You’ve seen the imagery all over town: that old dude with white hair and the big pointed red hat. You know those pesky black-faced fellas he hangs out with. The ones who’ve whipped pepernoten at your head. You’ve joined in the heated Zwarte Piet debate. And you’ve eaten your chocolate initial at work. BUT what really is the deal with this whole Sinterklaas thing?
Basically, all you need to know is that Sinterklaas is the most beloved of all Dutch holidays and traditions. And one, Dutch people are fiercely proud of. Don’t you dare go messing about with this very gezellig affair! Check out our handy guide below to help you survive the madness.
Q: Where does this old dude and his black-faced friends come from?
A: Sinterklaas is said to have originated from St. Nicolaus, the Bishop of Mira, who lived in Turkey in the 3rd century. According to the legend, he saved the town from starvation, revived a couple of dead children, and offered gifts of dowries to poor girls so they didn’t have to become prostitues. Hence, a pretty saintly dude.
Q: How does he get to the lowlands?
A: Nowadays, he sails in from Spain on a boat in late November and rides about the town on a white horse named Amerigo (don’t ask) with a handful of black-faced friends who throw things at people.
Q: Huh? Who are these black guys? Bodyguards? Elves?
A: These friends, Zwarte Piets, are Sint‘s mischievous helpers and they can be seen through town violently whipping hard-stone like cookies (aka: pepernoten) at children and passerby’s. Duck!
Q: I don’t get it. Why are their faces painted black?
A: Please. Save yourself the trouble and don’t go asking this question in your Dutch workplace. You won’t make any friends. You can speak your mind here.
Q: Wait. Am I allowed to say anything critical about the Sinterklaas tradition?
Q: Ok…back to the basics then. When is it officially celebrated?
A: Get out your Dutch-people agendas! Although he makes his first appearance mid- November, Sinterklaas doesn’t get into the full swing of things until December 5th.
Q: This is the poem and presents stuff right?
A: Yeppers. On the eve of the 5th (pakjesavond) children place their shoes by the fireplace (although hardly any Dutch homes have them), by the radiator (how the heck do the presents get through that?) or by the door (for the brighter Dutch children) and eagerly await their presents.
Q: What do they get?
A: Back in more modest times, presents consisted of mandarin oranges, chocolate letters (the initial of your first name), chocolate coins or marzipan figures. Surprisingly, no Dutch licorice or dairy! Nowadays, full fledged gift giving is in effect with the average Dutch home spending upwards of 130 EUR on presents.
Q: Why did my boss write me a sarcastic poem?
A: Adults get into full swing by writing witty poems to poke fun (or publicly chastise) their family or friends and often accompanied by a gift exchange (similar to a “Secret Santa“). The poems are often funny and of course, involve Dutch directness!
Q: This whole Sinterklaas dude seems pretty familiar. Are you saying the Dutch invented the North American Santa Claus?
A: Closely related Sinterklaas figures are celebrated in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium as well as French Flanders. Scandinavian folklore has a “nisse” character who is pretty similar. Santa Claus is thought to be a combination of Sinterklaas and the British Father Christmas.