Friday, December 5, 2008


Today, 5 December, is Sinterklaas. On the eve of Sinterklaas, Dutch children set out their shoe, wooden klomp, or boot (favored by my kids due to its greater capacity), by the chimney. They fill the shoes with a little hay and a carrot for Sinterklaas’ white horse. If they’ve been good, one of Sinterklaas’ helpers, Zwarte Piet, fills their shoes with a present, some gingerbread cookies called pepernoten, and a chocolate letter.

The painting above, The Feast of St. Nicholas by Jan Havickszoon Steen (1626-1679), hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It depicts the morning of Sinterklaas in a Dutch household. The golden girl, complete with her golden dress, was obviously very good. She got a beautiful doll and a bucket full of goodies. Her older brother was the naughty one. He must have gotten a piece of coal. You can tell this is a Jan Steen painting right away because there is often a happy chaotic feeling to them. There are little round pepernoten strewn on the floor next to the bread basket and I see a huge beautiful, delicious-looking banket, which is almond paste covered in puff pastry, also on the floor(!). There is even a Dutch expression; a “Jan Steen household” is one where the housekeeping is a bit more…shall we say, lax.

What I remember of Sinterklaas in Holland most fondly is that this is the day when we exchanged presents. Yes, it’s very commercial, just like our Christmas, but it left Christmas as a sacred holiday. The Christmas I remember in Holland is similar to our Thanksgiving. It emphasizes sharing a beautiful meal with family and friends and of course, it also celebrates the birth of Jesus.

This time of year street organs ("draaiorgels") all over the Netherlands are playing Sinterklaas songs. Click here to hear a sample.

I adore Sinterklaas songs; there are dozens of famous classic ones. I used to sing them to my kids when they were babies, even when it wasn’t Sinterklaas.

I mentioned Sinterklaas’ helpers earlier. These helpers are palace pages from Morocco, just across the Mediterranean from Sinterklaas’ palace in Spain. They are usually white people wearing blackface and colorful pageboy costumes. When the political climate questioned why white people are masquerading as black, the immediate answer was that Zwarte Piet is black because of the chimney’s soot. All I know is that Zwarte Piet scared the peep out of me; mostly I’m sure because of the unnatural-looking shiny blackface.

Does all of this sound a bit strange to you? Tangobaby gave me a David Sedaris CD several years ago which contained a hilarious gig about the Zwarte Pieten and the rest of the Sinterklaas traditions:

Happy Sinterklaas!

Draaiorgel photo by marielle at Flickr


Here, There, Elsewhere... and more said...

Thanks for sharing - love learning about traditions in other countries..:)

beth said...

thanks for stopping by and saying such nice things on my blog....

and also thank you for this wonderful insight to another country and the traditions celebrated !!!

A Cuban In London said...

I loved your post. It was so interesting to read how you mixed your (happy, I believe) memories of Holland with your current life in the states. I was completely unaware of this holiday. Thanks for such a powerful, cultural insight.

Greetings from London.

tangobaby said...

As soon as I saw this, I couldn't help but start giggling about that David Sedaris story. And here you went and linked to it. Sometimes it's hard to appreciate something seriously when you have David Sedaris on a loop tape in your head. But I am going to try.

I love the photos and your memories.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Here, There, Elsewhere,

Thank you for visiting my blog! I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Dear Beth,

Welcome to my blog! It was fun writing about Sinterklaas.

Dear Cuban,

Yes, I have very happy memories of Sinterklaas in Holland. There are times I wish I could raise my kids there. Does Cuba have any unique holiday traditions?

Dear Tangobaby,

I knew you wouldn't be able to contain yourself; that's why I did the preemptive link to Sedaris' routine ;-)

Elizabeth said...

While I writing a comment to your gratitude & dreams post I saw this post about Sinterklaas. I love sinterklaas. It is the best holiday one can have. We sing a lot of songs, there are pepernoten and schuimpjes. And afterwards suddenly there is a pile of presence. Each year we as parents have to me more and more careful because we don't wanna spoil the believe our sons still have and that is great fun.
By doing this we hope our sons will keep the tradition of sinterklaas even though we don't live in Holland anymore.
Thanks for putting a smile on my face while thinking of it.

Dutchbaby said...

I am sure your sons will keep the tradition going. How could they not? I can buy chocolade letters, pepernoten, banket letters, en dropjes in a Japanese (!) grocery store in the next town over.

Welcome to my blog!

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