Sinterklaas (also called Sint-Nicolaas in Dutch [Pronunciation|Nl-Sint Nikolaas2.ogg] ) and Saint Nicolas in French) is a traditional holiday figure in the Netherlands, Netherlands Antilles and Belgium, celebrated every year on Saint Nicholas' eve (December 5) or, in Belgium, on the morning of December 6. The feast celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of, among other things, children.

It is also celebrated to a lesser extent in parts of France (North, Alsace, Lorraine), as well as in Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and in the town of Trieste and in Eastern Friuli in Italy. Additionally, many Roman Catholics of Alsatian and Lotharingian descent in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A. celebrate "St. Nicholas Day" the morning of December 6th. The traditions differ from country to country, even between Belgium and the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' Eve, (December 5th) is the chief occasion for gift-giving. The evening is called "sinterklaasavond" or "pakjesavond" ("presents' evening"). Traditionally, presents are ingeniously wrapped, and are therefore called "surprises." Also, presents are traditionally accompanied by a poem from Saint Nicholas.

Sinterklaas is the basis for the North American figure of Santa Claus. It is often alleged that, during the American War of Independence, the inhabitants of New York City, a former Dutch colonial town (New Amsterdam) which had been swapped by the Dutch for other territories, reinvented their Sinterklaas tradition, as Saint Nicholas to be a symbol of the city's non-English past. [ [ Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, Santa Claus] ] The name Santa Claus is derived from older Dutch "Sinte Klaas". However the Saint Nicholas Society was not founded until 1835, almost half a century after the end of the American War of Independence. [ [ History of The Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York] ] Moreover, a study of the "children's books, periodicals and journals" of New Amsterdam by Charles Jones revealed no references to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas ("Knickerbocker Santa Claus," New York Historical Society Quarterly, October 1954).


The Sinterklaas feast celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas (280-342), patron saint of children. Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey and became the patron saint of children based on various legends that include resurrecting children from death and saving them from prostitution.

Sinterklaas has a long white beard, wears a red bishop's dress and red mitre (bishop's hat), and holds a crosier, a long gold coloured staff with a fancy curled top. Sinterklaas carries a big book with all the children's names in it, which states whether they have been naughty or nice in the past year.

The temper of Sinterklaas also differs in the some regions of the Netherlands and Belgium. In the Netherlands Sinterklaas is usually a nice, forgiving person. In Belgium, on the other hand, Sinterklaas is less forgiving (like he used to be in the Netherlands). He can be quite severe and takes naughty children back to Spain when they were not nice. "Saint-Nicolas" rides a grey horse.

Zwarte Piet

Sinterklaas is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful outfits, modelled after 16th century Spanish clothing. These helpers are called "Zwarte Pieten" (Black Petes) in Dutch (see below for names in other languages). During the Middle Ages, "Zwarte Piet" was a name for the devil.Fact|date=December 2007 Having triumphed over evil, it was said that on Saint Nicholas' eve, the devil was shackled and made his slave. Although the character of Black Pete later came to acquire racial connotations, his origins were in the devil figure.Fact|date=December 2007 This racialisation is reflected in the reworking of the characters' mythos. From about 1850, Pete was said to be an imported African servant of Saint Nicholas.Fact|date=December 2007 Today however, a more politically correct explanation is given: Pete's face is said to be "black from soot" (as Pete has to climb down chimneys to deliver his gifts). Nevertheless, the tradition has been accused of being racist, and attempts have been made to introduce "Coloured Petes", who are coloured blue, red, etc., instead of black. This phenomenon of "Coloured Petes" was introduced nationally in 2006. The explanation given for this was that "Sinterklaas passed through a rainbow with his boat". [,1] ] This was met with lot of criticism, it being "too politically correct". In 2007 all Petes were just black. In Suriname, a former Dutch colony where people are darker than most Belgians and Dutch people, "Zwarte Pieten" are still often colored.

