What is Sinterklaas?

By Eline Roomer and Thomas Verkooijen

The kids in the Netherlands have been nice enough again this year, because Sinterklaas and his Pieten decided to come to our lovely rainy country again. On the 17th of November in Zaanstad, after a long trip on his boat (Pakjesboot 14) from Madrid, Spain. In the time he is in the Netherlands children can put their shoe near the chimney with a carrot for Sinterklaas’ horse Americo and sing a song (like “Sinterklaas kapoentje”). If they’ve been sweet all year, Sinterklaas or the pieten come by their house, go through the chimney and put a little present, pepernoten or a chocoladeletter in the shoes.

Schoen zetten ;)

The tradition of Sinterklaas goes back to approximately 400 A.D. when Saint Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, nowadays Antalya in Turkey. He lived an intense life and shortly after his death he was declared holy and the day of his death 6 December became an important day in Eastern-European religion. Only about a thousand years later, in the fourteenth century, it became well-known in the western part of Europe too and especially in the Netherlands and Flanders it became popular, remarkably not only among Catholics but also Protestants. That is where the tradition with the shoe comes from; everybody was allowed to put their shoe in the church and the rich people would make sure all the people - including the poor - would receive a present on December 5th, the day before the death day of Saint Nicholas.

The immense popularity of Sinterklaas did not remain unnoticed in other parts of the world. Dutch immigrants moving to the US took their traditions with them in the 18th century. However, in the last months of the year, the American calendar was already full of parties with presents such as Thanksgiving, Halloween and Christmas. In America, Sinterklaas is therefore merged with Christmas and celebrated on 25 December. In the early years, Sinterklaas and Santa Claus looked alike, but since the Coca Cola add of 1931, Santa Claus obtained its current look and this was spread all over the world as a part of the advertisements.

The real party of Sinterklaas on December 5th received immense popularity after the second world war, especially as a consequence of increasing welfare. This is the day when families come together and Sinterklaas comes by to give presents. It is a night full of gourmetten (dutch version of the Raclette), eating sweets, reading out poems (gedichtjes) and unwrapping gifts and surprises.

Sinterklaas is generally seen as a children's party, but really it is for all ages. Unfortunately, if I now put my shoe near the chimney, nothing appears the next morning….

But on December 5th a tradition with friends or family has emerged. Two versions of the “grown up Sinterklaas” exist:

Version 1: Lootjes trekken

This is the version that we’ll do this year with CCR. Everybody has another person appointed to them who they have to write a personal poem, make a surprise (a creative personal craftwork to wrap the gift in), and buy a gift for.

Version 2: Sinterklaasspel

The second version is a game where everybody brings in some wrapped gifts, and with the help of a dice and several challenges gifts are divided among the participants.

In recent years, the party has often been mentioned as being discriminatory, for the reason that the Zwarte Pieten have their faces painted black with big red lips as well as big earrings, reminding some people of the Dutch history in slavery. Initially and still, the Dutch population is extremely divided between pro-piet and anti-piet. However, in recent years many cities and stores have changed their image of Zwarte Piet. The big cities, such as Amsterdam and The Hague, now have replaced Zwarte Piet by Roetveegpiet, a version that is not completely black, but still has black scratches from the chimney.

Sinterklaas arriving on Pakjesboot 14 with both Zwarte Pieten and Roetveegpieten

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