Netherlands Travel Blog

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Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet!


Sinterklaas is a traditional holiday figure in the Netherlands, Netherlands Antilles and Belgium, celebrated every year on Saint Nicholas' eve (December 5) or on the morning of December 6.


The Sinterklaas feast celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas (280-342), patron saint of children. Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey and became the patron saint of children based on various legends that include resurrecting children from death and saving them from prostitution.

Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes)


Sinterklaas has a long white beard, wears a red bishop's dress and red mitre (bishop's hat), and holds a crosier, a long gold coloured staff with a fancy curled top. Sinterklaas carries a big book with all the children's names in it, which states whether they have been naughty or nice in the past year. Also inclused the gift wishes of the children."Saint-Nicolas" rides a white horse called Americo.

Sinterklaas is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful outfits, modelled after 16th century Spanish clothing. These helpers are called Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). During the Middle Ages, “Zwarte Piet” was a name for the devil. Nevertheless, the tradition has been accused of being racist, and attempts have been made to introduce Coloured Petes, who are coloured blue, red, etc.

Zwarte Piet giving sweets and gifts
, instead of black.

Traditionally Saint Nicholas only had one helper, whose name varied wildly. "Piet" or "Pieter", the name in use now, can be traced back to a book from 1891. The idea that Sinterklaas has not one but many helpers was introduced by Canadian soldiers who had liberated the Netherlands during World War II and helped organise the first post-war Sinterklaas celebration.


Sinterklaas traditionally arrives each year in November (usually on Saturday) by steamboat from Spain. Sinterklaas will then paraded through the streets, welcomed by cheering and singing children. This event is broadcast live on national television in the Netherlands and Belgium. His Zwarte Pieten(helpers) throw candy and small, round ginger bread-like cookies (kruidnoten and perpernoten) into the crowd.

arrival Sinterklaas
The children welcome him by singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. Sinterklaas also visits schools, hospitals and shopping centres. After this arrival all towns with a dock have their own “intocht van Sinterklaas” (arrival of Sinterklaas). Local arrivals usually takes place on Sunday, the day after he arrives in the Netherlands or Belgium. In places a boat cannot reach, Sinterklaas arrives by train, bus, horse or even carriage.


Traditionally, in the weeks between his arrival and the 5th of December, before going to bed, children put their shoes next to the chimney of the coal fired stove or fireplace, with a carrot or some hay in it "for Sinterklaas's horse" or a painting for Sinterklaas or Zwarte Piet, sing a Sinterklaas song, and will find some candy or a small present in their shoes the next day, supposedly thrown down the chimney by a Zwarte Piet or Sinterklaas himself.

However, with the advent of central heating children put their shoes near the boiler or even just next to the front door.



Typical Sinterklaas candy is the chocolate letter, the first letter of the child's name made out of chocolate, speculaas (a type of shortcrust biscuit), chocolate coins, a figurine of Sinterklaas made out of chocolate and wrapped in painted aluminium foil, and coloured marzipan shaped into fruit, an animal or some other object.

Children are told that Zwarte Piet enters the house through the chimney, which also explains his black face and hands, and would leave a bundle of sticks (roe) or a small bag with salt in the shoe instead of candy when the child had been bad.

Children are also told that in the worst case they would be put in the gunny sack in which Black Pete carries the presents, and be taken back to Spain, where Sinterklaas is said to spend the rest of the year. This practice, however, has been condemned by Sinterklaas in his more recent television appearances as something of the past. He is more nice and forgiving now. In Belgium Sinterklaas is still less forgiving(like he used to be in the Netherlands). He can be quite severe and takes naughty children back to Spain when they were not nice. ) 


Traditionally Saint Nicholas brings his gifts at night and in Belgian and some Dutch children still find their presents on the morning of December 6th. Later in The Netherlands adults started to give each other presents on the evening of the 5th; then older children were included. Nowerdays sometimes even the youngest are included on the evening of December 5 (Saint Nicholas' eve), known as Sinterklaasavond or Pakjesavond (present evening). After the singing of traditional Sinterklaas songs, there will be a loud knock on the door, and a sack full of presents is found on the doorstep. Alternatively - some improvisation is often called for - the parents 'hear a sound coming from the attic' and then the bag with presents is "found" there. Some parents manage to "convince" Sinterklaas to come to their home personally.

Presents are often accompanied by a simple poem, saying something about the child or with a hint to the nature of the present.

When the presents are too bulky in size or when the quantity of presents is too large, they have to be sneaked into the house while the kids are distracted.

Another aspect of "Pakjesavond" is writing small poems for gifts to adults. When children grow too old to believe in Sinterklaas, they are introduced to a different form of entertainment on Pakjesavond night, December 5th. People will write small personal poems for friends and family usually accompanied by a small gift or candy. This way it is also entertaining for parents and other adults. Students usually write teasing and embarrassing stories for each other. But this is expected and are received in good spirit.

On the 5th of December everyone is allowed to go home early from work to prepare his/her pakjesavond. The youngest children don't have to go to school on 6th of December, so they can play with the gifts they got of Sinterklaas. The older children can start later that day.   

Sinterklaas avond is really a nice family or friends feast gettering! ;)

dolfijn says:
Marit, I hope so too!
Posted on: Dec 14, 2008
tvillingmarit says:
Great blog Anna. Hope Sinterklaas has my name in his book.
Posted on: Dec 13, 2008
Sweetski says:
Top research!
Posted on: Nov 27, 2008
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Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes)
Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes)
Zwarte Piet giving sweets and gifts
Zwarte Piet giving sweets and gifts
arrival Sinterklaas
arrival Sinterklaas
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