In Belgium, Germany and Holland the festivity of Sinterklaas is celebrated in December.
Because I'm Dutch I'll try to give a description of this happening the way it is celebrated in the Netherlands. Over here it's simply called "Sinterklaas" and it is the birthday celebration of Saint Nicolas.
In my country Sinterklaas is the most important celebration after Christmas (and I bet for a considerable amount of Dutch people the most important celebration). The birthday of this wise and gentle bishop is on December 6, but in Holland Sinterklaas is celebrated on the night before: December 5.
The popularity of this remarkable figure is probably based on the fact that Sinterklaas gives presents on his birthday in stead of receiving them.
Sinterklaas is primarily a festivity for small children up to the age of seven, because they believe Sinterklaas is a real person.
It's no wonder children love Sinterklaas so much. As long as he is in Holland, they get candy and presents in their shoes every night in change for a song and sometimes a carrot for the horse of Sinterklaas.
Retailers love it too, because the whole event is a boost to their yearly revenue.
Still of the Arrival of Sinterklaas 2011 in harbourtownDordrecht.
The Arrival of Sinterklaas
On a Saturday afternoon in the middle of November, around 12:00 O'clock, about two weeks before his birthday, the Saint arrives on a steamboat with a bunch of servants in a picturesque typical Dutch town, that looks good o.n television. It's always a town near the sea, a canal or river, because of the steamboat: water must be near.
The event is known as the Intocht van Sinterklaas.
The steamboat is supposed to be filled with presents, candy and clementines (a seasonal fruit from Spain).
The servants are called Pieten (Petes).
The Pieten in reality are adults who made their faces black and wear black mittens. Nowadays they use make-up, but in the paste they used charcoal or shoepaste.
The arrival of Sinterklaas is broadcasted extensively on television.
After the broadcast is over, there is, in almost every Dutch town, a procession with Sinterklaas riding on horseback, surrounded by his servants.
The Sinterklaas Journaal
In the period, starting shortly before his arrival and ending on the night before his birthday (Pakjesavond), Sinterklaas encounters many adventures in the television program Het Sinterklaasjournaal, that is broadcasted daily.
In this program every year one or more of these disasters happen:
Sinterklaas gets lost
The steamboat gets lost
A Pete gets lost
Several Petes get lost
The white horse gets lost
The book of Sinterklaas gets lost
The presents get lost
The festivity threatens to go down the drain, but fortunately in the end all lost persons and objects are found and everything turns out well.
Riding on Roofs
In the two weeks preceding his birthday, Sint has a lot to do.
At night he rides his horse over the roofs of houses, accompanied by his servants.
In the houses, the children put their shoe near the chimney every night - sometimes with a carrot for the horse -, before they go to bed. They sing the Sinterklaas songs through the chimney pipe, so Sinterklaas, who is at that moment on the roof, can hear them.
During the night, when the children are sleeping, the pieten descend 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.
In the Sinterklaasjournaal of 2010 a cuddly, temporary character was introduced: babypiet, who of course was lost (and found).
Who is Sinterklaas?
Sinterklaas or Saint Nicolas was originally a Catholic bishop, living in Mira, Turkey. That territory was part of the East Roman Empire at the time.
Today he is still a bishop, but now he lives in Mira, Spain.
The bishop was proclaimed a saint, because of several miracles he performed.
Sinterklaas has long white hair and a beard. He wears a red
bishop garment (tabberd in Dutch), with a white dress underneath and a head dress called a mijter. He holds a golden staff and rides a white horse.
Another attribute of his is a large book with a Roman Catholic cross on it, in which the names of all children and adults are written, together with accounts of their behavior in the past year. The important question is, did they behave good or bad?
When Sinterklaas comes along for a visit, the book is handed over to him by Pete, after the bishop is seated in the most beautiful chair around.
When the Saint arrives in Holland we're deeply into autumn. The weather is often cold, with rain and storm.
At this time of year it's dark at 17:00 hours pm. The last emission of Britsh gardening program Gardeners World is usually around a week before his arrival, so it is a time of year when all garden activities have come to an end.
Sinterklaas is associated with the sea, children, lovers and prostitutes, money, Spain, tangerines, clementines, darkness, night, presents, roof tops and a white horse.
Boogiemen and -women
Not long ago Sinterklaas and Piet were boogiemen: figures, used by adults to scare children to behave well.
When I was small (1953-1960) Sint still had a stern aspect. I definitely was afraid of Sinterklaas and Piet.
At that time, when children behaved badly, they were
threatened that Sint would take them
with him to Spain in the sack of Piet.
Another punishment was to be beaten by Pete with the 'roe'; a bunch of branches tied together. The roe is an utensil, used by chimney sweepers to clean chimneys.
Or instead of a present, they would get a bag with salt.
