It might be something weird to see for a person who is not Dutch or Belgian: a man with a long white beard and a red suit on a white horse followed by a group of people with brown face painting and feathers on their hat. Dutch people will immediately recognize this situation: Sinterklaas is in town.
‘Sinterklaas’ is celebrated every year at the fifth of December (On the sixth in Belgium). Originally it is a holiday for children, but adults enjoy it as well. The tradition is to give each other presents on the evening of December 5th; it can be compared to celebrating Christmas.
‘Sinterklaas’ comes from the story of Saint Nicolas, who helped people with his good will. He helped poor people gather a dowry by secretly placing bags of gold coins in their houses. During that time a dowry was very important, it was the only possibility for people to get married and have a good life. There were also stories of Nicolas bringing people back to life.
Nicolas died on the 6th of December, the day Belgium’s celebrate his life. Originally Saint Nicolas came from (now) Turkey, but for some reason this was changed into Spain. In addition his gold coins were turned into something else: mandarins and oranges. Since these fruits come from Spain, the story that Nicolas came from Spain was more plausible.
Sinterklaas also has an assistant in Dutch he is called ‘Zwarte Piet’, which can be translated to ‘Black Pete’. This sometimes causes some controversy, because it looks like mocking black people (because people dress up like a helper with brown or black face painting). Some people think it also refers to the slavery of black people. Originally there was only one helper, but after WWII more and more helpers were created, some even with specific tasks: wrapping gifts, handing out candy, taking care of Sinterklaas’ horse etcetera. Zwarte Piet hands out candy at events, most popular are ‘pepernoten’. These are little flat balls of ‘speculaas’, spicy biscuits. You might have seen them in the supermarket, probably next to marzipan and big chocolate letters, also traditional Sinterklaas candy.
The Dutch tradition is to celebrate Sinterklaas on the evening of the 5th of December. People give each other presents (parents pretend Sinterklaas’ helper came through the chimney to leave them in the house) most of the time in a funny package, accompanied by a poem. For children there are some extra celebrations: they place their shoe close to the chimney (or front door) and Sinterklaas and his helpers come in at night to put some candy in it.
Even the arrival of Sinterklaas’ boat is a big event: hundreds of children show up to welcome him. All adults play along and pretend Sinterklaas is real. Around the age of 9/10 most kids know Sinterklaas isn’t real but still play along for their brothers and sisters. A lot of people choose to celebrate Sinterklaas instead of Christmas: Sinterklaas is more well known in the Netherlands and celebrating two (pretty expensive) holidays in one month is a little too much.
Celebrating Sinterklaas is a way to experience a typical thing of Dutch culture. If you have Dutch classmates, ask them about it and set up your own party!
Text: Isabel Vries