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 Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) is to help parents navigate the Sinterklaas tradition. In fact, the arrival of Sinterklass by boat to the Netherlands is one of the biggest Dutch festivals.
Sinterklaas, a Dutch tradition
Coming with his white horse (Schimmel), Sinterklaas or Sint Niklaas (Saint Nicholas) arrives in the Netherlands with his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Peter), to signify the start of the holiday season. This Sinterklaas tradition is broadcast live, and each year Sinterklaas arrives in a different city on a schedule (Sinterklaas intocht).
Sinterklaas’s official arrival to the Netherlands, generally on a Saturday, is followed on Sunday by Sint’s arrival in Amsterdam. If you can’t make it to either, Sinterklaas arrives, unofficially, in most cities across the Netherlands.
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 participate by putting out their shoes 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 the naughty.
On Sinterklaasavond, children anxiously wait for Sinterklaas to knock on their door. Although Sint usually flies by the time they answer, a sack full of gifts awaits 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; locals believe that Spanish sailors brought the legend of Saint Nicholas to the Netherlands. Special celebrations commence 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 (headdress) that covers his long white curly hair. He usually wears white gloves. In one hand, he carries a long metal staff and in the other, 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. There are increasing international and local Zwarte Piet debates as to whether it is racist or Dutch tradition.
The origin of Zwarte Piet and his costume is uncertain. Some say that Zwarte Piet is a medieval symbol of the Christian idea of evil, once associated with darkness; hence, the symbolic black face. Others believe it is more probably that Zwarte Piet was Saint Nicholas’ Moorish servant.
Some people who grew up with this Dutch tradition, however, insist it isn’t racist thing. They claim Zwarte Piet’s face color is from the soot from entering houses via the chimney.
The image of Zwarte Piet
Zwarte Pieten wear colorful costumes usually comprising puffed pantaloons and the ruffles of a Renaissance European page. They wear gold earrings and hats with feathers and assist Sinterklaas by performing various holiday tasks. These include 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 traveled around Europe may become confused about who’s bringing the presents at Christmas. Saint Nicolas and his assistant Pere Fouettard visit Francophones in Belgium and Sint Niklaas and Zwarte Piet visit Belgium’s Flanders region and the Netherlands first. But it’s Père Noël (French) and Kerstman (Dutch) who bring gifts on the eve of 25 December; they don’t come with any helpers.