These things never happened, although occasionally in school some 'bad' children were asked to appear before Sinterklaas and were reprimanded to set an example.
Nowadays punishment is not given anymore and children are no longer afraid of Sinterklaas
and his valet. They regard Sinterklaas rather as a very sweet old gentleman, that gives presents and his valets as
funny guys, throwing candy.
The Servants of Sinterklaas
The Sint is accompanied by valets, who throw candy, perform acrobatic tricks and act funny. These are men and women who made their faces black; originally with the soot from chimneys, but nowadays with make-up.
They are all called Piet (Pete, Pedro) and are most of the time in a good mood and funny and like to tease.
The Petes carry a large sack with them around. This sack contains candy or presents, but it is also used to carry bad children off to Spain. Also the Pieten carry a bunch of twigs, called a roe.
The Petes may be black, because they were originally chimney sweepers. Chimney sweepers used a roe to clean chimnies and were up on the roof.
Watch the chimney sweepers dance from the movie Mary Poppins:
The Horse of Sinterklaas
The horse of Sinterklaas is white. It doesn't have any trouble riding over rooftops.
Still from the NTR life broadcast 'De Intocht van Sinterklaas', Saturday, November 13, 2010 from 12:00 hours:
Sinterklaas rides on his horse through the streets of harbourtown Harderwijk.
The part of the horse is splendidly performed by Amerigo - in 2010 29 years old -, a retired police horse.
The Night of Sinterklaas
In the Netherlands the festivities of Sinterklaas culminate on the night of December 5. The two weeks before were just a prelude with candy and presents put into shoes. At this particular
night the really expensive and important presents will be distributed. This night is called Pakjesavond (Evening of Presents).
On December 5, the day before the birthday of Sinterklaas, the activities of Sint and his helpers are intensified. They appear more often everywhere.
In many families Sinterklaas and Piet bring a visit that night.
On the evening of December 5 Sinterklaas rides with his horse as usual over the roofs of the houses, accompanied by petes. Poor Sinterklaas: riding with his horse over the roof tops in terrible weather. While the children downstairs sit cosy and warm next to the central heating singing songs and drinking hot chocolate, a valet puts a sack filled with presents at the frontdoor and rings the bell or knocks on the door ...
Ofcourse the youngest child of the family must go and fetch the sack.
The birthday of
Sinterklaas is on the 6th, but by then the saint is on his steamboat heading back to Spain. On December 6 Sinterklaas, servants and horse have all dissapeared instantly and completely: gone back to Spain on his boat.
Since 2012 Sint doesn't dissapear mysteriously. Parents complained, because their children were traumatised by the fact that Sint was gone without saying goodbye. On the website of the Sinterklaas Journaal you can watch a movie in which is explained that Sinterklaas returns on his boat to Spain.
Children and Grownups
In reality it's not Sinterklaas, that gives the presents, but the grownups, but children do not know this.
Children up to
about 7 years believe in Sinterklaas. Beyond that age inconsistencies are being
noticed and slowly the believe subsides. Such an inconsistency is, for instance, that on the
night of December 5 it's possible to encounter various Sinterklaases outdoors, while there
should be only one. 'Hired' Sinterklaases and petes hurry from one family to another to
perform the roles of Sinterklaas and Pete at the festivity.
Another inconsistency may be, that the beard of
Sinterklaas doesn't look real, but seems to be made out of cotton wool. Or that the
Sinterklaas who visited school yesterday had brown eyes, while the one bringing a house
visit today has blue ones.
It's very enjoyable for the grownups to look at little children, who believe in
Sinterklaas. The children are completely carried away by their love and admiration for
this nice old person, that looks so beautiful and gives wonderful presents. Therefore
Sinterklaas festivities with little children are great fun.
But grownups give each other presents too. It's not necessary to give expensive gifts. Here it's originality that counts. Sinterklaas presents are preferably wrapped in a special
way and preferably are accompanied by a funny poem. A present can take the form for instance
of the large book of Sinterklaas, in which the name of naughty children are written down.
In the poem, which is always signed by 'Sint' or 'Sinterklaas', the receiver of the
chastised and teased for his character failures and the stupid things he has done during this last
year. The receiver must read the poem aloud and this causes always much
The Sinterklaas candy is dispersed by Piet, who keeps the candy in the sack.
meijers (speculaas dolls)
chocolate animals and animals of sugar
tangerines or clementines (appeltjes van oranje): a fruit, that you can only get in this time of year and is coming from Spain.
If you like to make this candy, here are some recipes. I haven't tried these, so I don't know if they are any good.
There are a lot of Sinterklaas songs, that every Dutch child learns to sing. The songs are sung to celebrate Sinterklaas. When the children put their shoes in front of the chimney before going to bed, they sing a song to Sinterklaas.