November: Eindhoven; Leiden
If you've got young children and miss his arrival, don't despair; you'll see his tall bishop-like figure everywhere – in shopping malls and schools, and at parties across the Netherlands. Children can also start participating from now on by putting out their shoe at night and a carrot for the horse and a glass of milk (or wine) for Sinterklaas and his helpers.
During the two weeks before his 'birthday', Sinterklaas rides across rooftops at night on his white horse, listening through chimneys for good children and leaving them treats and sweeties in their shoes. The build up is to the eve before his Feast Day (Sinterklaasavond) on 5 December, when Sinterklaas delivers gifts to good children and coal to children who have been naughty.
On Sinterklaasavond, children anxiously wait for Sinterklaas to knock on their door. Although Sint will usually have flown by the time they answer, a sack full of gifts will await them on their doorstep. Following Sinterklaas' visit, each member of the family takes turns handing out presents and unwrapping them. Names are printed on each gift, and almost every present is accompanied by a humorous poem about the gift's recipient, sometimes teasing them about their good and bad habits. Check out our Sinterklaas guide or Sinterklaas poem generators here and here, of which you can find many others in an internet search.
Families celebrate Sinterklaas' Feast by singing songs and indulging in a feast of their own, which consists mainly of sweets like marzipan, chocolate initials, pepernoten (ginger biscuits) and hot chocolate with whipped cream.
On Saint Nicholas Day on 6 December, Sint departs from the Netherlands. In some parts of southern Netherlands and Belgium, children have to wait until 6 December to open gifts.
Who was Sint Niklaas?
The original Saint Nicholas was a Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the first half of the fourth century. By the late middle ages, his death – or birth into heaven – on 6 December, was commemorated annually. St Nicholas came back to earth bearing gifts for all deserving children and punished the rest through leaving birch switches behind for parental use.
Now, St Nicholas arrives in Flanders and the Netherlands in November from Spain – it is widely believed that Spanish sailors brought the legend of Saint Nicholas to the Netherlands – to get ready for the special celebrations on 6 December. While the Dutch celebrate on 5 December, in Flanders celebrations take place on the day (6 December) with more focus on the children than the whole family.
St Nicholas and his white horse have also been associated with the pagan legend of the Germanic god Wodon (Danish god Odin), an all-powerful deity who was believed to fly through the air on a magic horse each December on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The Sinterklaas Journaal is also a show watched by many.
The image of Sinterklaas
The traditional image of Sinterklaas is one of a bishop, clothed in a white garment and wrapped in a red cloak. He wears a tall red and gold hop'smiter (head dress) that covers his long white curly hair. He usually wears white gloves, and in one hand carries a long metal staff and in the other hand a book of names. Like the North American concept of Santa Claus, he has a long white beard; however, unlike his North American cousin, he's austere and elegant rather than fat and jolly.
The companions of Sint Niklaas, Black Petes, have long been the cause of controversy.
The origin of the Zwarte Piet character is uncertain. Some speculate that Zwarte Piet is a symbol of the medieval Christian idea of evil, which was associated with darkness thus the symbolically blacked-out face. Others believe it is more probable that Zwarte Piet is Saint Nicholas' Moorish servant.
As reported in an academic paper by Alison Blakely, 'Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society': "The inimitable, enduring figure of Zwarte Piet may be the best representation of all of the composite image of blacks which has come down through the centuries. He is based on a Christian religious tradition going all the way back to the Classical period of Western civilisation."
People who have grown up with this Dutch tradition, however, insist it is not a racist thing, and that the message they were given as a child and the message they tell their children is that Zwarte Piet's face is blackened with soot from entering houses via the chimney.
The definition of Zwarte Piet leads an annual ongoing Zwarte Piet debate in the Netherlands as to the political correctness of continuing it, and whether it is racist or Dutch tradition. There have been attempts to introduce multicoloured and sooty Pieten, although it is yet to fully replace the 'black' Peter. The debate threatened to boil over last year when the UN called upon the Dutch government to amend the image of Black Petes, now one of four public bodies to do so. In 2016 Amsterdam announced that 'only sooty Piets' would be allowed in official celebrations and marketing campaigns are slowly removing blackface imaging. Public opinion is still greatly divided, however, with some 70 percent still in favour of keeping the current Zwarte Piet image, albiet only three years ago less than 10 percent agreed it was time for change. Political circles remain divided as well, with the current Prime Minister Marke Rutte traditionally supporting the tradition, against Labour Party and Deputy Lodewijk Asscher who is open to different Petes.
Joop online magazine suggests this debate is not new: reportedly censorship of this tradition started in newspapers in 1945, after black American soliders liberating the Netherlands complained.
The image of Zwarte Piet
Zwarte Pieten wear colourful costumes usually comprising puffed pantaloons and the ruffles of a Renaissance European page. They are adorned with gold earrings and hats with feathers and assist Sinterklaas by performing various holiday tasks, such as delivering presents down chimneys (and through central heating systems) and recording names of naughty and nice children in Sinterklaas' book of names.
Who's that with Santa?
Those who have travelled around Europe may become confused about who's who at Christmas, Expatica reader Donna De Block-Stojanovich points out: "Saint Nicolas and his assistant Pere Fouettard are celebrated by Francophones in Belgium, the same as Sint Niklaas and Zwarte Piet are in Flanders. But then you have Père Noël, who is the French equivalent to the Kerstman in Flemish and Santa Claus in English [who arrive bearing gifts on the eve of 25 December], and they are not accompanied by Zwarte Piet/Père Fouettard."
Brussels-based Kim Campbell helps out below:
Who's who at Christmas?
|English||St Nicholas||Black Peter||Father Christmas/
|French||St Nicolas||Père Fouettard||Père Noël|
|Dutch||Sint Niklaas/ Sinterklaas||Zwarte Piet||Kerstman|
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