1 Who is Sinterklaas?
The man in the mitre is impersonating Saint Nicholas, a 4th century bishop who lived in Myra, in what is now Turkey. From the 11th century onwards, news of his miracles spread around Western Europe and he became the patron saint of practically every section of society, including children. This goes back to the saint’s facility in piecing back together three young people chopped up by an innkeeper and put in a vat of brine. The story of how Saint Nicholas comes at night to deliver presents is based on his generosity to three prostitutes who were tossed sacks of gold for a dowry through the window under cover of night. Of course he immediately became patron saint of prostitutes too.
2 When did the Dutch start celebrating?
The feast of St Nicholas has been celebrated for at least 700 years in the Netherlands and, as a Catholic celebration, went underground when it was banned during the Reformation. Many of today’s traditions – such as Zwarte Piet and the steam boat, came from a book written by teacher Jan Schenkman in 1850 and the real commercialisation of Sinterklaas began in the 1930s. Up until the 1940s, children would find a present in their shoe on December 6, which is officially St Nicholas’ saints day in the Catholic church calendar. However, the partying has gradually shifted to the night before, or December 5, which is also known as pakjesavond or parcels evening.
3 The arrival of Sinterklaas
The Meertens Institute says the first intocht van Sinterklaas, or the arrival of Sinterklaas, took place in Zwolle in 1873 when ‘a couple of well-to do farmers had a local prankster dress up as Sinterklaas distributing sweets to poor children’. Since 1952 the arrival of Sinterklaas has been a televised event which sees the Sint and his Zwarte Pieten land in style from their steam boat from Spain (although Sinterklaas has been known to arrive by train, plane and even a hot air balloon). A different place to set foot on dry land is judiciously chosen every year. Sinterklaas always arrives on a Saturday at least three weeks before December 5 so you have lots of time to spend money on presents.
4 Drawing lots
Once Sinterklaas is actually in the country, the fun can begin. Sinterklaasavond, the night of December 5th, is usually celebrated with family and/or friends. Lots bearing the names of the participants are drawn some time beforehand and – another very Dutch tradition – an agreement is made about how much will be spent on the presents. According to a recent consumer poll the Dutch spend between €10 and €50 euros on a present while expenses for the whole evening don’t exceed an average of €100.
In the days leading up to the 5th of December, children put their shoes in front of the fire (or the radiator) in the hope that Sinterklaas will fill it with a small present or a chocolate goody. Some children think they can get around the Sint by leaving a carrot for the bishop’s horse, accompanied by a wish list. In the olden days a disobedient child would find a potato in his/her shoe but these days this is deemed too traumatic.
Sinterklaasliedjes, or Sinterklaas songs, are sung when the children put their shoe in front of the fireplace and at the beginning of the 5th of December festivities. Most of the songs date from the 19th and early 20th century and, like the character of Zwarte Piet, some have been adapted to the changing times: in the traditional welcoming song ‘Sinterklaasje, kom maar binnen met je knecht’ (Sinterklaas please come in with your servant) the word ‘servant’ has been replaced by ‘Piet’. Here are some examples of popular Sinterklaas songs recorded in the late 1960s.
7 The visit
At some point, every Dutch child comes face-to-face with Sinterklaas, whether it be at school or their hockey club or even a home visit. Yes, there are lots of specialist agencies around who will supply you with a Sint and Piet, or even a video message from the great man. Sinterklaas carries with him ‘het grote boek’: a big book with the name of every man, woman and child in it which tells him if they are deserving of a present or not. If Sint visits your home, he will read out all about you from the book (slipped to him in advance by mum or dad) and hand over your gifts. Sinterklaas used to be much more moralistic than he is now, and stories of him threatening to put naughty children in a sack and take them to Spain are very much grandparents’ era.
Sinterklaas is a feast primarily for children but make no mistake: it’s also an annual grudge fest for grown-ups. People all over the Netherlands are rolling up their sleeves and licking their pencils to have a go at their siblings and friends via another great Sinterklaas tradition: the poem. The poem, which should rhyme and is read out loud by the recipient, is often used as way to score points and take public revenge on your fellow party-goers. As a parent, it is a great way to remind your offspring of the importance of cleaning their teeth or being nice to their siblings. However, be aware that you may get a poem pointing out that your Dutch accent is crap or you drink too much.
Another Sinterklaas tradition is the so-called surprise – or extremely elaborately wrapped up and disguised present. This will plunge households into a frenzy of creativity and closed doors. Some people become extremely competitive and will go to tiresome lengths: for instance by putting your car keys in a block of ice which then has to be defrosted using a hairdryer after which a clue to the present has to be looked for in the car. Others, particularly small boys, like to bury their gift in as much gunk as possible. But most people make nice surprises, such as a cardboard computer for a gamer (but not, alas, with a computer inside, see number 4).
Food is an important part of Sinterklaas and the giving of speculaas (spiced biscuits, often in the form of the saint) dates back centuries. The sale of Sinterklaas goodies seems to start earlier every year, and if you have not got your chocolate letters in yet, you will find you are left with a choice of S or P (for Sint and Piet). Pepernoten (mini ginger biscuits), taai taai (chewy aniseed biscuits) and schuimpjes, comprised of sugar and artificial colourings, will keep children jittery for weeks. Together, pepernoten and schuimpjes form ‘strooigoed’ or stuff that is thrown into the room by Sint or Piet (usually by an invisible hand belonging to an obliging neighbour), a tradition that again harks back to the saint throwing his money at prostitutes (in his capacity as patron saint of course). The tipple for a Sinterklaas feast is bisschopswijn, or mulled wine.
Bonus point: Sinterklaas versus Christmas
Although there’s a shift towards present-giving at Christmas, some 60% of Dutch households still celebrate Sinterklaas, especially ones with small children. International families may well end up celebrating both, urged on by children who are quick to see the advantages of getting two lots of presents within the space of one month.