Today is the 5th of December, and this is a special day for many Dutch people, children especially. It is Sinterklaas! Sinterklaas is a typical Dutch (and Belgian) celebration. If you are in Holland during the last two weeks of November or in the first week of December you may wonder who the weird bishop is, that you encountered on the street and whose image you see in the shop windows. In this blog I will give you some background information to the celebration of Sinterklaas, what it means for the Dutch and the controversies surrounding it.
Sinterklaas in short
Sinterklaas is celebrated throughout the Netherlands and in Belgium on December 5th. Traditions may differ in Belgium, my blog is about the Dutch celebration. It is a children’s party at heart. Young children (under the age of about 7) generally believe Sinterklaas is a real person, who brings them a lot of presents.
There are strong similarities with Santa Claus in the English speaking world. In fact, both figures come from the same historical tradition. In its core the 5th of December is a day when you get a lot of presents from an anonymous well doer.
How to recognize Sinterklaas as a tourist
Did you run into a bearded bishop dressed in red? He may or may not have been riding a white horse, and may or may not have been accompanied by some colorful helpers. These helpers may or may not have looked like caricatures of black persons and they may or may not have thrown candy or pepernoten to you. You may have noticed that little children were particularly fascinated by the bishop. And perhaps he was surrounded by people protesting. Well, you have run into Sinterklaas!
You could possibly run into Sinterklaas any time between halfway November and the 5th of December.
Rumors go that at night Sinterklaas rides his horse on top of the roofs and throws presents through the chimney pipes. It doesn’t really matter that most houses in Holland actually have central heating and no chimney at all. It’s a good story and you can’t be too critical: you never know, you may not get any presents if you are.
Timeline of Sinterklaas celebrations
Late August/early September
From late August onward you may start to spot typical Sinterklaas delicacies in Dutch supermarkets. For example pepernoten, kruidnoten, speculaas and letters of chocolate. Traditionally this is something Dutch people complain about, saying it is ridiculous that these sweets are available so early in the year. Why don’t you try them?
Sinterklaas and his helpers arrive in the Netherlands! The story goes that they come from Spain, and that they travel by steamboat. This steamboat is said to be packed with presents for all children who have been good and obedient. Every year Sinterklaas officially arrives at another location. This usually happens on a Saturday about 3 weeks before the 5th of December. The exact date differs each year.
You can see the arrival of Sinterklaas on national television. Later on that very same day he miraculously arrives in practically each and every Dutch town. Usually there are many over excited children dressed like St Nicolaas’ helper cheering him on.
2nd half of November – December 5th
In the 3 weeks between the arrival of Sinterklaas and the actual celebration many Dutch children don’t sleep very well. Sinterklaas may turn up everywhere: in schools, at special celebrations for the kids of staff in most companies, in supermarkets, out there on the street.
Children live between fear and an overwhelming excitement. Fear, because the naughty ones are said to be put in a bag and transported back to Spain with Sinterklaas. Excitement, because Sinterklaas just might bring you an early present. You might typically find such a present early in the morning, in your shoe. For example the first letter of your name in chocolate.
D-day: in the evening Sinterklaas and his helpers will certainly turn up at your door with a huge bag filled with presents. How exciting! The actual guy of course can’t visit everyone, so sometimes he may just leave that bag of presents in front of your door and move on.
Sinterklaas celebration for grown ups
Once you are a non-believer, meaning someone has told you that Sinterklaas doesn’t really exist, you can still celebrate Sinterklaas. This is a family party really. Many families have a tradition of buying presents for each other. Often they draw lots with the names of the family members on them, so you only need to buy a present for that one person. Tradition dictates that the present should be accompanied by a personalized and teasing poem.
Sinterklaas for tourists
Sinterklaas doesn’t usually bring along any gifts for tourists. And as this is a family oriented festivity, you won’t be able to take part in it.
Sinterklaas is not an official holiday. Shops, restaurants, schools and offices are open like every other day. The real party is celebrated at night, at home.
As a tourist you could try some of the typical Sinterklaas food, that is widely available, such as pepernoten or speculaas. Or celebrate with your own family.
Controversy surrounding Sinterklaas
In the past couple of years there has been a huge amount of controversy around Sinterklaas. You may pick up some of that if you attend the arrival of Sinterklaas for example. You may run into demonstrations and some aggressive behavior. I would advice you to stay far from all of this.
Actually the controversy is not about Sinterklaas himself, but about his army of helpers: the black Petes. Since some time in the late 19th century these helpers have been pictured as caricatures of black people. For a long time no one really gave that any second thought, until Holland became a more diverse country and immigrants started questioning the looks of Pete. The way he is presented seemed racist to them, so they suggested changing his looks. And they were supported bu the United Nations
This caused a huge discussion among the Dutch, who became divided in two camps:
- supporters of Black Pete, who say this is simply a Dutch tradition, and that if you change the look of Pete, you damage their culture.
- opponents of Black Pete, who consider the way he is often represented as racist or unpleasant.
I am ashamed to say that this whole discussion has brought deeply racist feelings to the surface. The only good thing about that is that the group of Black Pete defenders is diminishing every year, as many people feel uncomfortable with exactly that.
We are reaching a turning point now, and you may run into Petes of many colors nowadays. However, the further away from the western cities, the blacker the Petes still are. I suppose change takes time.
Historical origins of Sinterklaas
Nikolaas of Myra
Sinterklaas is short for St Nicolaas. St Nicholaas refers to a historic person, named Nikolaas of Myra. He was a bishop living in Asia Minor in the 3rd century AD. Many legends surround the dear man. Some of these legends stress the fact that he was the friend of children. For example, he is said to have resurrected 3 little boys that had been slaughtered by a butcher. And to have paid the bride price for some poor girls, who otherwise couldn’t have married.
This very same St Nicolaas is also the patron saint for sailors, which is why you will find many churches with his name close to harbors. For example in Amsterdam, Monnickendam and Elburg. Same guy was also the patron saint for brewers! And for prostitutes by the way. He is a multipurpose kind of man, which may explain his popularity.
St Nicolaas in the old days
In the Middle Ages rich people gave anonymous gifts (of money) to the poor in the name of St Nicolaas. A typical place to put such a gift was in a shoe!
When Holland became a protestant nation in the 16th century, the celebration of St Nicolaas was officially banished, as protestants don’t adore saints. The celebration actually went underground! It survived over 2 centuries of Calvinism and came back to the surface in the 19th century, when we got freedom of religion.
The modern way of celebrating Sinterklaas originates in 1850. It was caused by a children’s book written by a school teacher form Amsterdam called Jan Schenkman. His book pictures Sinterklaas as a sympathetic old bishop, accompanied by Black Petes and a white horse. A person who gave gifts to children. The first official arrival of Sinterklaas, on a steamboat took place in 1888. So yes, the tradition surrounding St Nicolaas is an old one, but the way we celebrate it now isn’t.