Sinterklaas 101

Sinterklaas 101: The Festive Period Dutch Style

It’s that time of year! Sinterklaas has arrived and with him many traditions.

*ahem* some you may not like *ahem*

Here is a basic break down of what this all means and what traditions you may want to take part in. 

Sinterklaas 101.

Sinterklaas is celebrated annually with the giving of gifts on the 5th December, the night before Saint Nicholas Day and on the morning of the 6th December, Saint Nicholas Day itself.

Sinterklaas is an elderly, stately man with white hair and a long, full beard. He isn’t depicted like the western Santa Claus, instead, Sinterklass has a bishop type attire and has a shepherd’s staff. He traditionally rides a white horse. In the Netherlands, the horse is called Amerigo. Sinterklaas also carries a big, red book, called, ‘The Book of Sinterklaas,’ in which is written whether each child has been good or naughty in the past year.

The festivities traditionally begin each year in mid-November (the first Saturday after 11 November), when Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands by a steamboat at a designated seaside town, from Spain. The steamboat anchors, then Sinterklaas disembarks and parades through the streets on his horse, welcomed by children cheering and singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. His Zwarte Piet assistants throw candy and small cookies, into the crowd.

Zwarte Piet is a companion of Sinterklaas, usually portrayed by a man in blackface with black curly hair, dressed up like a 17th-century page in colourful clothes.  Traditionally Zwarte Piet is said to be black because he is a Moor from Spain. In recent years, the character has become the subject of controversy. According to another popular explanation, Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep, whose blackness is due to a permanent layer of soot on his body, acquired during his many trips through the chimneys giving gifts to children. Zwarte Piet’s current look was popularised by the children’s author Jan Schenkman.

On the evening when Sinterklaas arrives to The Netherlands, before going to bed, children leave a shoe with a carrot or some hay in it “for Sinterklaas’ horse”, and the children sing a Sinterklaas song.  In the morning, there will be small presents and edible treats in the shoe.

In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas’ Eve, 5th December, has become the chief occasion for gift-giving during the winter holiday season. The evening is called Sinterklaasavond (Sinterklaas evening) or Pakjesavond (gifts evening, or literally packages evening).  On the evening of 5th December, the main presents will somehow arrive, or a note will be discovered that explains where in house the presents were hidden by Zwarte Piet. On the 6th December Sinterklaas and his helpers go home.


Good to know:

  • Presents given on the 5th December are normally accompanied by a personalised funny poem to the recipient.
  • Christmas Day (25th) is normally celebrated by a large family feast and gifts are given to older children.
  • Christmas Decorations are normally put up after December 5th.
  • Gifts on 5th December include chocolate letters. (You have probably seen them in stores!)


Of course every family has their own traditions during this festive period. What are yours? 


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Katie Joy
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