Meet the “real” Saint Nicholas!

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He is on his way! He travels by boat – a large steamboat – from Spain to the Netherlands. Of course his helpers – “Zwarte Pieten”, Black Petes, since their faces are black from soot – travel along, in their bright colored outfits and funny hats with feathers.

It’s half November, and a very welcome guest arrives today! Sinterklaas – or Sint Nikolaas, Saint Nicholas – honors us once again with his visit. He will stay in Holland until December 6th, when he will silently “travel back” to his castle in Spain.

After being welcomed on the town square of Alkmaar by the Mayor, Sinterklaas shakes hands with many children
The Black Petes, with their faces “black as soot” (from the chimney) entertain the crowd by dancing, doing acrobatics, making jokes, giving “pepernoten” to the children

A huge staged play

The whole country participates in the celebration of the “The good Saint”. Well, at least all the children. And their parents, of course, whether they like it or not – since there is a daily news show on national television, “Het Sinterklaasjournaal”, which reports all the adventures the Saint and his helpers experience during their trip to Holland and their stay in the “Sinterklaas Residence”. And every year something always goes wrong. The Petes forget the presents, or the book of Saint Nicholas gets lost, or the steamboat gets into a storm, or one of the Black Petes gets homesick and decides to navigate the boat back to Spain, or….

Well, somehow a new story is invented every year. And the whole country seems to be part of this huge staged play, in which the “bishop from Spain” is welcomed every November, to stay in the Netherlands for about a month, bringing presents to all the children. And although it remains exciting whether or not everything will turn out all right in the end, when December 5th comes all the children will find a large sack full of presents outside the door – and if they’re really lucky, Saint Nicholas will pay them a visit in person that night.

After his welcome ceremony, Saint Nicholas rides on his horse through town, accompanied by the Mayor of Alkmaar
This “Black Pete” walks on a giant ball in the middle of the crowd

The legend of Saint Nicholas

Although his appearance is somewhat different from the American “Santa Claus”, of course the idea behind these two imaginary figures is quite similar. The American Saint Nick is in fact based on our “Dutch” Saint Nicholas whose name day we celebrate in the beginning of December, although Santa comes from the North Pole whereas our Saint Nicholas comes from Spain – well, officially he lived in Myra, Turkey.  The North Pole Santa travels by sleigh through the sky, pulled by reindeer, while Sinterklaas rather rides his white horse, “Amerigo”, who also manages to jump over the roofs. Because there are boots down the chimney that have to be filled with presents and candy, chocolate and “pepernoten”!

Of course the “real” Saint Nicholas died over a millennium ago, and many ideas and stories around him are just as imaginary as the ones concerning “Santa Claus”. Nicholas was a Greek bishop who lived in the fourth century, and he was known for his legendary habit of secret gift-giving. Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker, and he was proclaimed a Saint after his death. To honor his remembrance, people started to celebrate his name day – although officially on December 6th – on the evening before – December 5th, “Saint Nicholas’ Eve” (Sinterklaasavond) – with the giving of gifts.

You can read about the “real” Saint Nicholas in this beautifully illustrated children’s book: Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend.

My boys get a handful of “pepernoten”

Filling shoes

Although many Dutch children believe in Sinterklaas in the same way American children believe in Santa, I never made it a secret that he isn’t real. My kids know mom and dad fill their shoes. That we buy the presents… But when he “arrives” in the Netherlands, of course they still want to see him and meet him! It doesn’t matter that he is a dressed up guy – it’s still a fun cultural tradition, and an exciting one for the children. That’s why we went to the nearest town on November 18th, to celebrate his arrival.

And tonight, the children can place their shoes near the chimney. Actually, we don’t have a chimney, so they can place them next to the door. And if they do their best to sing “Sinterklaas” songs, perhaps they might find a handful of “pepernoten” and a small present in their shoes the next day. The bigger presents will arrive on December 5th, Saint Nicholas’ Eve… So they have to be patient a little while longer.

What do you think of this Dutch tradition? How do you deal with “Santa” during the Christmas season?

– Anne

Drawing a picture for Sinterklaas
The drawings and a carrot (for the horse of Saint Nicholas) in the shoes
Shoes filled with pepernoten and a little present


  • Andy

    November 30, 2017

    Your children are so fortunate to be able to experience this cultural version of Santa!

    • Anne

      December 1, 2017

      Yes they love every bit of it! Thank you for your comment 🙂


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