Sinterklaas in the Netherlands

Dutch children celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6, as the day when they receive presents from Sinterklaas or St. Nicholas.

Parties are often held the night of December 5, Sinterklaasavond, when both adults and children exchange surprise gifts and children will sing Sinterklaas songs in anticipation of St. Nicholas’ arrival. Bakeries make speculaas, molded spicy ginger cookies, for this occasion.

Sinterklaas-en-zijn-Knecht-470x326

On this night, children will leave their shoes out by the fireplace or on the windowsill, with the hope that Sinterklaas will leave them some presents. He and his companion, Zwarte Piet, would have come ashore from a steamboat a few weeks prior, travelling from Spain (or so the story goes), with all of the local church bells ringing in celebration.

Children are told that if they have been good all year, Sinterklaas will leave them presents and sweets and during this time he and his helper will visit children in schools, hospitals, or even at home to ensure that they have been behaving themselves. He rides on roofs with his horse, while Zwarte Piet jumps down the chimney to put the presents in the children’s shoes. If children are naughty, they are told, Zwarte Piet will take them back to Spain with him for awhile to teach them how to behave.

On the morning of St. Nicholas’ Day, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (or Pieten, if more than one) travel to a city or town, Sinterklaas in his red bishop’s robes and Piet in his Renaissance page boy costume. Sinterklaas then leads a procession through the town, sometimes riding a white horse.

Sinterklaas_zwarte_piet

Mike, my Dutch friend* who helped me out with this, contends that the Zwarte Piet character has become very controversial in the Netherlands and its former Caribbean colonies. Each year various individuals and interest groups try to get this character legally eliminated from December celebrations on the basis that it’s racist, but so far, they have been unsuccessful.

* I always refer to him as “my Dutch friend”. He’s American by birth but lived the first 18 years of his life in Holland and still returns home there every year to visit his parents.
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10 replies

  1. Hey Belle,
    First of all, congratulations on your well deserved Inspirational Blogger Award!
    Second, thank you for writing a piece on Sinterklaas!!! Okay, I’m biased, cause I grew up in the Netherlands for the most part, but regardless it’s great reading about it from your perspective. Brings back great memories from when I was a kid. Back in the 80’s/early 90’s, when I was still a kid in dire need of speculaas (I am now an adult in dire need of speculaas) and we still celebrated Sinterklaas, I can’t remember anything about ‘Black Petes’ being controversial or something. In fact, I live on Curaçao now, where they celebrate it too. There aren’t that many caucasian people living here, but they celebrate Sinterklaas here just as enthusiastically as they do in Holland. I personally don’t associate Black Petes with racism, because as a kid you don’t think of them like that: you think of them like people that give you presents and candy, so who cares what color they are?
    Lately, more and more people seem to favor celebrating Christmas of Sinterklaas…it’s a shame. I don’t consider myself a great lover of the Dutch or the Dutch culture, but Sinterklaas is a wonderful exception here!
    Thanks for this post.

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    • You’re welcome!! I was going to ask you if black Pete was a problem in Suriname because that also came up in my research. I personally don’t see it as racist (context, remember) but I’d like to look into it further.

      Curacao?? Great, I’ve left the Caribbean now living in ice and you’ve left Holland now living in the Caribbean!

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      • Well, I lived in Suriname for about four years in total and Sinterklaas is just not really a big deal overthere, especially since Desi Bouterse got elected president in 2010 (he’s convicted in absentia for drug dealing by a Dutch court, so Suriname and Holland aren’t exactly each other BFF’s at the moment), but I never heard anyone say anything about Black Petes being racist – you think they would, cause it’s an easy target if you don’t lke Holland. I do know Suriname dispensed with the whole Sinterklaas tradition in the early 80’s after a coup (led by the same Desi Bouterse) overthrew the government. I guess it hasn’t found its way back into Surinamese culture since (which is understandable; Black Pete may or may not be racist, but it’s safe to say the Dutch weren’t exactly saints in the way they treated Suriname for hundreds of years (and that’s putting it mildly)…

        I actually miss the cold sometimes. ‘Tis the season to curl up in a warm sweater and have some hot chocolate and sit at a fire place…

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        • I suppose there is some international hue and cry about Black Pete only when winter comes around, but it seems the Dutch aren’t making a big deal about it. Again I think about some of the things we do in Jamaica that might seem racist to outsiders, but then everyone joins in and no one there is making a big deal about it, and the outcry just goes away until the next event.

          I would so love to be able to “miss the cold” 🙂 Last time we went to Jamaica though, from the moment we landed we started complaining about the heat, like foreigners do. Just can’t win 🙂

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          • Yeah, as that alien friend of mine pointed out a short while ago, people of all colors can be racist, though one might argue white people are a little better at it, which is why it’s a more sensitive issue when a country like the Netherlands does something like that…

            (Sorry for replying to your comment kinda late; my internet connection is gone for a few days and I’m forced to ‘work’ at McDonald’s where they have free wifi…it’s diffictult concentrating when there’s a clown staring at you all the time;))

            The thing that annoys me most about the heat are the insects. I miss being able to leave your food unattanded for a few minutes and not having to worry about it being invaded by the time you get back…

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