Celebrating Sinterklaas: A guide for parents

Celebrating Sinterklaas: A guide for parents

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Traditionally, in mid-November, two weeks before his celebrated Feast Day, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands by boat from his home in Spain.

We bring back an old favourite guide to help parents navigate the Sinterklaas festivities and get their children involved in this local Dutch tradition – Expatica.

Accompanied by his white horse (Schimmel) and his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes), Sinterklaas or Sint Niklaas (Saint Nicholas) arrives in the Netherlands to signify the start of the holiday season. This event is broadcast live, and each year Sinterklaas arrives in a different city.

This official arrival, on a Saturday, is followed on Sunday by Sinta's arrival in Amsterdam, but he arrives, unofficially, in most towns and cities across the Netherlands and may still be on his way to you. Check out arrival locations and times in other places across the Netherlands here.

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. Plus, children can start participating from now 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), when Sinterklaas delivers gifts to good children and coal to children who have been naughty.

On Sinterklaasavond (5 December), 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. Check out our Sinterklaas Survival guide for more details and a link to a Sinterklaas poem generator.

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.

Celebrating Christmas in the Netherlands

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 image

Sinterklaas in the NetherlandsThe 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 the 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.

Zwarte Piet

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 is associated with darkness, hence 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."

The definition of Zwarte Piet leads an annual ongoing Zwarte Piet debate in the Netherlands as to the political correctness of continuing with this tradition. There have been attempts to introduce multicoloured Pieten, although it is yet to replace the 'black' Peter. The debate threatened to boil over this year with an UN inquiry into the alleged racism of the tradition, but it was later retracted. This didn't stop protest activities this year, but the 600 dressed-up Piets in Amsterdam opted not to wear the traditional gold earrings as a result of the recent heated debate.

However, people who have grown up with this tradition insist it is not a racist thing, and that the message they were given as a child and the message they pass down to their children is that Zwarte Piet's face is blackened with soot due to his entering houses via the chimney.

Zwarte Piet By Irma UiterwThe image

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, like 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?

For those of you who've travelled around Europe and who may have become confused about who's who at Christmas, reader of Expatica Belgium, 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. Père Noël 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 compiled the table below to make sure things are absolutely clear:

Who's who at Christmas?
English St Nicholas Black Peter Father Christmas/
Santa Claus
French St Nicolas Père Fouettard Père Noël
Dutch Sint Niklaas/  Sinterklaas Zwarte Piet Kerstman



Expatica/ NG


Photo credit: Lord Ferguson (Sinterklaas), Radio Nederland Wereldomroep (Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet).

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3 Comments To This Article

  • fortuner posted:

    on 18th November 2015, 13:01:18 - Reply

    Nobody who enters a home through the chimney ends up with a completely blackened face and their clothes spotless, never mind bright red lipstick! So it seems absurd to say that.
    If they insist on this tradition, then they should really think about these details. It could make all the difference.

  • Anne posted:

    on 20th March 2014, 01:55:28 - Reply

    No, it has long been the subject of controversy but nobody allows a real discussion to take place Here is a film from 1963- but there's even earlier evidence. http://www.geschiedenis24.nl/nieuws/2013/oktober/Pleidooi-uit-1963--schaf-Zwarte-Piet-af.html
  • anne posted:

    on 15th December 2013, 00:10:13 - Reply

    You mention in this article "The companions of Sint Niklaas, Black Petes, have LONG been the cause of controversy."
    That is not according the facts. Zwarte Piet is only recently been subject of controversy.