Sinterklaas: A tradition that lived through World War II

Sinterklaas: A tradition that lived through World War II

This account was aided by Stadsarchief Amsterdam, who have let us use their interesting images.

The Sinterklaas tradition is hundreds of years old, and its celebration has helped Dutch families through times of war and depression, as well as times of riches. 

No matter what happened in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas would be stubbornly celebrated each year to brighten up children and adults across the country.

Have a look at how Sinterklaas was celebrated before, during, and just after World War II.

How it all started

Sinterklaas has been around for ages and is probably based on ancient Pagan celebrations honouring gods like Wodan and Pan. The person on whom the current name is based was Saint Nicolaas, a bishop around whom many legends revolve.

The religious aspect was lessened in the 16th century when Protestantism forbade Saint-worship. Sinterklaas persevered, however, by adjusting to a more secular style.

Sint Nicolaas with three children (1620-1668)
Collection Stadsarchief Amsterdam
Sinterklaas print

Sinterklaas before World War II

"Pakjesavond" (present evening) was not standard before World War II because most people couldn’t afford it.

The activities around Sinterklaas consisted of special markets and family gatherings, and at home children would receive small gifts in their shoes. When the economy picked up, Sinterklaas started giving more presents.

The ceremonial welcoming of Sinterklaas as he arrives in the country on his steamboat is an older practice too, and was already a tradition before the 1900s.

The celebration has changed throughout the years depending on the time and situation. For instance, Sinterklaas used to punish naughty children by putting a branch cane in their shoe. When these methods became outdated, the role of Sinterklaas changed.

St. Nicolaas celebration (1761), print by Cornelis Troost
Fouquet, Pierre (1729-1800) Troost, C. (Cornelis; 1697-1750) Houbraken, J.
Collection Stadsarchief Amsterdam
Sinterklaas pakjesavond

Sinterklaas during World War II

During the earlier years of World War II, Sinterklaas was still celebrated publicly. He would, for instance, visit the crisis shelters that were put up due to the bombardments.

Throughout the entire war Sinterklaas was celebrated in private homes and even in internment camps. The traditional poems that would be written in his name by family members were often used as an outlet.

My own Dutch grandmother lived through World War II, and the family still has some poems that she wrote to celebrate Sinterklaas during this time. Here are a two verses from one of them (they rhymed in Dutch):

"Oh, however does the Sint manage,
To still come to the Netherlands this year?
Despite bombs, fights and transporting troops,
Despite the mine-filled seas his ship must brave,
Despite waiting for visa and passes,
And strict checking of bags and suitcases."

"But finally, FINALLY, the time has come,
For Sint to board the train to Holland,
For oh! Going by steamboat is much too perilous,
And taking the plane has its dangers too,
In this scary time of rifle fire."

The Sint’s arrival after the Dutch liberation

The first arrival of Sinterklaas after the Dutch liberation was accompanied by a grand celebration.

There wasn’t much of a budget, so the organisers borrowed 20 jeeps and obtained vast amounts of candy from Canadian soldiers who were situated in the country. Sinterklaas was accompanied by Canadian "Zwarte Pieten" and uniformed soldiers.

Arrival Sinterklaas (Around 1955)
Collection Stadsarchief Amsterdam Sinterklaas 1955

Sinterklaas today

Sinterklaas is still a beloved Dutch celebration. Many of the old ways, like putting gifts in shoes, are very much alive. Others, like "Zwarte Piet", are considered outdated by some and met with criticism.

In the future we may see Sinterklaas celebrated in a different way, as changing with the times is how the ancient tradition has survived until now. 

About Stadsarchief Amsterdam

The images in this article have kindly been provided by the Amsterdam City Archives (Stadsarchief Amsterdam).

This rich and unique collection of historical images and information can be found in a magnificent building in the city centre - a must-see for everyone interested in the history of Amsterdam.

What do you think about Sinterklaas as a tradition? Let us know in the comments below!

Main station police department (1996)
Horse Reinaert, used each year as the horse of Sinterklaas

Collection Stadsarchief Amsterdam Sinterklaas horse

Alexandra van Kampen


Alexandra van Kampen

English and Japanese theatre and culture are my forte. My mother was raised in England, and my grandmother in Japan. I studied Japanese Language and Culture, and Film and Photographic...

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