Being an expat and an outsider to Dutch traditions, I had very little knowledge of Sinterklaas. What is this Dutch tradition? Is it just Santa Claus but called Sinterklaas? Why does he have black-face ‘helpers’? What is he doing riding a horse (instead of reindeer which can fly with magical dust)? Basically, I had some questions about this tradition, but until I was able to live through it, how could I really know what it was?
Well, Christmas starts early in Holland, halfway through November. This is because Sinterklaas arrives into the country! Who is Sinterklaas? Also known as ‘Sint’, Sinterklaas is a Dutch Saint Nicholas who lives in Spain. One can only assume he migrated there due to the frigid temperatures in Holland during the winter months….
The Sinterklaas period lasts until December 5th, where the Sint then heads back down south to the warmer climate!
What I find charming is that the Dutch put on a television news programme throughout the Sinterklaas period, giving updates on the Sint’s progress as he travels on his long boat journey. His subsequent arrival to The Netherlands from Spain is televised live around the country! Not only that, but it’s like royalty has come to town, with mobs of people lining the streets to catch their first glimpse of Sint for the season!
I would like this adopted in Australia for when Santa Claus arrives. We get a little update on the news for jokes, but not a whole dedicated programme!
During the weeks of ‘Sint’, you may receive a small gift or chocolate in the shape of a letter (the first letter of your first name, usually!) in your shoe! The custom is that you must sing a Sinterklaas song when you receive a ‘shoe gift’, which are delivered ‘overnight’ by Sint and Piet – how very exciting! And delicious!
Hoi wat in mijn schoentje
Hoi wat in mijn laarsje
Dank u Sinterklaasje!
Another tradition, is to write a poem for a ‘secret sint’ for the Pakjes Avond, the final evening of the Sint period. That is the same as a secret santa for all of my Aussies/Kiwis/Brits out there. You draw a person’s name from a hat and you must gift them a present along with a poem. The poem can be a bit snarky, but must be humorous, most important of all!
In my Hunks family, we exchanged Sint gifts and poems at the end of the Sint period with an evening of family, food and laughs. Everyone made such a huge effort with their poems and my Sinterklaas built me a Wedding Boat to sit in whilst I read my poem…!
All of the couples in the family had the opportunity to write a poem for their other-half. This was my opportunity to tell the Hunk, via Sinterklaas, what he does that drives me crazy. My poem was a humerous and truthful way of telling Hunk these things where we could all laugh about it. I must say – this could have been my favourite tradition.
Wrapping the present is also a very important task! There must be a ‘surprise’ wrapping, where it should hint at what might be inside! For instance, a gift of a bird house had wrapping that was made to look like a bird.
Meanwhile, I can’t discuss Sinterklaas without mentioning his ‘helpers’ the Zwarte Pieten, meaning ‘Black Pete’s’. Yes, controversial it is. First off – why can he not just be called ‘Pete’?
What is a bit wild for us foreigners to the Netherlands is how Dutch people wear black face to dress up as Black Pete! Not only that, but the story goes that Pete is Black because he goes down the chimneys, getting soot all over him. The only fault in this story is that Pete’s fashion-wear is IMPECCABLE, yet only his face and hands have been covered in soot. hmmmmm…..I smell a rat!
This year, posters of Black Pete, since the ‘Black’ has been a heated topic for the last couple of years, are now of Pete in purple face, pink, red, yellow, green, etc. Pete is no longer only black, but a rainbow of colours, with some television stations stating that they would only use Pete in programmes where he has been cast as a man with a bit of soot on his face, called ‘Chimney Pete’. This is a move in the right direction, in my opinion.
Now, what I do enjoy about the Pete’s, whatever colour or controversy they represent, is that they throw candy in the streets, into buses/trams, anywhere and everywhere for citizens to enjoy! What is the harm in that?!
So, Sinterklaas has officially ended for 2016. Another year of the Sint and his controversial friends is over. The last bags of pepernoten and random still un-bought chocolate letters are left on the shelves, being replaced with Christmas candy, Santa, Elves, Sleighs, Stars, and Christmas trees.
For my first real Sinterklaas I really had a blast and I love this tradition in the Netherlands! The Sint brings families together and that’s what it’s all about, right?!
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