The Dutch Tradition of Sinterklaas

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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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38 thoughts on “The Dutch Tradition of Sinterklaas”

  1. Really interesting, thanks for sharing! You’re right, the Dutch kids do make out like bandits in December. Wishing I had some of those ginger cookies with my coffee right now…

  2. This was a very interesting read. While I have no opinion on the black face thing – I don’t know enough about it – the entire Sinterklass experience sounds amazing.

  3. One year my daughter had to research a country and make a traditional dish from Holland. We made the chocolate letters for each student! This is a fascinating look at another culture!

  4. First time I read about Sinterklaas. Thanks for the information. It does look like a fun time, with the Black Peters handing out sweets and all. I wish I could experience this Dutch tradition first hand!

    1. I’d love to go to the Netherlands for when Sinterklass arrives by boat in November. That does sound like one big friendly party!

  5. This is very interesting to read, I didn’t know about this tradition at all. I’m not sure about the Peeters – that seems pretty suspect. I like the idea of the chocolate letters though.

  6. Interesting post. I had no idea about the controversial “Black Pete” tradition. Some of the Dutch influence can still be felt in NYC, where the Dutch were the original colonizers. Some of the sweet treats we eat around Christmas come from a Dutch influence. Thanks for sharing!

    1. My kids are still in the unsure about Santa phase. They don’t want to be no believers in case they miss out on any presents!

  7. Interesting to read you perspective on the Dutch holiday.
    I love the holiday! It’s pretty great when you’re a child, but as an adult it only gets better. I would celebrate it with my family every year and, by doing a secret Santa. Best part of the secret Santa though was writing poemsin which you could make fun (in a nice way) of the person you would buy gifts for.
    Also, Christmas is only getting bigger recently. As a child I never got gifts during Christmas. Just on Sinterklaas 🙂

    1. Yes I was told that they do it at work too! Secret Santa with snarky messages so you have to guess who wrote it. Not sure that would work in an American company. Probably seen as harassment or something. I’d love to have written a porn for one of my old bosses

  8. Two St. Nicks?! Nice. And I thought my kids have it great because Polish Swięty Mikołaj visits them at Christmas Eve, and Santa comes overnight. You’re right, the Dutch kids ARE making out like bandits. 🙂 Thanks for the educational and yet fun post!

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