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Sinterklaas user guide: from steamboat to sweets

Sinterklaas user guide: from steamboat to sweets


The wonderful evening has arrived

The Dutch pop band Het Goede Doel sang Sinterklaas, wie kent hem niet, (Sinterklaas, who doesn’t know him) in 1982. But this saintly man is not so well known outside the Netherlands and Belgium. In various parts of Europe, a children’s party is celebrated in or around the day of Saint Nicolas’s death (6 December), but often a lot less elaborately than in our region. Steamboat, putting your shoe out at night, making surprise gifts; what exactly are all those traditions? Observant has put together a summarised user guide.


The central figure of the event, Saint Nicolas, was bishop of Myra (Turkey) in the fourth century. He performed various miracles and after his death he became the patron saint of approximately everything and everyone, including pharmacists, archers, unmarried women, merchants, students, lovers, butchers, thieves, murderers, pirates, sailors, and Russia. Children are also on the list, which is why he has been linked to all kinds of children’s parties since the Middle Ages. Just like Santa Claus, he has a big book in which he writes down who has been good and who has been bad. To deliver the presents he travels over the roofs of houses at nighttime on his grey horse Amerigo.


The most sensitive subject around 5 December: (no longer) Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). In 1850, the Amsterdam teacher Jan Schenkman published a picture book with stories about Sinterklaas. In it, he introduced servants who helped the Saint and depicted them as black men in pageboy outfits, including curly hair and red lips. A growing group is experiencing this appearance as an expression of racism. The subject has been a topic of heated debate since 2013. Even the UN became involved, writing a report and advising the Dutch government to abolish negative stereotyping. Opponents protested during Sinterklaas’ arrival, supporters boycotted shops that had portrayed Piet in any other colour than black. Various alternatives were devised, including rainbow Piet who showed all the colours of the rainbow. There is sooty Piet, who was not completely black but just had a few smudges of soot (from travelling up and down chimneys) on their cheeks.

There cometh the steamboat

That same Jan Schenkman also invented that Sinterklaas came from Spain to the Netherlands by steamboat. The arrival, which is a national event, is in a different city every year and has been televised since 1952. In addition, every town has its own arrival of Sinterklaas, where he is festively welcomed by the mayor, music and of course children.

Put something in my shoe

It is said that Piet goes into houses by climbing through the chimney to put presents and sweets in children’s shoes. When there is no fireplace, the shoes often end up beside the radiator. Children sing Sinterklaas songs, leave a carrot for the horse, along with their wish list. That is when the anxiety starts: what will be in the shoe the following morning? Originally, naughty children received a stick, but that tradition has fortunately been abolished due to advancing pedagogical insight.

Presents night

Adults don’t put out their shoes, but exchange gifts. They do so on Presents’ night, 5 December. Shops close a little earlier that day. Large families or groups of friends draw lots a few weeks beforehand. In this way everyone is assigned one person to buy a gift for.

Sinterklaas zat te denken

You can’t have a Sinterklaas gift without a poem. You can always take the easy route and just use a handful of clichés (Sinterklaas zat te denken/Wat hij jou zou schenken) and an online rhyming dictionary, but some extra effort is appreciated. The poem can be about the person who is to receive the gift, a funny event in the past year, or the gift itself. The opportunity is often used to deliver a teasing blow to the receiver.


The gift is wrapped up as a surprise package. Fanatics hang onto shoeboxes and cardboard toilet paper rolls from as early as spring in order to create a steamboat or a chimney. Those who like a mess, add a layer of cotton wool and syrup, into which the receiver will have to put his/her hand in order to get to the gift. Surprise gifts are usually made by children who no longer believe in Sinterklaas. By the time they are adults, making gifts wrapped in papier-mâché will have caused so many traumas that they simply stick to a poem.

Treats hidden in corners

Sweets are inextricably connected to the gentle Saint. Pepernoten (small ginger biscuits), chocolate letters, marzipan and almond pastry letters (puff pastry with an almond-flavoured filling in the centre) are popular. Other treats are schuimpjes (soft sweets), fondant (made from sugar and milk, vanilla or cacao), taaitaai (aniseed biscuit that has been purposely made very chewy), and speculaas (biscuits made from pastry that has been flavoured with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger powder, cardamom and white pepper).



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