Sinterklaas – the official start of the Christmas season in the Netherlands

Christmas is the time of the year when traditions come alive. Quite literally taken, in the Netherlands one tradition comes alive in the form of a huge parade revolving around this one white-bearded man (no hipster or Movember participant!) horseback riding through Dutch cities on a white horse, surrounded by all his assistants called Piet (which is the Dutch version of Peter). His name is Sinterklaas (not to be confused with Santa Claus!)

For someone who did not grow up in the Netherlands like me, the story of Skruidnoteninterklaas is a bit confusing, but nevertheless, one of the nicest traditions and simply the best start of the winter season. It’s also the time when supermarkets start offering delicious pastries, like peper- or kruidnoten (gingerbread cookies, also partly covered in chocolate > tasty!!).

The story of Sinterklaas is told like this: Sinterklaas, a wise old man with a long white beard, spends his life basically in sunny Spain. However, in November he feels the urge to travel to the Netherlands on a boat with all his assistants named Peter and his white horse Amerigo, to bring all Dutch children presents, in case they were nice throughout the year. Sinterklaas is also known as the Holy Saint Nikolas in some countries. The celebration of his arrival which is going to take place this weekend (November 15) is called SinterklaasintocSint-intocht-bootht.

His assistants are usually blackened with soot (therefore they are also called Zwarte Piet (=Black Peter)), due to sliding through the chimney, which brought about a heated debate about racism in recent years. From this year on, his assistants will therefore have multiple skin colours.

In Utrecht, Sinterklaas starts his ‘tour’ on a boat at the Oudegracht and continues his way later on his horse Amerigo through the city. Last year, about 35.000 visitors attended and celebrated the Sinterklaasintocht. I can only recommend to all of you to attend this unique event because you will get into the Christmas mood by a beautiful Dutch tradition.

Side Note: December 5th is the official Sinterklaas day when children receive their gifts by Sinterklaas, who is believed to distribute the gifts sinterklaasinto the children’s shoes (also by help of his assistants) by riding his horse on the rooftops of the houses at night. Sounds quite spectacular, right? So, if you see someone riding a horse on rooftops with a bunch of people sliding down chimneys at night, trust me, it’s not the alcohol you’ve consumed causing hallucinations, but it’s the real deal, the real Sinterklaas!

On the evening of December 5th then, the Dutch exchange gifts (which have been drawn by lots) and creative poems. People usually celebrate this evening with their family members and it’s surprisingly a bigger, more important celebration than Christmas day on December 24th. So, one good advice: surprise your Dutch friends with a gift (and maybe even a poem) on December 5th to be the ultimate Dutch expert.

By Alissa Geiger

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