Saint Nicholas

December 6th, 2018

Tsveta Milanova & Georginio Bruinhard

It is time for one of the most Dutch traditions: Sinterklaas! In this article, we will leave aside the politics of Zwarte Pieten (you can check the news) and present to you the history of who Sinterklaas is, we try to explain how it originated (we are not sure how), and how the Dutchies celebrate it.

Who is Sinterklaas? 

St Nicholas of Myra is known for his many miracles. He was born to a wealthy family in Patara. When his parents passed away and left him with inheritance, he used it for good deeds and refused to reveal his identity to the needy that he helped them. There are two popular versions for which he is best known. In Eastern Europe, he is considered as the patron of sailors because he calmed the sea on two occasions. In the first case, he resurrected a fellow sailor as soon as he had drowned in the sea during a storm and then calmed the sea so the rest of the sea travellers could reach their final destination safely. In the second case, he saved the ship that carried his body remains to present day Italy from a storm. In the Netherlands, he is considered as the patron of children. According to the story, he resurrected three children. In addition, he saved three young women from losing their social standing because their father could not pay their dowry. The story states that he threw money in a sock. This is how the belief about putting socks on a chimney and finding gifts there the next morning came into existence. 



In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is mostly celebrated by families with small children on the 5th of December (Sinterklaas Eve). Small children tend to receive their gifts then rather than on Christmas (24-25 December or 6-7 January). The gifts are exchanged with a short poem accompanying them. The poem gives hints what the gift is. 


The Zwarte Pieten Debate 

If you have been following the news about Sinterklaas and wondering what the hassle is all about, we will try to briefly explain it. The children believe that Sinterklaas arrives from Spain on a boat to the Netherlands. He has helpers, Zwarte Pieten (Black Piet), who help him distribute the gifts. However, the Zwarte Pieten have sparked the debate. The question is whether the Pieten should be black or (partly) white. In debates across the EU and the United Nations, the tradition that the Pieten should be black is accused of being racist and a celebration to slavery. They want the Pieten to be white so people do not get offended. The argument, on the other side, states that by making the helpers white, the richness of the tradition would be lost and a different story would have to be made up for the kids. It is a difficult situation our society finds itself in. Groups and organisations deal with it differently. The traditional ‘Sinterklaasjournaal’ for example changed their ‘Black Petes’ into rainbow versions, while for example ‘Het Pepernotenjournaal’ from Urk (Flevoland) has been reluctant of letting go of the tradition. 


Whatever way you celebrate it, the core essence is having fun; and the prospect of receiving gifts always puts a smile on our faces. Just as it does to the kids.

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