What do you know about Sinterklaas? (the Dutch Santa Claus)
In the Netherlands Sinterklaas is considered to be the most important holiday. Still; because there is some competition, like Christmas. Or, in recent years, Halloween.
But how do you experience this if you’re in the Netherlands but you’re not from there?
First the basics; what do most people know before coming here?
What do you know about Sinterklaas?
Most people who visit the Netherlands know something about this man.
Of course you can hear the similarities between Santa Claus and Sinterklaas.
And, yes; Santa Claus is the American version of the Sinterklaas we know. But how did Sinterklaas end up as Santa Claus?
How did Sinterklaas change to Santa Claus?
There are different theories about this. But it’s known that the Coca-Cola Company played a major part in the development.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Maybe you know that the Dutch went around the world in the 16th century. Dutch immigrants settled in New York in the mid-sixteenth century, and they took the phenomenon Sinterklaas with them. ‘Sinty Claus’ as English-speaking children soon called him.
Haddon Sundblom signed for the first public appearance of Santa Claus, commissioned by the Coca-Cola Company. The brand wanted to promote the drink around Christmas, and what was more obvious than to use Santa Claus.
Still the story goes around that Sundblom designed the modern image of ‘Santa’. But … by this time, Santa Claus had already been reduced to one standard type: fat and jovial, with a moustache, beard and pink cheeks.
Where can you see him?
Foreigners who don’t have much interest in this tradition still see him in the Netherlands.
For example at the intocht. The intocht is the moment Sinterklaas arrives on his boat (pakjesboot 12) from Spanje, with all his gifts, his helpers, his horse and his book.
There is one official intocht. This one is broadcast and watched by a lot of people. And these viewers aren’t only children.
In the weeks prior to his arrival there’s a Sinterklaas journaal, which is a story about Sinterklaas. And like a foreigner says in the video, there is always something wrong.
Spoiler alert: in the end it always ends well and he arrives with his boat on time.
Not only do you see Sinterklaas on television; he’s also in the supermarkets. During this period typical Dutch Sinterklaas food is sold in the supermarkets.
Typical food that we eat during the Sinterklaas period:
- chocolade-letters (you usually get the first letter of your name in your shoe, unless it is sold out)
- marsepein (marzipan)
- speculaas (a type of biscuit)
- taaitaai (another type of biscuit)
For a lot of children, the 5th of December is the highlight of the year. Then its pakjesavond; a pakje is another word for a present wrapped in paper. Children get a bag full of presents.
This is typically for families with children. But don’t worry. If you’re older and without children there is still a way to celebrate Sinterklaas.
Sinterklaas: What things do you do when you are older?
People who decide to celebrate the evening together draw names, for example a group of friends or student houses. And the name you draw is the one you need to give a present to. But you should include a poem, a Sinterklaasgedicht.
About Zwarte Piet – In short: who is Zwarte Piet (Black Pete)?
What is the problem? A celebration where a white man is the boss of black men who do the work, is controversial. Especially if you consider that Dutch black people have their historical roots in slavery.
One part of the population wants to change the Zwarte Piet or give him other colours. The other part wants to stick to tradition.
‘It’s a tradition’
The argument that people use in favour of Zwarte Piet is that it’s an innocent, children’s, traditional celebration. Let’s keep it ‘gezellig’ and don’t change it. Also Black Pete is black from the soot of the chimney. Another argument is that everybody grew up loving Black Pete and you cannot call everybody racist.
People against Zwarte Piet view him as a legacy of slavery. It shows the racist aspect of our society, and with this we are keeping it alive. An example is dark-skinned people being called Black Pete.
‘I don’t know if Zwarte Piet is racist’
Although the news and social media are filled with opposite and polarized opinions, there is also a big group in the middle.
A big part of the Dutch population isn’t as radical as the two opposites.
They feel it’s a tradition, but in recent years it seems it has to change. But they also feel it isn’t possible in one day. So, slowly moving towards a different-coloured Pete or Sooty Pete is not a problem for these people.
What do I think?
Since 2011 there has been a lot of demonstrations. Historically, the Dutch are known for being open and tolerant. I think the debate could be less heated and hopefully this tradition will develop into one big party which everyone can enjoy.
Sinterklaas and Christmas
So it’s normal in the Netherlands to give presents and write poems for each other on Sinterklaas. In many other countries these traditions are for Christmas. That’s not really the case in the Netherlands. Christmas in the Netherlands is more about being together with your family and eating big meals.
Bart de Pau
online Dutch teacher & founder of the Dutch Summer School & Dutch Winter School