Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) in the Netherlands: History and Celebrations

St Nicholas / Sinterklaas

Image by Jim Frost  "St. Nicholas/Sinterklaas"

We have all received a wonderful gift from my friend Jet who lives in the Netherlands...  (you may remember her - she is the brilliant woman behind all the window coverings made with recycled materials)... she has written the story of Sinterklaas, starting at the very beginning and continuing through the ages to the current day celebrations in the Netherlands.

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you Jet, for having gone to an enormous amount of work and having spent many hours to create this post to share the story of Sinterklaas/St. Nicholas - his history and how he is celebrated throughout the Netherlands.

I know you are all very busy these days, and the post is quite long.  But read it.  Take the time.  There is so much to learn.  So much to appreciate. So much to warm your heart. 

I also wish to extend my thanks to the photographers who placed many of the images contained herein in Flickr's Creative Commons so that we would be better able to illustrate the Story of Sinterklaas. Be sure to visit their photostreams for more images of Sinterklaas.

St Nicholas / Sinterklaas

Image by Jim Forest  "St. Nicholas/Sinterklaas


First one note: it is not only a Dutch party time, but the celebration of Sinterklaas is happening as well in Belgium on the 10th of December, in the Netherlands (my country) the 5th of December and in Germany on the 6th of December

My article will be about the celebration of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, because that's my own country.


Image of Sinterklaas by Marc van Woudenberg

Sinterklaas, or St. Nicolaas, was a very real person. He was born in 270 AD in a harbor city in a part of Azie (nowadays known as Turkey).

When I learned this I was completely flabbergasted because i had been taught that he came from Spain!

His uncle was a bishop in the region and he became a bishop as well, known for his good works and miracles.

Those miracles are important to describe because it will explain some of the special candy that is given during the celebration of Sinterklaas.

So here they are: he could travel across roof tops so fast that it looked like he could fly, and he saved many sailors from drowning by calming down the sea. After his death he became the protector of sailors and travelers as well.

But the most important stories are:

He saved three poor girls from being sent into prostitution. In those days the family of a young girl had to pay the family of a groom so that the bride would be considered for marriage. Otherwise, daughters would be sold for this old job.

Bishop Nicolaas heard the sad problem of the girls and in secret during the night, he gave them money he inherited upon the death of his parents. In some versions of the same story he threw the money into their shoes. In another version it was given in wallets with gold pieces inside which he threw into their house. Because of this story, it is customary for Sinterclaas to throw candy like gingerbread cubes or chocolate money.

Another custom is the making of gingerbread dolls made pretty with sucker and candy to give to the person you love the most - to tell him or her you want marriage. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is referred to in many Dutch songs about him as a" goed heilig man" coming from the old 17 century goet-hylick-man. a good saint but a matchmaker as well. This is difficult to translate. In Dutch this is understood by everybody, sorry for this.

In another story he saved three young school boys while he was still alive. Their father had killed his three boys and salted their bodies to hide in a barrel. The father did this because he believed he was saving his boys from the horrible death of hunger.

In another version of the same. an innkeeper murdered three young boys who were staying at the inn for their money. After killing them, the bodies were salted and kept in a barrel. In both stories Bishop Nicolaas found the boys and made them alive again.

He died in 340 on the 6th of December, so the story that we are celebrating his birthday on the 6th of December isn't true. LOL

He was buried for many years in the region later called Turkey, but because he became a real Saint after his death, his body was stolen and reburied in Italy, which in the ninth century was a part of Spain as well. So that's the mystery of why we all are saying he comes from Spain. XD

AMSTERDAM: St. Nicholas church

Image of St. Nicholas Church in Amsterdam by Akbar Simonse

Because he was such a good bishop and because of the miracles he performed, he became in the ninth century a Saint. He was number one of the popular saints (like Maria) of many children and lovers, sailors and travelers. In most cities that are located on a big river or beside the sea, there is a church named after him; and because of our connections with France and Spain he became in the Netherlands famous as well. Sailing was already very important in the Netherlands in those days and many cities that where located on a harbor had a church named after Saint Nicolaas.

He was the saint for children and sailors and travelers and lovers;-D

But why we are celebrating this party time is just another story.

In the Netherlands we were devoted for a long time to the Germanic religion. During the Roman times, the Romans tried to convert the Germans to become Christians. British people living in our country as well. In time, the Romans figured out that it was better to combine the gods of the Germanics and the Christians to make one.

