What is Sinterklaas, you ask? Well, it is one of the most beloved Dutch holidays, and it’s full of tradition. Most people outside of the Netherlands have never heard of the phenomenon, and assume it’s like the Santa Claus we know and love in North America. …Not quite.
April Winchell, the author of the hilarious blog Regretsy (making fun of crafting rejects from the website Etsy since 2009), visited Amsterdam last month and wrote a little tongue-in-cheek explanation of the confusing/controversial Sinterklaas traditions from an outsider’s perspective, some of which I’ll quote here:
“Sinterklaas is the Bishop of Spain. Or he may be the Bishop of Turkey, and just summers in Spain, but we’re not clear on the details. The main thing is, he dresses like Santa Claus dressed as the Pope. Sinterklass has a helper named Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). When I say helper, I mean slave, but no one says that. But come on.
Black Peter is portrayed by actors in black face. Even black actors wear black face. He has really exaggerated red lips and big eyes, and no one seems too worked up about it. Of course in recent years, some efforts have been made to make it seems less racist, mostly by pretending that Peter’s face is black because he’s a chimneysweep. No one is buying it, but everyone is so stoned it’s hardly worth arguing about.
Sinterklaas arrives by boat into the Netherlands around the end of November. They have a big parade and everyone laughs and sings as the Bishop of Turkey/Spain is escorted from his yacht by his black slaves/helpers. After this happens, people say “he is in the country.”
In the week that follows, Sinterklaas visits all boys and girls and leaves a piece of chocolate in your shoe every day, provided you’ve been good. If you’ve been bad, he beats you with a stick and throws you in a sack, and forcibly takes you back to Spain. So it’s really in your best interest to do your chores.”
Anyways, so those are the basics of Sinterklaas. (Still want more? An awesome blog called “Stuff Dutch People Like” has a fun little Q&A post about it here!) To a typical Canadian some of this Sinterklaas stuff might sound a bit unusual, but the Dutch are very proud of this holiday and all of the traditions and magic that comes along with it.
To celebrate Sinterklaas, Michiel and I went to his parents’ place for the weekend and his sister Inge came from Brussels too. As tradition goes, everyone sits around and opens presents one by one, accompanied by a Sinterklaas poem that is read aloud. (I’ve heard that these poems are typically a nice venue for family members to lightly ridicule one another for their shortcomings!) This year’s poems were sweet and heartwarming though :)
Inge was my “Secret Santa” (as it’s known in Canada) and she gave me a wonderful cookbook called The Bread Bible, as well as a t-shirt from Berlin! Michiel’s mom also gave me some adoooorable giant doggy slippers that I’ve been wearing ever since. Here are some pictures of everyone unwrapping their presents!