Saint Nicholas is also known as Sinterklaas in The Netherlands and he is a traditional winter holiday figure in The Netherlands, Belgium, Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, The Netherlands Antilles and Surinam. Although the traditions differ per country, Saint Nicholas Day is on 5 December or the morning of 6 December also celebrated in Germany, some parts of France, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.
This feast celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. Furthermore, he is the basis of the Santa Claus figure in the United States.
The Saint Nicholas tradition in The Netherlands and Belgium
The story goes that Sinterklaas lives somewhere in Spain and travels each year by steamboat to The Netherlands, where he arrives around mid-November. He lands every year in a selected city and his arrival is live broadcasted on Dutch television. After his arrival he appears in a lot of street parades throughout the country. If you don't feel comfortable in big crowds, then you should avoid the Saint Nicholas parades, since these parades attract huge crowds.
After this day, little children will put a carrot, hay or sugar cubes in their shoe before they go to bed at night. This food is for the white horse of Saint Nicholas and is collected at night by Sinterklaas' servants, who are called Black Petes (in Dutch: Zwarte Piet). They climb the houses and go from roof to roof and get unnoticed inside the houses through the chimney on the roof. They take the food of the horse and replace it by a small present.
Sinterklaas avond (Saint Nicholas' Eve) on 5 December is the main occasion for gift-giving during the Christmas season. This evening is called pakjesavond which means presents evening. Often the presents are accompanied by a (humorous) poem which often teases the recipient. This is mainly done by adults, who celebrate Sinterklaas in a way that's comparable with Secret Santa.
In Belgium Saint Nicholas is celebrated on the morning of the 6th of December and they will find presents in their shoes.
Saint Nicholas Candy
The Saint Nicholas tradition has also its typical Saint Nicholas candy. Millions of chocolate letters are sold in Holland during the Sinterklaas season, since it is part of the tradition to give little kids the first letter of their name made made out of chocolate. Also marzipan figures, chocolate figures and coins, pastry with almond and pepernoten (a kind of small cookie) are popular Saint Nicholas candy.
The Black Pete Controversy
The role of Black Pete has become part of a recurring debate in The Netherlands. Some people feel that black people are stereotyped in a specific way, while other people say it does not have anything to do with racism and although it historically comes from slavery it is not how it is looked upon today. By the way, the story of Black Pete being black is that he has come through many chimneys to deliver the presents for the kids.
Most Dutch people will act surprised if foreigners tell them that the custom could be seen as discrimination. For sure the Black Pete tradition is a tradition that is deep-rooted in The Netherlands and it is not very likely that it will disappear anytime soon.
Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus
Saint Nicholas is the basis for the Santa Claus figure in the United States. The name Santa Claus is also derived from the Dutch word Sinterklaas.