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.
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.
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.
Categories: Winter Celebrations