St. Nicholas

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Netherlands

In mid-November Dutch television broadcasts the official entry into the Netherlands of St. Nicholas and his helper Zwarte Piet live to the nation. Coming by steamer from Spain, each year they dock in the harbor of a different city or village. Wearing traditional bishop's robes, Sinterklaas rides into town on a white horse to be greeted by the mayor. A motorcade and a brass band begin a great parade which leads Sinterklaas and his Piets through the town.

Nearly every city, town and village has its own Sinterklaas parade. He usually arrives by horseback, but occaisionally he comes by boat, carriage, moped, or helicopter.

In the following weeks before St. Nicholas Day, December 6, Sinterklaas goes about the country to determine if the children have been well-behaved. He and his Zwarte Piet helpers visit children in schools, hospitals, department stores, and even at home. Bakeries are busy making speculaas, molded spice cookies, for the season.

During this time children sing Sinterklaas songs and put their shoes next to the window or door, or, by the fireplace or heater, along with a nice drawing, a wish-list and a carrot or hay, and maybe a saucer of water, for the horse. If St. Nicholas happens by while checking on their behavior, the next morning children may find chocolate coins or initial letter, candy treats, pepernoten, and little gifts in their shoes. Everyone hopes for sweets, not coal or a little bag of salt. In some families he may stop by every night, but usually just once or several times—and not if the children have been naughty that day or forgot to sing their songs!

The Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas on December 5th, St. Nicholas Eve, with festive family parties when gifts and surprises are exchanged. In the Netherlands, unlike other places, adults as well as children join in the fun. As the Dutch like an element of surprise, a small gift may be wrapped in a huge box, or it may be hidden and require following clues to discover where it is.

Gifts are prettily wrapped in special Sinterklaas paper or they may be hidden, for example, in a potato or an old sock. Each gift, anonymously signed "from Sinterklaas," comes with a clever rhyme that may point out a person's shortcomings in a humorous way. (For the less creative, there are books with suggestions for making rhymes and packaging disguises.) Originality, not value of the gift, is what counts.

Children sing traditional Sinterklaas songs while waiting for the saint to appear. A knock comes on the door and a black gloved hand appears to toss candies and pepernoten inside. Children scramble to gather up the treats. A large burlap bag, "de zak van Sinterklaas," also appears filled with gifts. At the table, decorated with speculaas and other sweets, guests may find their initial in a chocolate letter at their places. Food is apt to include hot chocolate, Bishop's wine, and letter banket.

Sinterklaas, designed by Ron Hendriks
Sinterklaas, designed by Ron Hendriks
St Nicholas Center Collection
Sinterklaas Backpack
Child's Sinterklaas Backpack
St Nicholas Center Collection
Dutch Pencil Topper
Dutch Pencil Topper
St Nicholas Center Collection

The Dutch feast of Saint Nicholas is about giving, for "it is in giving that we receive." The fun is in trying to surprise people, to tease in a well-meaning way, to make a good joke, to produce a rollicking rhyme. The gift itself is just a bonus, as the fun is in the doing.

Sinterklaas is the most important tradition for the Dutch, a 2008 Centre for Dutch Culture survey found. Celebrated the evening of December 5 with traditional tasty foods, it is the main time for family gift-giving. The second ranked tradition is decorating a Christmas tree, followed by Queen's Day, April 30. Blowing out birthday candles and eating raw herring were also in the top ten.


Dutch Sinterklaas Surprises
These are no ordinary presents!
Sinterklaas Comes to Texel
Sinterklaas—One Family's Experience
Living in the Netherlands, emigrating to the USA
Sinterklaas Official National Entry—with Photos
2013: Official National Entry in Groningen, Saturday, November 16, will be telecast live on Dutch national television.
Sinterklaas Arrival in Amsterdam
2013: Sinterklaas will arrive in Amsterdam on Sunday, November 17
The Continuing Evolution of Zwarte Piet Updated!
Dutch Chocolate Letters
Sinterklaas Goes Green! De Groene Sint
Deventer—A Unique Sinterklaas Tradition
More Sinterklaas Visits in the Netherlands
Saintly and Generous: Saint Nicholas and the Low Countries
How Sinterklaas traditions developed
Six to Eight Black Men by David Sedaris
An American humorist tries to understand Dutch Sinterklaas traditions
"Sinter Claes" in Amsterdam
The iconic stone tablet in Dam Square
American G.I.s Assist Sinterklaas
A true story from World War II
Airplanes, not by Steamboat
The RAF plays Sinterklaas
Sinterklaas op bezoek
Exhibit at Museum Catharijneconvent Utrecht
St. Nicholas Monuments in the Netherlands
Statues and images in public places
Rescuing Sinterklaas from Santa Claus in the Netherlands Updated! 

Links
List of Sinterklaas Arrivals, many with web links
An interesting Dutch Sinterklaas site, with information and many images
Dutch Sinterklaas Wrapping Paper, featuring Madelein Duijvestijn's collection of around 4300 giftwraps
 EnSintClopedie de Sinterklaas Encyclopedie in Dutch
Intocht Sinterklaas listed by year and by city from 1952 to the present with photos and video clips

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