Celebrating Sinterklaas

In the Netherlands, we celebrate St. Nicholas’ Eve on the 5th of December.

Sinterklaas arrives in the country about three weeks before, on his steam ship from Spain. He is accompanied by his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten [Black Petes] who pass out small spiced cookies called pepernoten and candy to the children. Sinterklaas then gets on his white horse and parades through town, cheered on by hundreds of young kids.

My grandfather used to be Sinterklaas at the airbase where he worked and for the children in our neighborhood. He stopped doing this when I was a baby, so I have no memories of that. The home movie of his last Sinterklaas visit to our house is one of my favorite family history “records.” I am the baby in his lap.

I remember as a small child, how excited I was to put out my shoe in the evening. I would put in a carrot for Sinterklaas’ horse, and at night, the helpers would put in a small gift, like chocolate cigarets (!), some juggling balls, or a toy car.

When I was about six, I began notice the “fake” Sinterklazen. The ones that did not sound like the real deal, that had a shaggy beard, that were too young, too thin, too tall. I learned that Sinterklaas had helpers because he could not be everywhere. The idea that Pieten could get into our house scared me a little, if they could get in, what would keep the burglars out? We did not have a chimney, so I did not buy that.

It was not long afterwards that my friend next door confided in me that she thought it all a scam. Her explanation made sense to me, and when I confronted my mother she confessed that it was all make-believe. I was really hurt and decided that I would never believe anything anybody told me anymore unless I had proof. A character trait that has served me well as a genealogist 🙂

This year, I am the mother of a six-year-old who is starting to ask questions. I encourage him to think for himself. When he asks me how the Pieten get inside, I ask him what he thinks. When he points out the shaggy beard, I agree with him that that is probably not the real Sint. 

Tomorrow we celebrate Sinterklaas with our family. The magic continues for one more year.

About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink, CG®, QG™ is a professional genealogist in the Netherlands. She holds the Certified Genealogist credential from the Board for Certification of Genealogists and has a post-graduate diploma in Family and Local History from the University of Dundee. She has been doing genealogy for over 30 years and helps people from across the world find their ancestors in the Netherlands. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.


  1. Shirley Crampton says

    I’m thrilled to hear the stories that you tell and to share them with my husband. His maternal grandfather was Dutch but because his grandfather was Reformed and married an Irish Catholic he was kicked out of the family. My husband, and I think the rest of his family, do not know these stories.

  2. Pamela Myers Sackett says

    Thank you for your wonderful stories and history, Yvette. My Grandmother told me of leaving wooden shoes out for Sinterclaus and she long ago told me the story of Hans Brinker. I think these were the two little hints she passed along to me of the Dutch heritage I now know I have through my genealogical research. Little did I know that her tiny “bites” of Dutch culture would take me to the earliest days of New York City history. I hope to travel to Amsterdam in 2018 to see where it all began! Enjoy the holidays with your family! Thank you for your research and for all you do to keep us “connected” in this crazy world!

  3. thanks for sharing. This brings back childhood memories.

  4. B B Carmen Johnson says

    My grand children love the story about my exprience with Sinterklaas. We were already in bed when Sinterklaas and black Piet came to our house. so my mom brought them upstairs. wen they were leaving Sinterklaas triped on a paill and fell. Well there was a big uproar and Black Piet kept saying, this is a bad house maybe we should not leave anything for the children. My father begged and pleaded and apoligized for the fall and finally Black Piet said Okay Okay we will be kind to the children, but you had better smarten up next year.

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