The month of festivities is just around the corner, and for children in the Netherlands, it means: Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas)! Sinterklaas and his servants, ‘Pieten’ (usually painted black), are similar to Santa Claus and his elves. St. Nicholas’ day is actually on the 6th of December, but the main celebrations are on the 5th.
The tradition goes that Sinterklaas and his Pieten travel on a steamboat from Madrid to a city or town in the Netherlands on the second Saturday of November. When the steamboat arrives, Sinterklaas and his Pieten are welcomed by children happily cheering and singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. Then Sinterklaas leads a procession on his white horse Amerigo, while his Pieten throw around candy and small, round, gingerbread-like cookies, called kruidnoten or pepernoten.
Only around this time, you’ll be able to buy Sinterklaas traditional food. You might have seen these already in your local supermarket: the kruidnoten or pepernoten as mentioned before, chocolate letters, chocolate coins and ‘banketletters’ (letter cake), usually the letter S and made from marzipan or pastry filled with almond paste.
Leaving out shoes
Sinterklaas is in town now, so for the children, it means it’s time for presents! But not all children get presents. Children are told that the Pieten keep record of all the things they have done in a big book. Good children will get presents, but naughty children will be taken in a sack to Spain for a year to teach them how to behave, or they will get spanked with a birch rod!
On the evenings, children leave a shoe out by the fireplace or under the windowsill with a letter for Sinterklaas and a carrot or sugar cubes for the horse and hope that Sinterklaas will come during the night and leave some presents. They do this because they’re told that, during the night, Sinterklaas rides on his horse on the roofs and that a Piet will then climb down the chimney or through the window and put presents and candy (usually chocolate coins or a chocolate letter of the first letter of the child’s name) in their shoes.
Now you might wonder, where does this come from?
The legend goes back to the Middle Ages, when Saint Nicholas helped a shoemaker and his three daughters. The shoemaker was too poor to afford a dowry for his daughters to get married. The daughters then planned to walk the streets and raise money as prostitutes. Nicholas heard of this and was very shocked, so he decided to go to their house during the night and throw a purse with coins through the window. According to some stories, this purse landed in the shoe of the eldest daughter. When they found it, they felt blessed, and the eldest daughter could get married.
Time for presents!
The evening of December the 5th is called Sinterklaasavond (St. Nicholas’ Eve) or Pakjesavond (present evening). During this evening, there might be a knock on the door from Sinterklaas, which means, presents (or not)! Usually, treasure hunt games are played with poems and riddles giving clues of where the presents are hidden.
On the 6th of December Sinterklaas and his Pieten (and the naughty children) leave the Netherlands by steamboat and travels back to Spain.
When the children get older, they won’t believe in Sinterklaas anymore. But, they will still celebrate it with family or friends. A custom at the Sinterklaas party, is that everyone puts a note with their name in a hat and then everyone randomly picks another person from the hat. Then they have to make a surprise present and buy presents for the person they picked, and sometimes write a poem.
As a student, you probably don’t have that much time to make a surprise present. So instead of that, you can play a dice game. You can find the rules here, so gather your friends, try the game, and celebrate this day like the Dutch!