Celebrating Sinterklaas in the Netherlands

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

This help guide to Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) would be to help parents navigate the Sinterklaas tradition and get their kids active in the local Dutch festivities. The arrival of Sinterklass by boat to the Netherlands is among the top Dutch festivals loved by children and parents alike.

Accompanied by his white horse (Schimmel), Sinterklaas or Sint Niklaas (Saint Nicholas) comes to the Netherlands with his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Peter), to indicate the beginning of christmas. This Sinterklaas tradition is broadcast live, and each year Sinterklaas comes to a different city on the schedule (Sinterklaas intocht).

Sinterklass's official arrival towards the Netherlands, typically on the Saturday each year, is followed on Sunday by Sint's arrival in Amsterdam. If you can't reach either of those festivals, Sinterklaas arrives, unofficially, in most towns and cities over the Netherlands. You should check out arrival locations and times (intocht Sinterklaas) across the Netherlands here (in Dutch).

Some dates and locations for Sinterklaas intocht (arrival) are highlighted below.

  • 12 November: Maassluis has been chosen because the official arrival location of Sinterklaas in 2020, where he'll get to the harbour to greet the mayor and then tour the city; Rotterdam – children may become official Piet's in the Grote Kerkplein; The Hague – Sinterklaas will sail around Scheveningen's waters; Nijmegen – go to the Waalkade for events.

  • 13 November: Amsterdam – after entering in the Amstel and leaving his boat in the Maritime Museum, he'll tour Amsterdam on his horse Amerigo, following a new route; Utrecht – from Ledig Erf to Weerdsluis, plus activities around the Domplein.

  • 18 November: Eindhoven (Meerhoven); Leiden – plus afternoon events on the Hooglandse Kerkgracht.

If you have young children and miss his arrival, don't despair; you will 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 creating their shoe at night and a carrot for that 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 within their shoes. The build up would be to the eve before his Feast Day (Sinterklaasavond) on 5 December, when Sinterklaas delivers gifts to get affordable children and coal to children who have been naughty.

On Sinterklaasavond, children anxiously wait for Sinterklaas to knock on their own door. Although Sint will usually have flown by the time they answer, a sack full of gifts will await them on their own doorstep. Following Sinterklaas' visit, each member of the family takes turns handing out presents and unwrapping them. Names are printed on each gift, and nearly every present is along with a humorous poem about the gift's recipient, sometimes teasing them about their negative and positive habits. Check out our Sinterklaas guide or Sinterklaas poem generators here and here, of which you can find many more within an search on the internet.

Families celebrate Sinterklaas' Feast by singing songs and indulging in a feast that belongs to them, which consists mainly of sweets like marzipan, chocolate initials, pepernoten (ginger biscuits) and hot cocoa with whipped cream.

On Saint Nicholas Day on 6 December, Sint departs in the Netherlands. In some parts of southern Netherlands and Belgium, children need to wait until 6 December to spread out gifts.

Who was Sint Niklaas?

The original Saint Nicholas was a Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the first half of your fourth century. Through the late middle ages, his death – or birth into heaven – on 6 December, was commemorated annually. St Nicholas returned 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 also the Netherlands in November from Spain – it's widely believed that Spanish sailors brought the legend of Saint Nicholas towards the Netherlands – to ready for that special celebrations on 6 December. As the Dutch celebrate on 5 December, in Flanders celebrations take place at the time (6 December) with more concentrate on the children than the entire family.

St Nicholas and his white horse are also associated with the pagan legend of the Germanic god Wodon (Danish god Odin), an all-powerful deity who had been thought to fly with the air on a magic horse each December on the winter solstice, the shortest day's the entire year. The Sinterklaas Journaal is another show watched by many.

The picture 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, as well as in one hand carries a long metal staff and in another hand a book of names. Like the North American concept of Santa Claus, he's an extended white beard; however, unlike his United states cousin, he's austere and elegant instead of fat and jolly.

Zwarte Piet

The companions of Sint Niklaas, Black Petes, have long been the cause of controversy. You will find increasing international and native Zwarte Piet debates as to whether it is racist or Dutch tradition.

The origin of Zwarte Piet and his costume is uncertain, with some stating that Zwarte Piet is a medieval indication of the Christian concept of evil, once associated with darkness and therefore the symbolic blacked-out face, while others believe that it is more probably that Zwarte Piet was Saint Nicholas' Moorish servant.

People who have grown up with this particular Dutch tradition, however, insist it's not a racist thing, which the message they were given growing up and also the message they tell their children is that Zwarte Piet's face is blackened with soot from entering houses via the chimney.

The picture of Zwarte Piet

Zwarte Pieten wear colorful costumes usually comprising puffed pantaloons and also the ruffles of the Renaissance European page. They're adorned with gold earrings and hats with feathers and assist Sinterklaas by performing various holiday tasks, such as delivering presents down chimneys (and through heating systems) and recording names of naughty and nice children in Sinterklaas' book of names.

Who's by using Santa?

Those who've travelled around Europe can become unclear about who's bringing the presents at Christmas, with Saint Nicolas and his assistant Pere Fouettard visiting Francophones in Belgium and Sint Niklaas and Zwarte Piet visiting Belgium's Flanders region and also the Netherlands first. But it is Père No”el (French) and Kerstman (Dutch) who bring gifts on the eve of 25 December – and are not accompanied by any helpers.

Photo credit: Lord Ferguson (Sinterklaas), Tenorio81 via Wikimedia Commons (Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet), Branko Collin (Zwarte Piet). / Updated 2020.

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