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About Sinterklaas in the Netherlands

This year, Sinterklaas will arrive in The Netherlands on Saturday the 14th of November and the whole country – children and adults! – will celebrate it.

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Sinterklaas (also known as Sint Nicolaas or Sint Nikolaas, Saint Nicolas in French, Sankt Nikolaus in German) is the traditional Winter holiday figure celebrated in the Low Countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, as well as French Flanders (Lille) and Artois (Arras).

He usually comes by steamboat (stoomboot) from Spain together with his assistants, the Zwarte Pieten, and his horse, Amerigo.

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He  parades through the streets, welcomed by cheering and singing children.You can follow this event live on national television in the Netherlands and Belgium. The Zwarte Pieten throw candy and small, round, gingerbread-like cookies, either kruidnoten or pepernoten into the crowd. The children welcome him by singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. You can find the songs online on several sites. 

The period between his arrival and the 5th December, when Pakjesavond or Sinterklaasavond is celebrated, is very important in the Netherlands. Sinterklaas will visit children in schools, hospitals, department stores and sometimes even at home. Children will follow him online and during the Sinterklaasjournal.

These are very busy weeks for children and parents, as well as for Sinterklaas and his helpers. Starting on his arrival mid November, children use to put shoes next to the fireplace chimney, a window or even in front of the main door or next to the central heating unit – every evening before going to bed. – This tradition is called “Schoenen zetten“.

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The children leave a carrot and some hay in the shoe and sometimes even a bowl of water nearby as gifts for the horse of Sinterklaas, Amerigo. Then they sing some Sinterklaas songs. – As a sign that Sinterklaas did check on their behaviour during the night, they will find some candy, pepernoten or a small treat in their shoes the next morning. Not always, but most of the time…

The weeks preceding his birthday, Sinterklaas has a lot to do. At night he rides his horse over the roofs, accompanied by his servants. During the night, when the children are asleep, the Pieten come down the chimneypipe to take away the carrot and put some candy for the children in return. – At daytime, Sinterklaas is invited to television programs, radio stations, and visits schools and institutions for the elderly.

The weeks before Sinterklaas’ birthday (the 6th December) are a prelude with candy and presents and they culminate on the night of December 5. During the day, on the 5 December, the activities of Sinterklaas and his helpers are intensified. They can be spotted everywhere (even on roofs!).

Pakjesavond on the 5th of December

In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is celebrated on the 5th December, and family and sometimes friends gather together for pakjesavond. Children sing traditional Sinterklaas songs and drink hot chocolate while waiting for the Zwarte Pieten knocking on the door and delivering a large burlap bag, de zak van Sinterklaas, filled with gifts.

The children receive typical Sinterklaas treats, like a chocolate letter (it’s the first letter of the child’s name made out of chocolate) or a letter-shaped pastry filled with almond paste. Sometimes they get mandarin oranges, pepernoten, kruidnoten or speculaas, chocolate coins and marzipan figures. Poems accompany bigger gifts as well.

Instead of gifts being brought by Sinterklaas, adult family members draw names for an event comparable to Secret Santa. Gifts need to be creatively disguised – Dutch use the French word surprise for this – and they are usually accompanied by a humorous poem which often teases the recipient for well-known bad habits or other character deficiencies. – By the way, everyone receives such humorous poems: children and adults. And these poems are read out in front of everyone, which makes Sinterklaas a very funny and even more special event, because  the Dutch Sinterklaas celebration is about giving and the fun is in trying to surprise people, to tease in well-meaning way and to make a good joke. – At the end, adults and children thank Sinterklaas by saying out loud “Dank U wel, Sinterklaas!

On the 6th December, Sinterklaas is already heading back to Spain in his steamboat and servants and horse magically dissapear… tot het volgende jaar! (until next year!)

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