On December 5, when all the shops are already closed by 5 and families are gathering at home, it means only one thing: Sinterklaas is in town. And while for most of the world December is known for Christmas celebration, Dutch people are extremely excited for Sinterklaas since it is considered to be an official start of the holiday season. Besides the ongoing debate about Zwarte Piet, there is so much more to this celebration.
Who is he?
Sinterklaas is a legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas who is a patron saint of the whole society, and particularly children. He is usually portrayed with a long beard, wearing red miter and holding a staff. The story goes that Sinterklaas lives in Spain with his helpers and they travel to the Netherlands every November to celebrate his birthday. On top of that, Sinterklaas delivers presents for all the children in the Netherlands who behaved well during the year. A different Dutch city is selected each year as the official arrival place of Sinterklaas which is a highly broadcasted event. He and his helpers come on a steamboat on Saturday which is at least three weeks before December 5 so people have enough time to buy presents.
Once Sinterklaas is in the Netherlands children can put their shoes next to the chimney or back door. This is considered to be an invitation for Sinterklaas to come. It is believed that during the night, Sint rides across the rooftops on his horse Amerigo and places little treats in children’s shoes. Traditional sweets for this holiday include chocolate letters, gingerbread men and, of course, kruidnoten & pepernoten. Dutch supermarket shelves are filled with them in the weeks prior to Sinterklaas.
The birthday of Sinterklaas is December 6, however, the main celebration takes place the night before, on 5 December when the gifts are exchanged. In the evening, children sign songs to Sinterklaas and anxiously wait until they hear a knock on the door. A clatter of pepernoten will sound against the window and when the children go and look, a bag filled with presents will be waiting on the doorstep. In order for children to actually believe that it is Sinterklaas bringing gifts, neighbor or parents throughout the Netherlands dress up as Sint to slam on the front door and leave some presents. What is more, there are a lot of special agencies which can supply you with Sinterklaas and Piet.
When the bag with presents has been pulled inside the house each household has its own rules when opening the treats. It may be done by starting with a poem that was left on the package and then playing Sinterklaas games to decide who gets which present. Back in the times, presents consisted of mandarin oranges and chocolate letters whereas nowadays gift-giving went on a completely new level. Interestingly, Dutch people usually make an agreement about how much will be spent on presents ( expenses usually vary between 10€ and 50€ ).
On the 6th of December Sinterklaas leaves the Netherlands by steamboat through the entrance of the port of Rotterdam and travels back to Spain until the next year he comes back again and brings the festive spirit to all the towns in the Netherlands.