Wodan was looking like Saint Nicolaas riding on a white horse flying very fast through the sky, his horse leaping from roof top to roof top. And like the current St. Nicholas, Woden wore as well a long white beard. He was accompanied by black ravens and later his knight Ruprecht, who was black of skin like the ravens were. There was a story that while Bishop Nicolaas was alive, he bought a slave and gave him his freedom back. The man was called Pitter and was black skinned. He was so grateful for his freedom that he became an assistant of Bishop Nicolaas.

During the early Middle Ages, schools were placed in convents to teach children reading and writing. And in those days after Christmas, it was time for the up-side-down feast; but the children were getting all the power and ignoring rules - not a good idea!!! So they came up with the idea - why not celebrate the life of Saint Nicolaas and on the 6th of December a play was performed based on the life of Saint Nicolaas to show the children how to behave.

Sometime in the 1200's celebrating Saint Nicolaas became a tradition and still is to this very day! ;-D

Sinterklaas candy treats

Image from Jet of Sinterklaas candy

The special candy!

During the time Sinterklaas is coming by boat to the Netherlands until his departure by boat back to Spain (nowadays much earlier) you find special kinds of candy like gingerbread and nuts, chocolate letters and marzipan. I love them all too much. LOL Sinterklaas arrives in mid November and departs the 6th of December. So this party time is a long one;-D

The candy is special and it has roots in offerings made to Wodan and other stories as well. I will explain this.

The Germanic people had to offer their animals to keep Wodan happy. In later times, they lay around the fires just shapes of animals which were made of gingerbread or just bread like they were images of real living animals. In latin they use the word specullum, which translated in dutch means spiegel, and in english mirror. That's why we call gingerbread speculaas. Later the convents baked those figures of gingerbread and bread and made them pretty by using icing on them and sold them to travelers.

When the body of Saint Nicolaas was buried in Myra and later reburied in Bari the people could smell a sweet scent that smelled like marzipan. Thats why we still eat at this time marzipan shapes of all kinds of animals.

Almond Pastry

Almond pastry image provided by Jet

Almond pastry, in dutch we call them banket and it's from the word used for the banquet bench people had to sit on during the banquet and later the table as well with all the yummy food on it.

Letter shaped chocolates

Letter Candy image provided by Jet

The letter shapes of the almond pastry comes from the convent schools. When the children had to learn to read, people gave them the shapes of letters made of bread to help them learn. When they could read the letter well, the letters were for the children the reward for a good job. ;-D Many people thought that when you ate the letters you would become a well educated person, so the poor mothers thought that by cutting letters out of paper and feeding them to their children in their porridge, they would help their children become well educated.

It's still a habit to give the letter in chocolate of the starting name of the receiver. But .... since the M appears much bigger then the I, most people give their child the S of Saint to solve this problem. LOL The M and the I have the same weight, but.... it's hard to explain to a child when the other child's letter looks larger. ;-D

Peppernuts for St. Nicholas Day!

My recently baked Peppernuts!  Delicious!

The miracle of the three poor girls is remembered by making it a common practice to knock on the door or window and throw gingerbread nuts and chocolate money and meringues. The children think it's Piet (the assistant of Sinterklaas). This last one has often the shapes of the head of Sinterklaas on it as well as small animals.

i didn't liked them too much, they are still too hard. Special gingerbread nuts aren't fun to eat, so I like the softer ones much better.

When the Saint visits the schools or clubs, or as in some families he comes to their homes, he often leaves by letting Piet throw the same kind of candy so the children aren't feeling sad that Sinterklaas is leaving.

Sinterklaas and Piet

Image of a Sinterklaas postcard provided by Jet

Sinterklaas - his outfit.

When somebody acts the part of the real Sinterklaas or Piet, it is important to pay close attention to this outfit and the make up. And be sure to use a voice other than their normal one. Sinterklaas must make an impression on the children and gain their respect so he always speaks slow and gentle like an grandfather, and takes his time to think.

He uses a golden staff, so there is no doubt that he is more than hundred years old and is just an elderly and a real saint. He is always dressed in a red velvet long cape (which must reach the ground), with sleeves or without them, the cape just has holes to put his arms through, and has some decoration of golden tape. It looks like a rope, but in reality it isn't . He also wears a red velvet mitre with a golden cross of tape stitched on it.  Mitre and cape with some decoration of golden tape as well. His wig is white and long with big curls, his eye brows are white and thick, his mustache is also white and he wears a long white beard.

He isn't fat like the Santa Claus.

