In Holland December 5th is the Feast of Sinterklaas, or St. Nicholas, much to the delight of children (and many adults) all over The Netherlands. Sinterklaas or the St. Nicholas’ Feast Day occurs on December 6th, is observed in most Roman Catholic countries but it is only in the Low Countries, especially in the Netherlands, that the eve of his feast day, Sinterklaasavond, (Dec 5th) is celebrated nationwide by young and old, christian and non-christian, and without any particularly religious overtones any more

Although Sinterklaas is always portrayed in the clothes of the bishop he once was, his status as a canonized saint has had little to do with the way the Dutch think of him. We think of him as a kind of benevolent old man, whose feast day is observed by exchanging gifts and making good-natured fun and jokes of each other. St Nicholas did exist, he lived from 271 A.D. to December 6th, 342. As far as is known he died in Turkey and was buried in the town of Myra, near the city of Anatolia, Turkey. After his death, the cult of St. Nicholas spread rapidly around coastal towns along the Atlantic and the North Sea. At one point there were 23 churches dedicated to St. Nicholas in the Netherlands alone, many of which are still standing, and Amsterdam adopted St. Nicholas as its patron saint. After coming here as the saint of sailors he turned into the saint of children. In the 14th century, choir boys of St. Nicholas churches were given some money and the day off on December 6th.

All Dutch children know that Sint Nikolaas lives in Spain. Exactly why he does is a bit of a mystery, but that is what all the stories, old songs and nursery rhymes say. He spends most of the year recording the behaviour of all children in a big red book, while his helper Black Peter stocks up on presents for next December 5th. In the first weeks of November, Sinterklaas gets on his white horse, Piet, swings a huge sack full of gifts over his shoulder, and the three of them board a ship headed for the Netherlands. Around mid-November they arrive in a harbour town, it has to a different one every year, where they are greeted by the Mayor and a delegation of citizens in good standing. After this they parade through the town and this marks the beginning of the “Sinterklaas season”.

Travel By Magic

Then by magic (or quantum physics) the old bishop and his helpmate are suddenly everywhere at once. At night they ride across Holland’s’ rooftops and Sinterklaas listens through the chimneys to check on the children. Piet jumps down the chimney flues and makes sure that the children have left carrots or hay for the horse in their shoes by the fireplace and then exchange it for a small gift or some candy and cookies. During the day, Sinterklaas and Piet are even busier, visiting schools, hospitals, social centers, department stores, cafes, restaurants, offices and many private homes. Piet rings doorbells, scatters sweets through the slightly opened doors and leaves basketfuls of presents by the front door. I was ten before I finally figured it all out and how do they manage to be all over the Netherlands at once! I figured that he had “hulp-Sinterklazen”, or Sinterklaas helpers, who dress up like the bishop and Black Peter and help them perform their duties, this was then confirmed by my parents.

Hand Made Gifts

In our family we were always expected to make a present and not just go out and buy one, having been taught that the thought behind the gift was much more important than the gift itself and when your own hands make a gifts you put much more thought into it. Once made the gift must be wrapped in an imaginative, annoying, or testing way and every gift must be accompanied by a fitting poem. Recipients often have to go on a treasure hunt all over the house, aided by hints, to look for them. They must be prepared to dig their gifts out of the sand pits, to find them in a jelly deserts, in a glove filled with wet goo, almost anything. Working for your presents and working hard to think up other peoples’ presents and get them ready for the big day is what the fun is all about.

It is the spirit of all of this that is the essence of Sinterklaas. FUN is not only allowed but expected. You make fun of everyone and anyone in a friendly way. Children, parents, teachers, employers and employees, friends and co-workers tease each other and make fun of each others’ habits, characteristics and mannerisms.  When you get a present you must open it in front of others and of course the real giver is supposed to remain anonymous because all presents technically come from Sinterklaas, so recipients say out loud “Dank u Sinterklaas” (“Thank you, Sinterklaas!”), even if they do not believe in him.


On the day of the 5th, we head home to tables laden with traditional sweets, biscuits and delicious baked goodies. We always have large chocolate letters, the first initial of each person present to serve as place settings. When my parents adopted my sister and I they had molds commissioned to cast our initials each year in chocolate. As Nina and I adopted and had our children we have done the same. These then share the table along with large gingerbread men and women known as “lovers”. There are fruits, especially mandarin oranges from Spain, pepernoten, speculaas both plain and filled with almond paste chocolate coins and marzipan figures. Newer candy includes kruidnoten which is a type of shortcrust biscuit or gingerbread-biscuits and a figurine of Sinterklaas made out of chocolate and wrapped in painted aluminum foil.

We start eating sweets early in the evening while those gathered take turns unwrapping their gifts and reading their poems out loud so that everyone can enjoy the impact of the surprise. This process is best when the emphasis is on originality and personal effort rather than the commercial value of the gift. In fact a purchased gift can be considered something of an insult as it indicates that the giver does not think much about the other at a time when we should be considered the real value of our relatives and friends.

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