As the community manager of the Netherlands I'd like to share an important Dutch family tradition with you, known as Sinterklaas, or St Nicolas.
The 5th of December is the annual celebration of the birthday of Saint Nicolas, even if the day is no longer associated with any religion. For most Dutch people it is the chief occasion to give and receive gifts and get together with their close family. For some it is an even bigger celebration than Christmas. The occasion is also celebrated on a smaller scale in other countries such as Belgium, Germany and France.
Sinterklaas is an old man (nobody knows his age, but he is definitely over a 100 years old) with a long red cape, a mitre, a long gold coloured staff and a big red and gold book that has information about each and every child.
Sinterklaas traditionally arrives each year in mid-November, by steamboat from his home country Spain, accompagnied by his white horse and his ‘Zwarte Pieten’. These Pieten are his black helpers who guide him and help distribute his gifts. He is then paraded through the streets while his Pieten distribute candy and ginger cookies.
Every year he arrives in a different town (this year he arrived in Schiedam) but he is always welcomed by cheering children who sing St Nicolas songs and the whole event is broadcast on live television across the country.
Traditionally, in the weeks between his arrival and December 5, St Nicolas will deliver presents to the children that have been good. Before going to bed, children will put their shoes next to the chimney or fireplace, or anywhere they know the Pieten can get to in the house, and leave a carrot and hay in it for St Nicolas' horse. Children will sing for St Nicolas and in return, they will find (the next day) candy or small presents in their shoes, unless they’ve been bad, in which case they receive nothing. One of the traditional sweets that children receive are large chocolate letters of the first initial of each person present.
The big family celebration of St Nicolas is the gift evening (Pakjesavond) on which the whole family gathers to receive St Nicolas’ presents which are accompagnied by poems. These poems are written by St Nicolas or his helpers and often tease the receiver with bad habits. Adults sometimes will draw names for an event comparable to secret santa in which gifts are to be creatively disguised and accompagnied by poems.
Historically, St Nicolas has been, among other, the patron Saint protecting children and the feast is known to have been celebrated in the Netherlands as far back as the 15th century, when children would receive sweets and there would be markets and fairs on the day.
Today it is the occasion for families to get together. The emphasis is on having fun together, and on the originality and personal effort rather than the commercial value of gifts, which is a big reason why Sinterklaas is deemed an enjoyable event for young and old alike.
As many people nowadays have different ‘families’, many Dutch people celebrate the occasion more than once with different family members.
We’d like to wish everyone a wonderful St Nicolas!