(My niece when she was just four years found him sooo beautiful that she wanted to married him);-D Dutch television in a special item in the time during his visit in Holland have given him a working cap made of red velvet with the golden cross taped as well. It's his daily version of the mitre while doing his work in Holland. It's not common to wear the new hat on a visit, but we are all used to this new version of the mitre.:-D

He has white gloves and white socks and is wearing neat black leather shoes. And on his right hand over the gloves he wears a robin golden ring. Underneath the cape he is wearing a long sleeved white dress that reaches to the ground. A piece of lace is sewn onto the bottom edge of the dress and to the ends of his sleeves. Above the dress he is wearing red ties of velvet with a connection piece between them, with golden tape decoration as well, and underneath the dress he is wearing a white petticoat.

He always carries a beautiful red book. As the story goes, he knows everything about the children and has written funny things about them in the book.

Children will intently observe all the difference in the clothes he is wearing. By my own experience I knew that the fellow visiting the club was not the real Sinterklaas because that Saint was not wearing black shoes like the Saint that visited my school the day before. This one was wearing brown shoes with holes in the top. So he wasn't the real one, because no one ever wears shoes with tiny holes in the winter and in the big layers of snow outside.

(In my childhood there was always a thick layer of snow outside. So most vintage pictures of  the Sinterklaas are of him in the snow covered landscape. That was common in my childhood. Now we have much later snow. I'm very happy with that. XO)

Sinterklaas rides a white horse or arrives by car. The problem is always that the mitre doesn't fit in the car. So most times the children must wait inside for the Saint to come in. It's not easy to set on the mitre quickly.Most times he needs helping hands.

His assistant is called Piet.

Lately, Piet isn't alone and there can be hundreds of him, and often they are given various other duties like the kitchen Piet, the present Piet , the wrapping Piet, and Â…. so on, but the master Piet will always walk next to the Saint.

His face is always made black, and he is wearing a black wig with curls. He has red lips. He wears black gloves and a moors kind of outfit with a black pantyhose and sport shoes and a big colored or white mill shaped pleated or wrinkled collar. He always carries a sack of jute.

The story that we were told in my childhood was that when you were found guilty of bad behavior, Piet would pick you up and take you in his sack back to Spain. I never understood what other children thought of that, but I dreamed of it - to travel on his back to Spain. My sis told me she had the same wish. LOL Nowadays that story is ended, on his back the children will only find the special candy and the gifts of the Saint.

In my childhood, I have watched many arrivals of the Saint and his Piets by boat and Piet was carrying a birch rod, to warn the badly behaved children and some salt for the same reason. In some old Dutch songs it's still mentioned. ;-D But Piet doesn't punish the children with it anymore as he is a nice assistant and very good with gymnastics for climbing and helping the old Saint.

Sinterklaas on his steamboat Spanje

Sinterklaas on his steamboat Spanje by melalouise

The Saint and his assistants come to the Netherlands by boat, in the middle of November. While he is on his way from Spain by boat, the children make lists of the gifts they wish for and then take their parents advice to send them either to the place where the Saint will stay in the Netherlands or to his castle in Spain. Once the Saint arrives, he will ride on his white horse with his master Piet walking next to him.

The arrival can be watched for real in several cities but is also broadcast on television. His white horse is called Americo. John, my partner, had many years a white horse and was asked to lend him out for the arrival of Sinterklaas in his neighborhood. But Apgar was always afraid and easily frightened by silly things, so John had to dress as a Piet to hold his horse together when Sinterklaas was riding through that town. I loved that story.

The custom is that the children will place their shoes by the hearth. When I was little, children were told that Piet would climb in the chimney and collect our gifts for the Saint and his horse and would leave a small gift behind in the shoes.

In his ears hung big golden earrings. You could see it's not a real black person at all. In my childhood we almost never saw a black person because they didn't lived here. Later it was just normal, because Suriname was a part of Netherlands and some people came from that country to study and then stayed in the Netherlands. But during the early days of the 60's it was rare. But by watching tele i knew how they must look and that wasn't the same like Piet.

I have watched the Saint arriving by plane as well. When I was little my father was working at a plane factory and all the worker's children where invited to come to the big airport (the old airport) to watch the Saint come by plane. LOL

During my last bus travel for the celebration of his arrival, we saw the Saint as well in a boat on the river. But we all decided that wasn't the real one.

On the 5th of December, Sinterklaas brings all the gifts to the houses of the children. The whole family will come to celebrate this party together. Because nowadays most homes do not have hearths or chimneys, the traditions have changed a bit. Instead of Piet coming down the chimney, most times, following knocking on the door or the windows, the gifts will arrived by sack. One of the parents will open the door to find the sack standing. The children will be singing the old songs of Sinterklaas and with throwing candy the party of the teasing and unwrapping will start.

