Sinterklaas could be considered the dutch equivalent of Santa Claus. ehm wait, that's not entirely true, since the name Santa Claus comes from the Dutch name Sinterklaas, so it would be the other way around. Anyway, in The Netherlands most people celebrate Sinterklaas, by giving presents to each other, especially to their kids. This happens on December 5th, supposedly the evening before his birthday. In Belgium, they celebrate it on December 6th, which is the day he died. However, most people think they celebrate his birthday (Witnie pointed out to me that it was the day he died, and only then I remembered that Catholics remember the day their saints died).

The myth involving Sinterklaas is that he rides on his white horse across the roofs of houses, and that his helpers, who are entirely black and therefor called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), climb down the chimneys put presents in people's shoes. In reality, it usually are the parents who put presents in their kids' shoes.

The name Sinterklaas actually comes from Sint Nicolaas (Saint Nicholas), a catholic figure. That's why Sinterklaas looks very catholic.

Saint Nicholas (270-310) was at one time bishop of Myra (modern-day Turkey). He is supposed to have died on December 6 which is why his feast is celebrated on that date (in reality the party is the evening before). He went into the legends for his great generosity, therefore he is the patron of little children and school children.
The feast and celebrations of Saint Nicholas was abolished in some European countries after the Protestant reformation of the 16th century. The Dutch and Flemish however, have preserved this Catholic custom, and small children still await the visit of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) on his white horse accompanied with Zwarte Pieten (black moors in colourful clothes) on the night of December 5.
Adults celebrate this feast too by wrapping a present in something creative (euphemistically: amateur handcraft) that's related to the other's life. Best thing about those silly presents however, is the accompanying poem which should be on rhyme and contain funny as well as sarcastical/cynical personal notes.

And the story goes on...
At the beginning of the 17th century, the Dutch emigrated to the United States, among other places, and founded the colony of New Amsterdam which became New York, iirc 1664. Over several decades, the Dutch custom of celebrating the feast of Saint Nicholas spread to the United States. Sinterklaas quickly became Santa Claus for Americans.

This philanthropist, an old man with a white beard and a long caped red coat/gown, remained, nonetheless, a moralistic figure. He rewarded deserving children and punished the difficult and unruly ones with the roe (= bunch of wooden twigs) and threads to take them back to Spain (I wish the latter were true).

After several decades, Christian society found it more appropriate to bring this children’s festival closer to that of Jesus. Saint Nicholas therefore made his rounds of Christian families during the night of December 24.
The Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas will sound familiar to many people who have grown up with Santa Claus. This isn't strange since Santa actually evolved from Sinterklaas. There are however so many things different, that I thought it would be nice to give the details of what the Dutch get up to in the beginning of December.

The start of the Sinterklaas season
Some time in late November, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands. He comes all the way from Spain on a steam ship, accompagnied by all his helpers (Zwarte Pieten) and his trusty white horse. He also brings a Book and a Sack, the importance of which shall become clear later on. His helpers also each carry a sack, from which they throw candy at the crowds. Sinterklaas' arrival is quite an event, that is usually shown on the evening news. For all those children who can't make it to Amsterdam, Sinterklaas arrives in their home town a few days later. Most towns celebrate the arrival of Sinterklaas and they each hire their own Sinterklaas. For the celebration at my primary school, the Sint used to arrive on a small boat that was normally used for the dredging of the local ditches, with only a few helpers and without his horse. Schools nearby had similar celebrations, leading to the appearance of several people dressed as Sinterklaas at the same time. This happens a lot, as you can imagine, and is usually explained to mystified children by telling them those others are "helping Sints" (hulpsinterklaas) since Sinterklaas himself obviously hasn't time to visit all the schools in Holland. But strangely enough the nearest Sinterklaas is always the Real Thing.

Sinterklaas' peculiar habits
When Sinterklaas has arrived, the good times begin. Sinterklaas rides the roofs at night, on his horse, dispensing presents through the chimney. In the days between the arrival and the actual birthday of Sinterklaas (5th December) children put out their shoes in the evening. They put them next to the chimney, or when there isn't one, in another place that should be reachable from the roof... next to the radiator, for example, near the front door, or in the attic. A carrot is left in the shoe for Sinterklaas' horse, and the kids sing special Sinterklaas songs. Lo and behold, in the morning the carrot has gone and a present has appeared! Typical presents are a chocolate letter (your initial in chocolate), marzipan in silly shapes or a small toy.

At celebration in schools and such, Sinterklaas arrives in his usual manner (in a boat or on his horse, accompanied by as many helpers as possible, each carrying a sack and throwing around candy). He is then seated in a prominent place and handed his Book. In the Book of Sinterklaas, the good deeds and bad deeds of every child are recorded. Good deeds lead to presents. Children who have been bad however, run the risk of being put in the Sack (the same one the presents and candy come from), and having to go to Spain for a year to work for Sinterklaas. However, this seldom happens.
One by one, children are called forward and get to sit on Sinterklaas' knee. They are grilled on whether they have been good, and eventually get a present.

Celebration at home
On the 5th of December Sinterklaas' official birthday is celebrated. (Actually, the 5th of December is the day before his day of death. But hey, that sounds very depressing and anyway, Sinterklaas is still very much alive, of course!)
When there are small children around who still believe in Sinterklaas, the presents should seem to come from Sinterklaas himself. Some people hire someone to play Sinterklaas or ask a kindly uncle to don the suit. When this is not possible, many people strike a deal with a neighbour or something. After a great banging on the door, someone goes to check who it is and finds a sack or big basket, which turns out to be full of presents! Sinterklaas has come and left them at the door, and what a pity that uncle Fred missed it again this year... and why does he have sore knuckles?

Sinterklaas poetry and nasty surprises
For more adult company, where each person has gone through the trauma of finding out that Sinterklaas never existed, the presents are just bought by friends and family. Although everybody knows this, the pretense is still kept that they were brought by Sinterklaas. Much trouble is taken to ensure that the giver remain anonymous. Presents should each be accompagnied by a poem and are often packaged in a surpise wrapping (called a surprise, pronounced in the French way). Sinterklaas poems should be funny, they might allude to the person receiving the present or to the surprise or both. It is perfectly permissible to poke fun at someone's habits or personality in a Sinterklaas poem, which explains the need for anonymity... For example, for someone who has terrible trouble getting up in the morning, a surprise might take the shape of a huge alarm clock made out of cardboard (the actual present hidden somewhere inside), with a poem explaining how this present might enable him to finally arrive at work on time. For people with a less subtle sense of humour surprises containing molasses and cotton wool or presents embedded in plaster are popular.
Sinterklaas poems are notoriously bad, since everyone has to write one and not everybody is a gifted poet, or even a mediocre one... Thus, "Sinterklaasgedicht" (Sinterklaas poem) has become a derogatory term for any bad poetry.

Food and drink Sinterklaas style
Many sorts of Dutch candy are available only during the Sinterklaas season (although this seems to start earlier each year). Speculaas and marzipan, mulled wine, chocolate letters, chocolate coins and pepernoten, all these are mainly available in November and December.

Dag Sinterklaasje!*
After the 5th of December, Sinterklaas leaves the Netherlands again. He goes back to Spain where he uses the rest of the year to make the presents for his next birthday, and the stores are taken over by Christmas....

You can find a picture of Sinterklaas at www.sint.nl

*Bye Sinterklaas!


The Ninjagirls Christmas Special

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