Across the land there is much excitement as the Netherlands embark on the feast of Sinterklaas.
In homes and on the streets, every Dutch man, woman and child eagerly awaits the arrival of the Great Sinterklaas!
You can’t move anywhere without tripping over someone’s empty shoe while the whole nation is consuming enough sugar to fuel an entire fleet of jumbo jets! There are hundreds of blackened faced clowns running about and a little forcefully but enthusiastically throwing armfuls of what look like cat biscuits (known as pepernoten, a cinnamon tasting biscuit), to anyone they come into contact with, and it’s a wonder no one looses an eye in all the hectic festivities!
The eve of Sinterklaas, December 5th has been celebrated annually in the Netherlands and Belgium for centuries by young and old, Christian and non-Christian without any religious overtones.
However, unlike the legendary Father Christmas, Sinterklaas did actually exist and was not just an image on the back of the Coca Cola truck! Sinterklaas, a kind bishop who distributed gifts to the poor and also to children, lived from 271 AD to December 6th 342 in the town of Myra, Turkey.
All Dutch children know Sinterklaas lives in Spain, exactly why is one of life’s great mysteries, but all songs and nursery rhymes stipulate that it is his place of residence.
In Spain, throughout the year he will record the behavior of all the children in a big red book, while his helpers, zwarte pieten (black Piet) stock up on presents for the next December 5th.Dutch children at this time of the year are well aware that good behavior is imperative, after all naughty children receive no presents and have to return to Spain in Sinterklaas’s sack, although judging by the cold winds of Northern Europe the temptation to misbehave would be huge, after all Spain is so much more pleasant in December than the Netherlands!
Around mid November, Sinterklaas , his white horse and the Piet’s board a steam ship and set sail to the Netherlands. Every year the “Sinterklaas Team” will arrive in a different harbor town and are usually greeted by the local Mayor. The arrival is always televised and marks the beginning of the Sinterklaas season.
Each night children leave their shoe out along with a carrot for the horse and a small token for either Piet or Sinterklaas, the children normally sing a song to ask for a visit, and in the morning awake in the hope that Piet has climbed down the chimney and has left a gift or some pepernoten will be left behind, which isn’t always the case……..sometimes there is nothing. Some people believe that this is a good way to teach children that they don’t necessarily always get what they want, plus it creates an excitement in the sense of will he or won’t he, which can add to the fun.
Sinterklaas and the Piets can be seen in shopping centre’s, hospitals and departments stores generating high levels of excitement where ever they go, scattering sweets and leaving presents for those who have been good. Unlike Father Christmas who is a sure thing, Sinterklaas creates an air of anticipation amongst children, almost willing everyone to be good.
On the eve of Sinterklaas, families and friends gather together to share gifts, knows as a “surprise”, a secret gift which is camouflaged especially with the person it has been bought for in mind. This gift will be accompanied by a poem which will be written in a humorous way, usually about mannerisms and habits of its recipient. The giver of the gift remains anonymous because all presents come from Sinterklaas. Upon receiving your gift it is the tradition to say “thank you Sinterklaas”, since all gifts are supposed to be only from him.
On the 6th December they return back to Spain. After this date the celebrations of Christmas can then start to take place.
Sinterklaas definitely does not have the same commercial emphasis or pressure on what things cost that Christmas does, and although there is a sense of occasion, there is definitely less hype, the lead up it must be said is somewhat calmer. This celebration tends to concentrate on originality and personal effort rather than the actual cost of the gift. The Dutch tend to keep the tradition of Sinterklaas very close to their hearts, and still celebrate it’s meaning. Sinterklaas is much more celebrated than Christmas is here in the Netherlands.
Father Christmas maybe popular in other parts of the world, but it is Sinterklaas who will always remain in the hearts of the Dutch, and certainly he will never be replaced by Father Christmas