The time between his arrival and the real celebrating was all mystery and full of secrets and excitement. I loved it. It was a real living fairy tale.

Later when I was older and knew the real story, I still had fun because wrapping the gifts you must buy for all the family members is a special story. You must make a surprise that is telling something of the person that will receive the gift and then they will find in that the real present or they must wrap it up and find another name, and so on. I have seen surprises that where really dirty and smelly of wrapping like pooh made of special smelly cake.

I never have received that, to my happiness; but most surprises are really beautiful art pieces. I have made many of them myself for others. Or you must make a poem, to tease the receiver in the poem about his habits that not always are fun for others.

So for the grownups and the little ones our traditions and celebrations of Sinterklaas keep the fairy tale still alive. It's a fun time.

In the nineties when we became in Holland more internationally minded, this party was almost ended. Happily it isn't. I don't celebrate the party myself, but I love the candy and the special atmosphere.

When Saint departs on the 6th of December, the children know he will go back on his birthday (LOL) to Spain to get some time to himself. But he will come back next year. ;-D

Sinterklaas finger puppets

Finger puppets of Sinterklaas, Piet and the white horse - a gift to me from Sinterklaas and Jet.

One last small story. When I was reading this book to make this English article for my dear friend Pam, I had to change books and had to get assistance of a working lady. She was helping me and saw on the computer the book of Sinterklaas. She said to me "do you have that still?" A little boy was suddenly next to us to listen to our conversation. I told the woman that I loved the book and described all the fun I had reading and writing about Sinterklaas. But suddenly i saw the little boy standing next to me and listening intently to every word and I knew we must not talk about this subject any longer.

I didn't want to spoil his fairy tale. ;-D It brought back all my memories of my own childhood.

I have used the book: sint Nicolaas van A tot Z Stichting Nationaal Sint Comite

Very nice! I am from the

Very nice! I am from the Netherlands and there are some bits of info in this piece I didn't know. Learned something new again, thanks!


This is such a special day for my Ukrainian heritage -
we all love St. Nicholas. When I was young, on this day, we would have the nativity play in the church hall, with all the children, young and old, playing the parts.
At the end, one of our old parishoners from eastern europe, would be dressed like St. Nicholas, mitre, cape, hat and boots, and enter the hall while we sang a song in ukrainian, welcoming him and the presents he brought with him! Oh, what great memories & thanks, Pam, for helping bring them back to me.

Happy St. Nicholas Day to you

Happy St. Nicholas Day to you as well, Nancy!!!

And thank you so much for sharing these memories of visits from St. Nicholas when you were a little girl growing up in the Ukraine. A perfect gift for me to receive on St. Nicholas Day!

Thank you Pam, for helping me

Thank you Pam, for helping me so greatly. with the grammatic part and the finding of pictures that were to use.
I loved to work on this job for you.
so thank you as well.
It's felt like my childhood was coming back to me.;-D

Jet, if writing this amazing

Jet, if writing this amazing story of Sinterklaas brought back memories of your childhood, I could not be happier!  It is good for us to be a child again once and a while!  Especially at the celebration of Sinterklaas!!! And Christmas!

Thank you so much for this. I

Thank you so much for this. I live in Southern Africa where its too hot to follow the same Christmas traditions as the Northern countries but over the years I have learnt stories and myths and fables from all sorts of countries about the month of December and the various celebrations in the different cultures. Its all so interesting and looks like so much fun to actually celebrate Christmas in the manner and tradition it was meant. I loved this story, thank you.

How fascinating about the

How fascinating about the St.Nicholas/Wodin fusion!

We will be baking Speculaas cookies tomorrow and setting out our St.Nicholas collection. I am enjoying reading Santa and Pete by Christopher Moore and Pamela Johnson.

Happy St.Nicholas Day to everyone.

What a WONDERFUL post! That

What a WONDERFUL post! That first Sinterklaas' outfit is BEAUTIFUL! I can't imagine being a child and seeing that guy ride down my street on a white horse! Are you kidding me?!?! That's magical.

I love, love, love this. We

I love, love, love this. We are studying this area in our geography this week and we do celebrate St. Nicholas on December 6. I will certainly show my kids this post. Perhaps we will celebrate Sinterclaus a bit earlier this year. :)

Great article. I seen either

Great article. I seen either the arrival or the departure in Maastricht, when I visit my daughter. The tradition described above is very intense in the Netherlands!