Sinterklaas and zwarte piet – the dutch st. Nicholas tradition

More important than Christmas? From mid-November at the latest, the Netherlands are in Sinterklaas-Mood. The traditional celebration holds up surprisingly well in modern times. Not only children are fascinated by the holy St. St. Nicholas thrilled, Dutch adults also celebrate Sinterklaas.

Arrival of St. Nicholas in the Netherlands

Published on 14-11-2009 in: Culture, Tradition& Story Last updated on 06-12-2019 // 39 comments.

How to celebrate St. Nicholas in the Netherlands?

In the middle of November, three weeks before the actual holiday, Santa Claus comes with his steamboat (stoomboot) full of gifts in the Netherlands. From this day at the latest, the Netherlands is in Sinterklaas-Mood.

The Sinterklaas-Celebration is an old tradition that holds up amazingly well in modern times. At the center of the action is a figure that goes back to the Greek bisschof St. Nicholas of Myra from the fourth century, patron saint of merchants, sailors and children. His memorial day, which is the day he died, is 6. December. However, St. Nicholas is celebrated in the Netherlands on the evening of 5. December’s.

Who rides so late ..

Sinterklaas rides – as every Dutch child knows – on a white horse in the dark over the roofs of houses and brings gifts and sweets. He is assisted in this by the so-called Zwarte Pieten. These black helpers in colorful clothes climb through the chimneys and deliver the packages, at least to the children who have been "well-behaved" ;-)

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

Saint Nicholas keeps a precise record of who has behaved properly during the year and who has not.

Every year during the dark season, he and his entourage of Zwarten Pieten set out on a journey from his residence in Spain to the Netherlands and Belgium.

Why he comes from Spain and not from Myra (or even from Bari, where his bones are buried) is not very clear. This part of the Sinterklaas folklore is probably due to the elementary school teacher Jan Schenkman (1806-1863), the founder of the Sinterklaas tradition as it is still celebrated now (in a modernized form).

Sweets in the shoe

From mid-November, after the official arrival of Sinterklaas in the country, Dutch children regularly put a shoe in the hallway in the evening (used to be by the chimney, but there are few houses these days). Often there is a homemade drawing for Sinterklaas or a juicy carrot for the faithful horse.

In the morning, right after waking up, they run expectantly to their shoes to see what Zwarte Piet has put in them. Mostly sweets, nuts or mandarin oranges.

Je schoen zetten this tradition is called.

Falling away from the faith

Almost every Dutch child up to six years of age believes in Sinterklaas. At this age at the latest, the doubts begin: Already "enlightened" classmates talk out of the secrets, parents blab and at some point it is then noticeable that you meet Sinterklaas in so many places and he always looks a little different ..

I still remember how disappointed I was when I found out about the fraud. Until then, I was determined to be at Sinterklaas as a Zwarte Piet to hire. Not, as one might think, because of all the sweets I could then stuff myself with every day. I was much more attracted by all the acrobatics of the Pieten, the climbing, jumping and the balancing act on the roof.

Gifts are given on Pakjesavond

Sinterklaas is no longer just a children’s festival. The highlight for young and old is the pakjesavond (parcel or gift-giving evening), which nowadays takes place in the Netherlands on the 5. December takes place. I suspect that Sinterklaas does this so that on 6. December can bring the children in Germany (and Belgium) their presents.

Usually in the early evening, in any case after nightfall, there is a knock on the door of the house or apartment. An exciting moment: the children quickly run to the door, hoping to catch a glimpse of Sinterklaas and his helpers. But that succeeds in the fewest cases. However, the visitors have left behind a large sack full of gifts, which is dragged in with cries of joy.

Creativity while wrapping ..

In many Dutch households, at least those without small children, the gifts come as so-called surprises (pronounced as in French) therefore. A few weeks before, the lottery has already decided who has to prepare a parcel for whom.

At the surprise the focus is not on the actual gift (although it may well be something really nice) but on the imaginative and pretty packaging. This one is supposed to be a real surprise. The custom can be compared perhaps still best with the German Wichteln. Not only in families has the surprise tradition. It is also very popular among friends and colleagues, as well as at school.

St. Nicholas gift - Sinterklaas-surprise

… and to the gift a poem

To the surprise there is also a special sinterklaas poem. Before unpacking, each recipient must read it out loud and clearly. In these epistles, the addressee is not infrequently taken for a ride because of less advantageous qualities or habits (untidiness, forgetfulness …).

Even though some occasional poets spend whole evenings creating such Sinterklaas poems (I well remember hectic days just before Sinterklaas, when both the self-made surprise and the accompanying poem had to be finished), most Sinterklaas poems follow a rather simple rhyme scheme, in which the end rhyme plays an important role:

Sinterklaas zat diep te think
Wat hij Alex toch zou schenken..

Poem thanks to Internet

If you don’t have any poetic inspiration, you can try several Sinterklaas poem generators on the Internet. Handy when you need it fast, but both quality and originality leave – not surprisingly – much to be desired. More useful I find the various rhyming dictionaries.

Since I live in Germany, Sinterklaas has unfortunately disappeared a bit from the scene for me. But sometimes I am in the Netherlands at the beginning of December visiting family and friends there. And then I immediately get caught up in the happy mood and anticipation.

And Christmas?

When Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet have packed their bags and are leaving, the Dutch get ready for Christmas. I describe how they celebrate this holiday in the article Christmas in the Netherlands.

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