The Dutch Christmas? An expat guide to Sinterklaas in the Netherlands
While the major wintertime holiday in most countries might be held on December 25, here in the Netherlands there’s another gift-giving celebration that takes precedence over Christmas, and that’s the Dutch holiday called Sinterklaas.
Curious to learn more about this traditional Dutch celebration? Here’s everything you need to know about Sinterklaas.
What, who, and when is Sinterklaas?
Generally regarded as the Dutch equivalent of Christmas, Sinterklaas is a holiday where people get together with loved ones to exchange gifts, and is especially a big deal for young children who receive sacks of presents from Sinterklaas and his helpers the Pieten.
Who is Sinterklaas?
Like Santa Claus, the figure of Sinterklaas (or Sint) is based on Saint Nicholas, who in turn is believed to have been a bishop in the fourth century in Myra (in modern-day Turkey). Stories say that Bishop Nicholas performed a number of miracles, resurrecting some young schoolchildren and saving sailors from a hurricane. Nicholas was canonised by the Catholic Church following his death on December 6, 342, as the patron saint of children.
Nowadays, the story goes that Sinterklaas lives in Spain, with his helpers the Pieten and his iconic white horse, for 11 months of the year. This aspect of the tale could come from the fact that a large number of Sint Nicholas’ relics were transported to the Spanish Kingdom of Naples in 1087, but others think it’s because of Sinterklaas’ association with mandarin oranges, which led to the belief that he must be from Spain.
Sint wears a long red cape over the traditional white bishop’s garb, a large red hat, and a large ruby ring, and carries a long shepherd’s staff, as well as a large red book which he uses to keep a record of the behaviour of all the children.
Who are the Pieten?
Since at least the 19th century, Sint has been accompanied by a gang of helpers, known as the Zwarte Pieten (Black Piets), who wear brightly coloured clothing and feathered caps, and entertain the children and give out sweets and presents.
However, since the traditional Pieten usually put on blackface and wore bright red lipstick and gold earrings, the figures have become increasingly mired in controversy and accusations of racism.
While some events in the Netherlands will still feature the character of Zwarte Piet, various movements, protests, and discussions over the past few years have resulted in a number of municipalities swapping the racist figure for a more toned-down version, called the roetveegpiet (“Sooty Piet”), who is covered in smudges of soot as a result of his work travelling up and down chimneys to deliver gifts and sweets to children.
The Pieten tend to carry sacks filled with mandarin oranges, sweets and, of course, pepernoten, which they hand out to children. Some naughty children are also warned that they could be snatched by the Pieten and put in sacks to be taken back to Spain as a punishment.
When is Sinterklaas?
From the day that Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands, the celebrations can begin! This is when children put a shoe out in the evening, and when they wake up it should be filled with sweets, pepernoten and mandarin oranges (and perhaps even some gifts).
While the name day of Saint Nicholas is on December 6, the real fun happens in the Netherlands on the evening of St Nicholas’ Eve, or December 5, when Sint goes door to door delivering gifts to well-behaved children.
Do other countries celebrate Sinterklaas too?
Sinterklaas isn’t just a Dutch tradition - in fact, similar celebrations exist all over Europe, but many of the countries that recognise and celebrate Sinterklaas do so on December 6. Some parts of the Dutch Caribbean also celebrate the holiday.
How do the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas?
Every year, as the day of December 5 rolls into evening, families across the Netherlands come together to celebrate the tradition of Sinterklaas. But how?
Intocht: The arrival of Sinterklaas
Sinterklaas celebrations start when the man himself arrives in the Netherlands in mid-November (the first Saturday after November 11, or Sint Maarten). Various arrival events, or intochten, are held all over the country to welcome Sint and his team as they parade through the streets.
While the arrival of Sinterklaas is a big celebration, the man packs up his operations quite quickly after December 5, leaving on December 6 without any fanfare and returning to his base of operations in Spain.
What is pakjesavond?
Pakjesavond, which translates to “present night”, is simply what Dutch people call the night of December 5, when friends and families get together to exchange gifts or poems that they've written about each other, known as a surprise. They might play games on pakjesavond, and enjoy eating all of the delicious sweets and snacks that are tradition at this time of year.
Want to know more about how to celebrate pakjesavond? Check out our guide!
Is Sinterklaas a public holiday in the Netherlands?
While Sinterklaas is definitely a Dutch institution, it sadly is not an official public holiday. Schools stay open and if you have a job you will be expected to work. However, as it’s a pretty special day, schools normally close at midday, and many parents finish work early in order to go home and spend time with their children and families.
Popular Dutch Sinterklaas songs
Similarly to when Dutch children celebrate Sint Maarten, there are a number of well-known songs associated with Sinterklaas and the holiday. Want to get involved in the celebrations this year? Here are some of the most popular Sinterklaas songs (and their lyrics):
Traditional food during Sinterklaas
There are various traditional Dutch snacks and sweets that are associated with the Sinterklaas holiday. The most popular ones include:
- Chocoladeletters (chocolate letters)
- Pepernoten and kruidnoten
- Speculaas and gevulde speculaas
- Taai Taai
- Mandarin oranges
Celebrate Sinterklaas like a true Dutchie!
And there you have it: now you have all the information you need in order to celebrate Sinterklaas like a local. So what are you waiting for? Grab the kruidnoten and have a very happy Sinterklaas!