It’s almost December 5th, Saint Nicholas day. In the Netherlands that’s a big event for small children, like Santaclaus in the US. In this article I will describe how Sinterklaas is celebrated in the Netherlands and our own family traditions around this holiday.
The name ‘Santaklaus’ is an Americanization of ‘Sinterklaas’, the popular name of Saint Nicholas in the Netherlands. Many of the Dutch traditions around Sinterklaas have been incorporated into the American celebration of Santaclaus.
The Sinterklaas period starts about three weeks before December 5th, when Sinterklaas arrives on his steamship from Spain, together with his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (black Petes). The event is broadcast live on TV and almost all the small children watch it.
From that moment on, upto December 5th, children are allowed to put their shoes up (it should be near the fireplace but since most houses don’t have one putting it near the central heating works just as well). It helps their chances of a nice gift to put something nice in the shoe, like a carrot or some straw for the horse of St. Nick (a white horse), a letter for St. Nick, etc. Of course, they also have to sing a song for St. Nick. If they’ve been good, a present will await them in the morning. My mom was always very good, she always had a giant carrot ready for me to put in my shoe. I never noticed that that carrot started to look worse and worse as December 5th neared 🙂
People pretending to be St. Nick can be found in the malls during that time and often visit schools on December 5. Some families even hire a St. Nick to come to their own home. My parents didn’t feel that was necessary so I always happened to only hear St. Nick putting presents all over the staircase but by the time I got to the hallway he had always just left. Later I found out that the men in the neighborhood made a deal to bring each other the presents, pretending to be St. Nick.
My grandfather used to play Sinterklaas at his work and also for our neighborhood Sinterklaas celebration. He remembers that one year, after having played Sinterklaas the day before, he came to visit our house. One kid from our neighborhood got very excited and told him: "Do you know you have the same shoes as Sinterklaas? You must be very proud!" Grandfather told him he was delighted to hear that and afterwards always used a different pair of shoes when he played Sinterklaas.
Another tradition in my family was to bake ‘pepernoten’ together. Pepernoten are small round circles of dough (about half an inch in diameter) that are baked in the oven. They’re spiced with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and a lot more, kind of like gingerbread. The Zwarte Pieten always throw them into the rooms as well, laced with small pieces of candy. We made ours ourselves which was always fun. From the dough, we sometimes made little gingerbread men. My friend and I would each made one, and liked to watch as they started to shake hands (the heat made them get bigger until their hands touched). My mother remembers that she always had to drag us away from the oven because we would get heatburns on our sterns from watching too closely.
I found out Sinterklaas didn’t really exist when I was about 6 years old. We have kept the traditions alive though, and still celebrate Sinterklaas in our family every year. We still eat pepernoten although we don’t bake them anymore. Perhaps we will restart that family tradition this year!
Nowadays, we give each other presents and write poems to each other. The beauty of Sinterklaas poems is that it’s ok if it only sort of rhymes. In fact, that’s even better! The gifts are supposed to be meaningful and sought out with care, it doesn’t matter how much they cost. We also give each other lots of fun gifts, to pull each other’s legs.
We used to make ‘surprises’ for each other as well, in the shape of hand-crafted fake gifts or pranks. For example, I once received a real family tree. My mother had bought a wooden pine tree, about a foot heigh, for Christmas that had holes in it where you were supposed to put little Santas in. For Sinterklaas, she put in notes with my ancestor’s names. In the poem it said that Sinterklaas knew all I wanted for Sinterklaas were more ancestors, so he gave me some. But we’re all very busy people so we rarely do that anymore.