Traditionally Saint Nicholas only had "one" helper, whose name varied wildly. "Piet" or "Pieter", the name in use now, can be traced back to a book from 1891 [] ] . The idea that Sinterklaas has not one but many helpers was introduced by Canadian soldiers who had liberated the Netherlands during World War II and helped organise the first post-war Sinterklaas celebration.Fact|date=February 2007

In other regions where Sinterklaas is celebrated, like southern Belgium or Northern France, Saint Nicholas has different companions.


Sinterklaas traditionally arrives each year in November (usually on Saturday) by steamboat from Spain, and is then paraded through the streets, welcomed by cheering and singing children [ [ Saint Nicholas Center: Sinterklaas Arrival ~ Amsterdam] ] . Invariably, this event is broadcast live on national television in the Netherlands and Belgium. His Zwarte Piet helpers throw candy and small, round ginger bread-like cookies, "kruidnoten" or "pepernoten", into the crowd. The children welcome him by singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. Sinterklaas also visits schools, hospitals and shopping centres. After this arrival all towns with a dock have their own "intocht van Sinterklaas" (arrival of Sinterklaas). Local arrivals usually takes place on Sunday, the day after he arrives in the Netherlands or Belgium. In places a boat cannot reach, Sinterklaas arrives by train, bus, horse or even carriage.


Traditionally, in the weeks between his arrival and the 5th of December, before going to bed, children put their shoes next to the chimney of the coal fired stove or fireplace, with a carrot or some hay in it "for Sinterklaas's horse", sing a Sinterklaas song, and will find some candy or a small present in their shoes the next day, supposedly thrown down the chimney by a Zwarte Piet or Sinterklaas himself. However, with the advent of central heating children put their shoes near the boiler or even just next to the front door.

Typical Sinterklaas candy is the chocolate letter, the first letter of the child's name made out of chocolate, speculaas (a type of shortcrust biscuit), chocolate coins, a figurine of "Sinterklaas" made out of chocolate and wrapped in painted aluminium foil, and coloured marzipan shaped into fruit, an animal or some other object.

Children are told that Black Pete enters the house through the chimney, which also explains his black face and hands, and would leave a bundle of sticks ("roe") or a small bag with salt in the shoe instead of candy when the child had been bad.

Children are also told that in the worst case they would be put in the gunny sack in which Black Pete carries the presents, and be taken back to Spain, where Sinterklaas is said to spend the rest of the year. This practice, however, has been condemned by Sinterklaas in his more recent television appearances as something of the past. Typical of that time was also the fact that the saint would have the names of every child written down in either his "golden book" (if a child had been good), or his "black book" (if a child had been bad) - very much like Odin's ravens reporting everything in the world to him. The standard joke would be that initially Sinterklaas would not be able to find the name in the "golden book", trying to scare the children. With modern views on child psychology, these practises have been abandoned as well.


Traditionally Saint Nicholas brings his gifts at night, and Belgian and many Dutch children still find their presents on the morning of December 6th. Later in The Netherlands adults started to give each other presents on the evening of the 5th; then older children were included and today in that country sometimes even the youngest on the evening of December 5 (Saint Nicholas' eve), known as "Sinterklaasavond" or "Pakjesavond" ("present evening"). After the singing of traditional Sinterklaas songs, there will be a loud knock on the door, and a sack full of presents is found on the doorstep. Alternatively - some improvisation is often called for - the parents 'hear a sound coming from the attic' and then the bag with presents is "found" there. Some parents manage to "convince" Sinterklaas to come to their home personally.

Presents are often accompanied by a simple poem, saying something about the child or with a hint to the nature of the present.

When the presents are too bulky in size or when the quantity of presents is too large, they have to be sneaked into the house while the kids are distracted.

Another aspect of "Pakjesavond" is writing small poems for gifts to adults. When children grow too old to believe in Sinterklaas, they are introduced to a different form of entertainment on Pakjesavond night, December 5th. People will write small personal poems for friends and family usually accompanied by a small gift or candy. This way it is also entertaining for parents and other adults. Students usually write teasing and embarrassing stories for each other. But this is expected and are received in good spirit.

Sinterklaas in different countries



See also

*Santa Claus
*Saint Nicholas
*Culture of the Netherlands
*Culture of Belgium

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