The Feast of Sinterklaas, or St. Nicholas, is an annual event which has been uniquely Dutch and Flemish for centuries. St. Nicholas’ Feast Day, December 6th, is observed in most Roman Catholic countries, primarily as a feast for children, but it is only in the Low Countries – especially in the Netherlands – that the eve of his feast day (December 5th) is celebrated nationwide by young and old, christian and non-christian, and without any religious overtones.
On the night of December 5th, it is traditional for children to leave a carrot, or other food suitable for a horse, in a shoe.
Sinterklaas is always portrayed in the vestments of a bishop, as he once was, but his status as a canonized saint has had little to do with the way the Dutch think of him. He is viewed more as a kind of benevolent old man, whose feast day is observed by exchanging gifts and making good-natured fun of each other.
The legend of St. Nicholas is based on historical fact, he did actually exist, living from 271 A.D. to December 6th, 342 or 343. His tomb, in the town of Myra, near the city of Anatolia in Turkey, has been excavated by archaeologists.
Born into a wealthy family, Nicholas was brought up as a devout Christian and, when his parents died of an epidemic, he distributed his wealth among the poor and became a priest. Later he became Archbishop of Myra, and it is from here that the fame of his good deeds began to spread across the Mediterranean.
Desperate sailors would call upon the Good Bishop to calm stormy seas, victims of persecution prayed to him and he saved young children from the butcher’s knife and dropped dowries into the shoes of penniless maidens.
Gradually, St. Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors, merchants, and, especially, of children. After his death, the cult of St. Nicholas spread rapidly via southern Italy to the rest of the Mediterranean and, eventually, to the coastal towns of the Atlantic and the North Sea.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, Holland saw the building of 23 churches dedicated to St. Nicholas, many of which are still standing. Amsterdam adopted St. Nicholas as its patron saint, and Rome decreed that December 6th, the anniversary of his death, should be his official Feast Day.
St. Nicholas’ strong influence in the Low Countries – heavily involved in trade and navigation – was primarily due to his role as patron of sailors and merchants, but his fame as protector of children quickly took precedence.
In the 14th century, choir boys of St. Nicholas churches were given money and a day off on December 6th and later, pupils of convent schools would be rewarded or punished by a monk dressed up as the Good Bishop, with his long white beard, his red mantle and mitre and his golden crosier – just as he is still represented today.
All Dutch children know that Sinterklaas (a corruption of Sint Nikolaas) lives in Spain. Why he lives in Spain remains a mystery, but all the old songs and nursery rhymes say he does, so who can argue?. In Spain, he spends most of the year recording the behaviour of all children in a big red book, while his helper, Zwarte Piet, stocks up on presents for next December 5th.
In the first weeks of November, Sinterklaas gets on his white horse, Piet swings a huge sack full of gifts over his shoulder, and the three of them board a steamship headed for the Netherlands.
Around mid-November they arrive in a harbour town – a different one every year – where they are formally greeted by the Mayor and a delegation of citizens. Their parade through town is watched live on television by the whole country and marks the beginning of the ‘Sinterklaas season’.
At night they ride across Holland’s’ rooftops and Sinterklaas listens through the chimneys to check on the children’s behaviour. Piet jumps down the chimney and makes sure that the carrot or hay the children have left for the horse in their shoes by the fireplace is exchanged for a small gift or some candy.
During the day, Sinterklaas and Piet visit schools, hospitals, department stores, restaurants, offices and private homes. Piet rings doorbells, scatters sweets through the slightly opened doors and leaves basketfuls of presents by the front door.
In Holland, tradition demands that all packages be camouflaged in some ‘imaginative’ way, and that every gift be accompanied by a fitting poem. This is the essence of Sinterklaas for the Dutch, lots of fun on a day when people are not only allowed, but expected, to make fun of each other in a friendly way.
hildren, parents, teachers, employers, employees and friends tease each other and make fun of each others’ habits and mannerisms. Another part of the fun is how presents are hidden or disguised.
Recipients often have to go on a treasure hunt, aided by hints, to look for them. They must be prepared to dig their gifts out of the bin, find them in a glove filled with mud or other strange hiding place. It’s what the day is all about.
The original poem accompanying each present is another old custom and a particularly challenging one. Here the author has a field day with his subject (the recipient of the gift).
Mannerisms, love interests, embarrassing incidents, funny habits and secrets are all considered fair game. The recipient, the butt of the joke, has to open his or her package in public and read the poem aloud ! The giver is supposed to remain anonymous – all presents technically come from Sinterklaas, recipients say out loud ‘Thank you Sinterklaas!’.
On the day of the 5th, most places of business close earlier than normal and the Dutch head home to a table laden with the same traditional sweets and baked goods eaten for St. Nicholas as shown in the 17th-century paintings of the ‘Old Masters’.
Large chocolate letters – the first initial of each person present – serve as place settings. They share the table along with large gingerbread men and women, known as ‘lovers’, and a basket filled with mysterious packages.
Early in the evening, the sweets are eaten while those gathered take turns unwrapping their gifts and reading their poems out loud. The emphasis is on originality and personal effort rather than the commercial value of the gift.