Sinterklaas, the Saint Nicholaas celebration, on December 5, is a strictly Dutch tradition. No other country has anything quite like it. Sinterklaas is both the name of the guy to the left and the name of the whole tradition.
The idea is that Sinterklaas, dressed in bishop’s garb and riding a white horse, travels by steamboat from Spain–where he lives the rest of the year–to Holland a few weeks before December 5. This event is captured on national television.
Between his arrival in the country and December 4, he visits lots of cities and towns, where he is greeted by the population.
The evening before Sinterklaas, children place one of their shoes in front of the fireplace. Or anywhere else if there’s no fireplace. Just like Santa, Sinterklaas manages to get in somehow.
The shoes–or clogs if you’re a real traditionalist–are stuffed with carrots and hay for the horse, and sometimes a wishlist for Sinterklaas. The next morning it’s obvious that Sinterklaas and his helpers have been during the night, because the carrots and hay are gone, and the shoes are stuffed with Sinterklaas candy.
On the evening of December 5, Sinterklaas rides across the rooftops on his horse, followed by his helpers, who deliver a big bag of presents to each family. Neither Sinterklaas nor his helpers are ever caught doing this.
The entire family is together in the living room, in great anticipation, and doing board games or having dinner to while away the time, or stuffing themselves with speculaas, pepernoten and hot chocolate. Then the doorbell rings or you hear a loud knock. Children squeal in delight and run to the door, where sure enough, a big bag of presents awaits.
Sometimes the children get a quick glimpse of Sinterklaas’s helper’s gloved hand coming from around a corner or the kitchen, throwing candy all over the place. But when the kids go and look, there’s nobody there. Just Grandpa who was just getting some coffee and who somehow missed the whole thing.
Silly old Grandpa!
It’s a lot of fun, with as much build-up to the big date as Christmas has here in America. There are special Sinterklaas candy, pastries and cookies, as well as Sinterklaas songs.
Some families with older children draw names and they make elaborate gifts or bought gifts, but in elaborate packaging called surprises, that can take weeks to create.
The house smells of papier mache and wood shavings and every member of the family has hiding spots. Bedrooms are strictly off limits to anyone but the legitimate occupant; secrecy and mystery galore.
School homerooms and most workplaces also have Sinterklaas celebrations with surprises.
The surprises are opened one at a time, and this can take a while; the unwrapping often involves all sorts of jokes, snares and challenges. These surprises are usually accompanied by poems in which the giver–sort of a Secret Sinterklaas–teases the recipient. All in good fun, though.
So much for how the date is celebrated. The tradition has been in the news lately; the UN has even weighed in. Tomorrow I’ll tell you why and I’ll give my take on things.