Almost a year ago I promised to come back with details over the favourite holiday of the Dutch: Sinterklaas.
Sinterklaas is a Santa and is being celebrated on December 5th. The Romanian readers would say that’s nothing special, we also have Saint Nicholas!
And they would be right, but only partially! The name Sinterklaas is an abreviation of Sint Nikolaas, so yes, we are talking about the same Saint Nicholas.
(Furthermore, the name of Santa Claus originates from the name Sinterklaas!)
What is unheard of is that Sint (this is his nickname) comes to Holland far before his birthday (December 5th), this being also the reason why he comes: to celebrate it. Sint arrives the first Saturday after St. Maarten, which is celebrated on November 11th (also the date that the Carnival period begins). To stray off even more and keep you hanging, you should know that St. Maarten is a kind of Halloween, as children walk from house to house hoping to get sweets (they also carry lampions).
This year, Sinterklaas arrived in the Netherlands on Saturday, November 17th. Maybe you are wondering where he comes from and how he does it. If not, you should, because this is also quite special. Sint comes by ship from Spain! And he doesn’t come alone, he won’t be the one steering the ship, he has help, a reason for many racial controversies: Zwarte Pieten (meaning Black Petes). Who are white people wearing make up so that they appear to be black. Which, considering Holland’s past, when it was active in trading slaves, is not the best of ideas. It is said that they shouldn’t be seen as black slaves, they are black because of the soot, as Sint and his Petes bring presents down the chimney (as all santas do).
A decorative Pete in a showcase:
The holiday period around Sinterklaas begins about mid November and lasts until December 5th. On the Saturday when the ship arrives from Spain one Dutch town is the host of the arrival of the original Sint, being also broadcasted live on TV. In many other towns similar arrivals take place, so that as many children as possible witness this event. Little do the children know that the Sint cannot be in so many places. The kids like to dress up as Zwarte Pieten in bright colours and wait impatiently for the Sint to come off his ship and get on his white horse called Amerigo.
The black Petes throw around the traditional sweets for this period, pepernoten and generally fool around. There are different kinds of Petes: Luisterpieten (who listen the whole year through and note how children behave), Inpakpieten (who wrap the presents), Wegwijspieten (navigators, who find the way)…
Sint is welcomed by children singing traditional Sinterklaas songs and there are shows in his honour.
Waiting for Sinterklaas:
A real Piet:
The best part for the children comes now: from the day that Sint arrives in Holland and until December 5th, the children can place their shoes every evening near a fire place / stove / radiator, which goes hand in hand with singing some songs for the Sint before going to bed. And if Sint or one of the Pieten were listening, the children will find a small present in the shoes the next morning. Well, how about that? Children who every dayfor about 3 weeks expect to find a present… it sure is a lot of fun being a kid this way!
The children also leave a present for Amerigo, a carrot or hay. You tell me how… Sint can resist leaving a gift in the shoe when finding such a thoughtful one in return.
On December 5th, Sint’s official birthday, the gifts become bigger, many families give up making also Christmas gifts a few weeks later. Especially since there is no Santa Claus for the Dutch children, there is only one santa: Sinterklaas! Who, poor Sinterklaas, celebrates his birthday riding on Amerigo on the roofs to bring gifts for all the children. For the adults, the evening of December 5th is also special, many families prepare “surprises”. Usually, the members of a family who will celebrate together draw lots sometime before the event in order to decide for whom they will make the surprise. The basic idea is creativity. Everyone prepares something, either a funny poem about the person who it is for or a present wrapped in such a way that it is difficult to unwrap or a funny self-made present…
There is also the idea of a birch for bad children, but, unlike in Romania, no Dutch child has ever seen one, it is only a “threat”. Another threat is that bad children will be taken in a bag back to Spain. In Romania there is a similar threat, unrelated to this holiday, that bad children will be taken away in a bag, by a gipsy.
I read on the internet that about 65% of the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas, the holiday being called also “Pakjesavond” (the evening of the presents). In the current form, the holiday is know since 1850, but it exists already for about 700 years.
A decorative Piet: