The Dutch Tradition of Sinterklaas

The Dutch Tradition of Sinterklaas

For the Dutch, Christmas starts with the arrival of Sinterklaas which is a beloved tradition in the country. Sinterklaas (the holiday) takes place on the fifth of December every year and is dedicated to Sinterklaas (the person).  The Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas is a beloved holiday with its own customs and foods.

The Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas

Celebrating the Arrival of Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas is an elderly man who wears red robes, carries a bishop’s mitre and rides a white horse.  His horse is named Amerigo after the Italian explorer who gave his name to America, Amerigo Vespucci. Although Sinterklaas has the same historical roots as Santa Claus, namely St. Nicolas, Sinterklaas has his own holiday in The Netherlands.

Starting with the second week of November, Sinterklaas and his servants, the Black Peters, arrive in the Netherlands on their boat from Spain. They pick a different port in the Netherlands every year so that it’s all equitable for the whole country. Traditionally Sinterklaas lives in Madrid in Spain. No, freezing North Pole for him. Like all good Dutch people, he’s into sangria and sunshine.

The Black Pete Controversy

Sinterklaas also has no use for elves. Instead he has servants called Black Peters (“zwarte piet”) who are Moors from Spain. Since about 1850, Black Peter have been represented by white people dressed in blackface, with curly black wigs, gold hoop earrings, bright red lips and “Moorish” clothing.   Zwarte Piet carries Sinterklaas’ bags, distributes sweets and generally entertains the kids who come to visit Sinterklaas.

The Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas and Black Pete

Racist much? Not according to the Dutch.

The vast majority of Dutch people insist the Black Peter imagery is neither racist nor a reference to slavery and Dutch colonial times. Opponents of Black Peter have voiced their concerns, yet most Dutch still dismiss them as killjoys..

According to my friend who blogs at Finding Dutchland, criticising this Dutch tradition is one way to real piss off the locals.  Another friend who lives in the Netherlands has looked at the issue of Black Pete and racism and ways the debate is progressing.  Even the United Nations, with all of its do-gooding fervour, has waded into the controversy. The former Dutch colony of Surinam has had its own Sinterklaas controversy.

There has been some small change though. In Amsterdam last year, the Black Peters weren’t black but sooty. They apparently got dirty coming down the chimney. In some places, they have gone with different coloured Peters, such as ‘cheese’ Petes who are coloured yellow, or stroopwafel Petes who are striped light brown like the famous Dutch caramel waffles.

The Dutch tradition of Stroopwafels


The arrival and procession of Sinterklaas and the Black Petes is always televised.  It’s a really big deal in the Netherlands with a whole set of Sinterklaas traditions, such as special songs and cakes to celebrate his arrival. Sinterklaas rides on the roofs at night and sends his Black Peters down the chimney with gifts for the children. In some families, children get weekly presents from Sinterklaas’ arrival until December 5th (Sinterklaas the holiday).

Sinterklaas and the Black Peters head back to Spain on December 6th from Rotterdam.  They probably head to the South of Spain to stake out their spots poolside after an exhausting month of celebration.

So, what about Santa Claus?

On Christmas Eve, many Dutch children believe that Santa Claus (or Christmas Man “Kerstman”) comes from Lapland and delivers more presents. So Dutch kids get lots of presents in December and potentially from two different variations of St. Nicholas. I’d say they make out like bandits. Christmas Day itself is a quiet religious affair spent at family and church.

The beloved movie, Miracle on 34th Street, confused the issue when it had a little Dutch girl sing the Dutch Sinterklaas song to Santa Claus. That cute little kid would not have associated the Sinkterklaas song with the American Santa. Hollywood license and all that.

Spice Cookies and Sinterklaas

When Rachel from Rachel’s Ruminations came to visit me in November, she brought along some Kruidnoten (ginger spice cookies) which are traditionally associated with Sinterklaas.  She brought two bags of this Dutch Christmas food and they were gone in two days.  I blame the children for inhaling them before I could even get any photos.

The ginger spice cookies we tried were covered in milk or dark chocolate so they were even better than the kruidnoten by themselves.

The Sinterklaas tradition of the Dutch involves ginger spice cookies

Here’s a recipe for Kruidnoten which I think is easy enough to make.  I want to try it with pumpkin pie spices because we still have a fair bit left over from Thanksgiving.  Covered in chocolate I’m thinking it’ll be a pretty good approximation!

Chocolate Letters

In the bag of presents that Sinterklaas brings for Sinterklaas, Dutch children may find a chocolate letter initial standing for the first letter of their name.  Alternatively, you could do an initial like “M” for moeder (mother).  This tradition started in the 19th century when people would identify their covered Sinterklaas gifts with a letter made in bread dough.  Eventually by the 20th century, the Dutch moved onto the tastier chocolate letters.

The Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas involves gifts of food

These chocolate letters are only on sale in The Netherlands at Sinterklaas time. People must really stock up on their yearly intake of chocolate letters because upwards of 30 million chocolate letters are sold and there are only about 17 million people in the whole country!

Chocolate letters are easier to find in the United Kingdom because I saw them at Hema, the Dutch version of the general goods European stores such as the Danish Tiger or the Swedish Ikea Marketplace.

Who was Saint Nicholas anyway?

Sinterklaas is based on Saint Nicholas, a Christian Bishop born to a wealthy family in the 3rd century AD in a Roman town in what is now Turkey. Various countries claim to have the body of St Nicholas which was stolen and put in a church in Bari (Italy), a church in Venice (Italy) and an abbey in Kilkenny (Ireland). A new wrinkle was introduced when  Turkey claims to have found St. Nicholas’ tomb.


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16 Things To Do In The Trendy Jordaan With Kids

16 Things To Do In The Trendy Jordaan With Kids

The Jordaan district is a trendy, charming area in Amsterdam full of boutiques, cafes and cobblestone streets.  Built in 1612 to house the working class, the neighbourhood now has a gentrified population of creatives and professionals.

The Jordaan in Amsterdam

The peaceful streets and canals transport you to a completely different world away from the noise and crowds of the area around Central Station.  Yet, the Jordaan is only about a 10 minute walk from tourist central, Dam Square.

Exploring the Jordaan

1. Find the hidden playgrounds and quiet inner courtyards

Behind the pretty facades of the houses, there were beautiful not-so-secret inner courtyards for the benefit of the locals (and nosy tourists). For example, across from the Noorderspeltuin (a large playground) was the courtyard of the buildings on the Karthuizerstreet.  Amsterdam has 47 such courtyards and most of them are in the Jordaan.

Hidden Courtyards of Jordaan
The playgrounds are sprinkled throughout the streets. One of the playgrounds we saw had chickens and a rabbit. The building residents had left scooters and bicycles around as well which our children enjoyed borrowing.

Jordaan courtyard playground

2.  If you are feeling brave, you can rent boats of the Jordaan canals. You will have to share canal space with other ‘real’ boats going about their everyday business so make sure you know what you are doing!  You can rent electric boats from Sloepdelen and pedal boats from Canelbike.

3. Rent a bike from Workcycle or Bike City and pedal around the charming streets.

Bike City in Amsterdam.

4. Go hunting for stone tablets that grace the buildings of the Jordaan.  In the old days, these tablets would indicate the profession of the people inside.  In the 16th century, these tablets were used as signs instead of wooden gables that blocked the little streets.

The Jordaan in Amsterdam

Foodies in the Jordaan

5. Hang out in sunshine at one of the local cafes and watch life go by.  We liked eating crepes on the Prinsengracht across from the Anne Frank House.

The Jordaan in Amsterdam

6. Try the best apple pie in Amsterdam at Cafe Winkel right near the Noordermarkt.

7. Not feeling in the mood for apple pie?  Other cafes to try are Cafe Finch also near the Noordermarkt and Moods Coffee Corner (at Lindengracht 249) for coffee and cake.

8. Sometimes only ice-cream will do.  For a high-value and yummy treat, check out Monte Pelmo which has been voted the best ice cream in Amsterdam.

9. If you want something more substantial, check out Caffe de Curtis (Italian food), Manger Maintenant (French food to take away) and Toscanini (more Italian food).

Culture in the Jordaan

10.  Have a snoop around some of the beautifully decorated houseboats especially on the Prinsengracht.

houseboat in Amsterdam

11. The Houseboat Museum on Prinsengracht as well is really fascinating for a glimpse into how people live on houseboats. An added bonus for children is that it is not very big.

12. On the Jordaan border because of its location on the Prinsengracht, the Anne Frank House is a must-visit in the area.   As most people know, the Anne Frank House is where a Jewish teenage girl wrote her famous diary when she and her family were hiding from the Nazis.

13. Next door to the Anne Frank House is the Westerkerk which is still a working church. Rembrandt is buried here. From the tower, you have great views over the city.

Things To Do in The Jordaan

14. The Amsterdam Tulip Museum is interesting if you really like tulips but a browse through their store (free of charge) is probably enough for most children.

Tulip Garden in Amsterdam

Shopping in the Jordaan

15. There are lots of quirky little stores and boutiques to explore.  My kids were fascinated with all the Japanese items at Roppongi as well as the truly kitschy Kitsch Kitchen both on Rozengracht.

Kitsch Kitchen in Amsterdam

16. The antiques market on Elandsgracht is open every day but there are other markets open as well on other days as well such as the Noordermarkt (a farmers’ market and flea market) on Saturdays. Our kids love looking for random things in street markets.


There is plenty to do in Jordaan that you can while away the hours in this neighbourhood.  I’ve kept the suggested activities to what I consider the most interesting part of the Jordaan.  We stayed in this part of the Jordaan north of Rozengracht because there’s a lot of walking involved otherwise.  We still used a carrot on a stick approach with the children (a bit of sightseeing or shopping mixed in with playgrounds and snack breaks) to see the neighbourhood.

The Jordaan in Amsterdam

Have you been to the Jordaan?  Do you have any suggestions for family-friendly activities that I have missed?

The Cat Who Came To Dinner

The Cat Who Came To Dinner

I was at dinner in Amsterdam in an Italian restaurant by myself when the restaurant cat came and sat across from me.  Yes, there are cats in Amsterdam everywhere and some of them hang out at the pubs and restaurants. My little visitor was actually pretty funny looking at me as if he decided I needed a dinner companion. I chose a Margarita pizza and I’m sure he was thinking it should at least have had a tuna or anchovy topping. You can pretty much see the look of disdain on his face.

cats in Amsterdam

The cat who came to dinner at Casa di David, one of the best restaurants in Amsterdam.


The cat wasn’t much of a conversationalist but I’ve definitely had worse dinner companions! The cat belonged to the restaurant, Casa di David is located at Singel 426, right on a canal.  Case di David has been listed on both Conde Nast Traveller and TripAdvisor as one of the best Italian restaurants in Amsterdam. They are known especially for their freshly-made pasta and wood-fired pizza.

cats in Amsterdam

The wood-fired pizza at Casa di David, one of the best Italian restaurants in Amsterdam.

A little thing like having no dinner companions was not getting between that pizza and me! Have you eaten alone at a restaurant before? It invariably becomes part of your travel experience at some point. These tips about dining solo in Spain are applicable in other circumstances.

You might think its unhygienic to have a cat in a restaurant. I don’t think its any different from a house cat personally.  An interesting British article points out that Amsterdam has a mouse problem thanks to its location on the water. A cat in a restaurant is actually a sign of a good restaurant because then you know the restaurant doesn’t have a mouse problem.

cats in Amsterdam

I’m thinking my dinner companion is a bit bored.

Other Great Eateries in Nine Streets

My family were with me in Amsterdam for a long weekend. Before they left we had lots of fun trying out some local restaurants in the Nine Streets area where we were staying and the nearby Jordaan.

Singel 404, a few doors down from Casa di David, is great for takeaway sandwiches. The cafe part of Singel 404 is tiny and always full. Your best option is to order your sandwich and eat it overlooking the canal in front. The choice of sandwiches is plentiful because they are freshly made on site.

If you go in the other direction on Singel, you will find Sampurna, an Indonesian restaurant located just past the famous flower market. We found it accidentally because we went looking for the flower market which was a bit disappointing. So we decided to drown our sorrows in tasty Indonesian food. This restaurant has been in business for 25 years and is filled more with locals than tourists. We only found out later that it was recommended as among the Top 10 Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam and on the Eating Amsterdam food tour. Technically I’m not sure Sampurna is within the 9 Streets micro-neighbourhood even though it’s on Singel.

cats in Amsterdam

The Flower Market is on Singel overlooking a canal.

I swear we left Singel even though it may sound like we didn’t!!  Technically we didn’t venture very far because we loved the 9 Streets and adjoining Jordaan neighbourhoods so much that we spent most of the time we had in Amsterdam hanging out in these areas.

Wolvenstraat 23 is a restaurant with no name because people refer to it by its address (Wolvenstraat 23). It’s a happening bar by night but we went during the day with the children for lunch.

Amsterdam and its Cats

The people in Amsterdam love its cats. The kitty that joined me for dinner at Casa di David was its restaurant cat. He wandered around between the tables before he sat down with me.

cats in Amsterdam

You will find the Catboat (De Poezenboot) also located on a houseboat on Singel. The Amsterdam catboat is a shelter for stray and abandoned cats and is open for visits for limited hours to the public.

Many of the pubs and cafes have a resident cat in Amsterdam. Similar to the book [easyazon_link identifier=”0993570216″ locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]London Pubcats[/easyazon_link] about kitties in London watering holes, there is also a book about Amsterdam Pub Cats.

Of course, the cat cafe craze which started in Japan has come to this city as well. Check out Kopjes Cat Cafe in West Amsterdam if you want to get your caffeine and kitty fix.

The cats in Amsterdam lead an undeniable charm to the city.


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(Updated January 2017)

Inside Design Amsterdam

Inside Design Amsterdam

You wouldn’t think seven-year-olds would do a design tour of Amsterdam would you?  Well, my children surprised even me.  OK, I admit, I sprinkled in design stores with liberal stops for snacks and playgrounds.

Inside Design Amsterdam 2013


The weekend we were in Amsterdam was the 10th annual city tour for Elle Inside Design Amsterdam.  It consisted of stores, pop-up shops, galleries, cafes and hotels all with a design interest. Mostly, we just wandered the city and went into a place whenever we saw the yellow Inside Design sign.

Mariska Meijers Amsterdam

The Mariska Meijers store on Singel was right next to where we were staying.  Mariska was on hand to discuss her work.  She is an artist as well as a product designer.  We loved her bright exuberant colours and intricate patterns.  I bought one of the tray tables from her store – they store flat and are perfect for drinks when guests come over.

Rokin Station

There was a pop-up shop for Workmates Presents, a Dutch industrial design collective, in the underground train station being built to connect the north and south of Amsterdam.  My son was completely fascinated to see a station in the process of being built.  Apparently the project is 5 years behind schedule but this particular station will be open in a few months.  Yes, and I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you.

Kitsch Kitchen

My kids absolutely loved Kitsch Kitchen located on the edge of the Jordaan neighbourhood because of its grown-up novelty store vibe.  They sell furniture, paper, toys, desk accessories etc.  all with a kitschy aesthetic.  In small doses, these products would inject a sense of humour into your home.  The skull candle below would fit into this year’s trend for adding a dark edge to your home.


Across the street from Kitsch Kitchen, Roppongi is a Japanese store selling beautiful Japanese handicrafts, clothes and food.  My son bought a lovely set of chopsticks shaped like the shinkansen (bullet train).

All The Luck in The World and Charlie+Mary/The Proud Otter Cafe

All the Luck in the World is a store in De Pijp (a trendy up-and-coming area) right near the Albert Cuypstraat market.  Although this street market is supposed to be the most famous in The Netherlands, we found it crowded and full of junk.  All the Luck in the World, though, has got lots of great new designs, vintage finds and handcrafted items.  Next door is a clothes concept store (Charlie+Mary) which has a cafe in the back with delicious cakes.  After pushing through a sea of humanity at the street market, we were grateful for a calm place to have a drink and a snack.


All The Luck In The World

Wolvenstraat 23

We also had lunch at Wolvenstraat 23 a hip cafe in the 9 Streets neighborhood.  The walls were filled with art, the tables teeming with trendy locals and the food was excellent.  Apparently, this place is famous for having no name – Wolvenstraat 23 is technically the address.  Even Prince when he was going through his no-name phase used a symbol as an identifier.


What did you think?  Would you consider doing a design tour in a city that you are visiting?


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Amsterdam in the Autumn

Amsterdam in the Autumn

I had known Amsterdam had a lot of parks, but I wasn’t expecting the areas outside of the official parks to be so well planted.

Amsterdam canal

Amsterdam’s famous flower market was pretty but not as busy as I thought it would be.  We were clearly off-season.

The flower market is famous for being ‘floating’ but it seemed fairly fixed on concessions that half hung over the water.

flower market amsterdam

I was also surprised by how many houseboats had decked out their outsides with plants and patios.

houseboat amsterdam

houseboat gardens

We took a canal bout tour which we enjoyed (especially the children).  We were told that there are 2500 houseboats in Amsterdam.  You need a permit to dock a houseboat and they are hard to come by.  The inside of many of the houseboats looked quite modern.  If you would like an inside tour of a house boat,  check out the home of an English ex-pat living in Amsterdam on Apartment Therapy.  Below, are photos of one particularly bedecked houseboat located across from the Anne Frank Museum.

We also wandered around the Jordaan which is a trendy neighbourhood filled with boutiques and cafes.  We were told the Jordaan was originally built for the working poor in 1612  and the word is probably a corruption of the word ‘jardin’ in French.   Many of the streets in the area are named after flowers.   So, it’s not only the Americans who think (a) putting a French word on something instantly makes it seem posher than it is and (b) housing developments with names from nature are an inoffensive way to name streets in a newly-built neighbourhood.

jordaan street

We also discovered that behind the pretty facades of the houses, there were beautiful not-so-secret courtyards for the benefit of the locals.  For example, across from the Noorderspeltuin (a large playground) was the courtyard of the buildings on the Karthuizerstreet.

Yes, we did a tour of the playgrounds of Jordaan, as well.  This family-oriented map came in really handy in finding our way around the Jordaan.  We placated our children with snacks and playgrounds before we could convince them to continue sightseeing.  We even found a playground with chickens and a lone rabbit being kept on-site!  The playgrounds were also well-planted and charming.  My children really liked the wicker tunnels.

We went to Amsterdam at the end of September.  I can only imagine how pretty the city must be in spring!