Monday, 6 December 2010

Christmas Around the World no.1 - Holland

A drawing from an old picture book (By Rie Kramer)
Yesterday in Holland they celebrated a Christmas tradition called Sinterklaas. I'm fascinated by the different ways we celebrate this time of year around the world, so I've asked a few of my favourite blogger-pals to write guest posts about Christmas in their country. First up is my dearest Dutch friend Gerdien! Thank you Gerdien!


The 5th of December…
is a date to remember!
You’ll be visited by Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet,
get nice presents and candy oh so sweet!

On the 5th of December, the Netherlands (and Belgium) celebrate Sinterklaas. We give each other presents, write funny poems and make crafty ‘surprises’, eat pepernoten, chocolate letters and sing old Sinterklaas-carols… What’s this all about?

The Real Sinterklaas

A little bit of history…

Sinterklaas, or Sint Nicolaas, or Sint, is an old bishop from Spain. Every year he sails on a steamboat to the Netherlands together with his helper Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) and his horse. Children believe that Sint & Piet go out in the night and throw presents in their chimneys. In daytime, they visit schools and families to see if the children have been good this year. Naughty children might not get any presents at all, or even worse: Piet can put you in his big sack and take you back to Spain. Yes, Sinterklaas is a very serious man, so you’d better be good…

Schwarte Piet

It’s a feast for the young…

Before the 5th of December, children can place their shoe next to the fireplace, with a wishlist and a carrot for the horse in it. When Pakjesavond* approaches, children get really excited: Have they been good or bad this year? Will they get what they asked for? On Pakjesavond they’ll find out… Sometimes Zwarte Piet brings a sack of presents through the chimney, often he places it by the door. When he’s in a hurry, he bangs on the door loudly and runs off. The lucky kids – who have behaved really well – get an actual visit from Sint & Piet!

…and old!

The older children and adults, who don’t believe in the old man anymore, usually draw names to decide who they’ll have to get a present for. On Pakjesvond, we give eachother these presents with a hand-written poem or a handcrafted ‘surprise’ which you hide the present in. The themes of the poems and surprises are often about someone’s hobby or something funny that has happened in the last year. It’s nice and exciting, because you don’t really know who got you a present! Pakjesavond is a really cozy night, where everyone eats lots of pepernoten, candy and hot cocoa!

The Fake (helper) Sinterklaas
Sinterklaas on National TV

The arrival of Sinterklaas has always been a great event in the Netherlands. It’s so important, that it’s even on national TV and draws over 2 million viewers (which is 1/8 of the Dutch population!). Another remarkable fact is that the ‘TV-Sinterklaas’ is our ‘real’ Sinterklaas (see photo), all the others who show up in other places are helpers. With the large number of Zwarte Pieten assisting every Sinterklaas, you can imagine how many actors are playing along every year, just to keep all the kids believing.

The tradition of Sinterklaas is something that everyone in Holland loves. Thanks Laura for your invite to share this on your blog! It’s been really fun writing about Sinterklaas and I hope he will bring you all a visit some day!

Ps. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask or comment! ~ Gerdien / Lab Coco
A chocolate letter
* A little glossary:

Pakjesavond = Presents-evening of December 5
Schoen zetten = Place your shoe (next to the fireplace, so Zwarte Piet can put a present in it)
Pepernoten = Little spiced cookies that Zwarte Piet hands out
Chocoladeletter = A letter made of chocolate
Lootjes trekken = Name lottery; you have to get a present for the name you’ve picked (Like a Secret Santa here! - L)



  1. This is SUCH a great and unique idea, cannot wait to read about all the other places you've explored. x

  2. hahaha i love how the punishment is sending them to Spain! I guess that is somehow related to the Spanish rule over that part of Europe some centuries ago? SOMEONE EXPLAIN THIS TO ME?

  3. hi andrea! haven't really thought about that, but the tradition has its roots in the 18th century! So maybe you're right!

    Today, it's probably more about being kidnapped (in a sack, aah!) and the terrible idea of never returning home again... (aww those poor kids!)

    xx gerdien

  4. Hello Laura,

    By chance I came on this site, I think because my name is Ria Kramer !
    I like your article about Sinterklaas, but the picture was not drawn by Ria Kramer, (although I am an painter/illustrator too) but by Rie Cramer. She was a great artist, and when you google her name you will find a large number of pictures . Kind regards from Holland, Ria


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