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It’s beginning to look a lot like Sinterklaas…

Grote Straat by Rich B-S (cc) via Flickr

Grote Straat by Rich B-S (cc) via Flickr

If you’re an American, you are probably looking forward to Thanksgiving right now while still eating the last of your Halloween candy. Here in the Netherlands, we don’t have Thanksgiving and Halloween is a ghost of its US self. Instead as soon as it started to get cool the holiday garlands, lights, and candy comes out for the winter holidays. Of course it isn’t as early as it seems to me because in actuality everyone is preparing for Sinterklaas on December 5th and 6th.
 
Since this holiday is new to me as well as some of the people reading this blog, I wanted to share a little bit about what I’ve read and witnessed.
 
 
About the Holiday
Sinterklaas is traditionally the celebration of St. Nicholas’ birthday and it is celebrated in the Netherlands and Belgium. In the tradition of Dutch birthdays where the celebrant provides the cake to share with his or her colleagues, St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Dutch) has decided to give gifts to children who have been good for the whole year. Starting on November 14th, he travels around the Netherlands with his entourage of helpers, Zwarte Piet (Black Peters), to make sure the kids have been good before delivering a bag of gifts on December 5th. On December 6th he heads home to Spain by steamboat where he resides the rest of the year in his castle.
Sinterklaas statue

Sinterklaas statue at the Brusselsepoort

As you might imagine, Sinterklaas is the primary gift-giving holiday in the Netherlands and it is heavily focused on gift-giving for children. Between November 14 and December 5, children will leave out wooden shoes with snacks for Sinter Klaas’ horse and wine or milk for the man himself. In the morning the shoe is filled with small treats. On December 5 the family spends the day together and enjoys a holiday feast. Then a mysterious knock comes on the door and gifts are left in a bag for the children. Adults typically will exchange gifts through a sort of “Secret Santa” method and will usually go out of their way to wrap the gifts fancifully and write a short, rhyming poem about the recipient. Children’s gifts also have a poem attached.
 
Sinter Klaas is quite different in appearance from the Santa Claus I grew up with. He is typically shown to be tall and slim, and dressed as a bishop in red and white. He carries a staff in one hand and his book of names in the other. Images I’ve seen always include a large flowing and frequently curly beard. His helpers, Zwarte Piets, are said to be assistants who came with him from Spain, which explains their renaissance-esque garb, and are the ones who go down the chimney to deliver gifts, which is why they are blacken with soot. The tradition of people dressing up as Zwarte Piet, which includes black face paint and colorful costumes, was shocking to me when I first learned about it. The practice is considered to be all in good fun, but a heated debate over the origins of Zwarte Piet exists.
 
Candy & Decorations

Candy by futurestreet (cc) via Flickr

Candy by futurestreet (cc) via Flickr

Although Sinterklaas is considered to be less commercial than Christmas in the United States, the candy and decorations are the most prominent aspects of the holiday for those of us not living in a Dutch family. Traditional Sinterklaas candy includes chocolate letters, marzipan, sugar animals such as mice and frogs, and geld (chocolate coins). Like the chocolate Easter bunnies, you can also buy huge chocolate versions of Sinter Klaas and Zwarte Piet. Since Maastricht has many chocolate shops, there is no excuse not to find something fun and made from high-quality candy.
 
Non-candy foods for the holiday include speculaas cookies (windmill cookies in the US), almond paste breads, and Oliebollen (which are actually a New Year’s treat). I have even been able to buy holiday cereals with speculaas cookie bits and cranberries.
Sinterklaas decorations

The decorations for the holiday primarily mirror what I am accustomed to seeing for Christmas. The Brusselsepoort has green garlands with upside down “trees” decorated with bulbs. The city has decked out the large shopping streets with garlands hung between stores. Of course there is also the addition of Zwarte Piet figures everywhere much like the elves who work for Santa. Sinter Klaas himself has shown up a few times in the decor but it does not seem to be common to hang his image as frequently as that of his helpers.
 
Activities In & Near Maastricht
I think a big event in Maastricht will be Sinter Klaas’ arrival by steamboat on November 14th at 11 AM followed by a parade through the city. Then from 12:30 to 1:30 PM parents can bring their children to meet Sinter Klaas and his helpers at the Stadhuis. Later he will be meeting kids at the Brusselsepoort shopping center from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. More information about this is available at the Sinterklaas in Maastricht website (Dutch) and at Crossroads (English).
 
Another activity you may be interested in is the Christmas Market held at the Velvet Caves in Valkenburg. Each year a different themed Christmas market is held underground in their marl cave with various foods and handmade crafts. This year the market runs from November 20 through December 22nd which allows plenty of time to find Sinterklaas gifts as well. I am hoping to visit just to see what it is like.
 
Not an activity but something to keep an eye on is the Sinterklaas Journal maintained by NPS (a news station). Here they will be updating news on Sinter Klaas’ travels through the Netherlands leading up to the holiday. (Thank you Ron for the link via Mtricht.com)
 
What About Christmas?
As a primarily Christian country, the Netherlands also celebrates Christmas which is the time when most Americans are accustomed to exchanging gifts. But according to what I’ve read, only about half of the Dutch double dip into the gift-giving practices of both holidays. A tree is still put up and decorated, but Christmas is reserved as a family gathering and religious holiday that doesn’t necessarily need to include gifts.
 
Do you have special activities you participate in for Sinterklaas? Feel free to share them in the comments section. And of course, if I’ve gotten anything wrong, please feel free to comment or e-mail me and I will do my best to correct my error.
 
Bibliography Not Linked Above
Wikipedia: Sinterklaas
Christmas in the Netherlands, 19/12/2008
Sint Comes To Town, 16/11/2008
Sinterklaas Survival Guide, 05/12/2009
 
This blog article is dedicated to NaNoWriMo 2009. Please sponsor me and my goal of write 50,000 words by making a donation to the Office of Letters & Light.

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