Sinterklaas A Necessary Tradition In a Tolerant Country

©2000 by Alexander Kuprijanko originally written for

A grey mid-November Saturday morning in a small coastal town in Holland. The harbour area is crowded with parents and children, anxiously leaning over the ropes around the quay. There a man is running around, talking enthusiastically in a microphone to a cameraman who is following him. The attention is directed towards a steamship, which is approaching the coast. When it comes closer, you can hear music and see colourful flags on the ship. The atmosphere reaches its climax when the steamship reaches the quay and a man dressed in a red robe and a mitre with a big white beard enters the Dutch soil, followed by black-painted men dressed in medieval clothes. Sinterklaas has arrived in Holland!

Sinterklaas is Holland's analogue to Father Christmas and Santa Claus. According to the tradition, he comes from Spain with his steamship in November. After arriving in a harbour in the morning (broadcast on two of Holland's state broadcaster NOS' channels, one with an interpretation in sign language), Sinterklaases show up in every Dutch town and village with dignity in the afternoon to the great pleasure of the children. Assisting him is a couple of Zwarte Piets, black-painted helpers, who throw pepernotes, a special kind of small cookies, to the children. After Sinterklaas' arrival, he enters his white horse and rides away. For the weeks to come, Sinterklaases and Zwarte Piets influence the whole country, showing up on TV, in advertisements, in parades and in display windows. At the evening of December 5, Sinterklaas knocks on the door of every nice child in Holland and leaves a bag with presents outside. But if the child hasn't behaved, he or she will get spanked by the Zwarte Piets instead of getting presents. At least, that's what the parents say to make sure the children behave. The adults also tell their children that Sinterklaas knows exactly who has behaved and who hasn't, since he writes down everything that the children do in his big book.

Even though the Sinterklaas tradition shows some similarities to the Santa Claus tradition, Dutch people insist that Sinterklaas has nothing to do with Christmas. Instead he is a saint and archbishop (that explains his clothes) who lived in the 4 th century. There are many tales about his background. The historian Herman Pleij has studied the tradition. In his book Hollands Welbehagen , he tells his version of the story behind Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, came from a wealthy family in Myra in Minor Asia. One of his neighbours had three daughters. To be able to get money to their dowries, the daughters had to work as prostitutes. As Saint Nicholas felt sorry for the girls and wanted to help them, he knocked on the window of his neighbour in the night and when one of the daughters opened, he threw a wallet full of gold into the house. This procedure was repeated three nights in a row, and the legend of Sinterklaas giving presents to children was born.

Later, the home of Sinterklaas in the legend moved to Spain. The reason for this, explains Herman Pleij, is that Spain was seen in Holland as an exotic and wealthy country where all the gifts of earth came from, i.e. a good place for a giver like Sinterklaas. The Zwarte Piets are identified as Moors, the Arabic people living in Spain. While Sinterklaas is good and sent from God, the role for the Zwarte Piet is to be the smiter, explains Pleij. The Piet is the analogue of the devil that God (Sinterklaas) uses to punish people, as he can't do it himself. "When you were seven years old, you were afraid of Sinterklaas, because he knew everything about you, that you had bad grades in school or that you had behaved badly. But still you had to sit on his lap," writes Pleij, explaining the child's fear for the double nature of Sinterklaas.

The Sinterklaas tradition also has another interesting ritual. It is the rhyming on the presents that Sinterklaas gives. Usually, the rhymes make fun of the receiver. "This is a cleansing ritual. Everyone can say what they think of each other. After this, it is much easier to live together another year. Almost everything is allowed to be said, because it is Sinterklaas" writes Pleij. He explains the success of the Sinterklaas tradition to the fact that family life is strong in Holland, and the tradition is one of the things that binds the family together.

But recently, there have been signs that Sinterklaas' importance has started to decrease. Christmas slowly replaces Sinterklaas as the occasion to give presents, especially in families without small children. The unwritten rule that no Christmas attributes should be presented before December 5 in the shops is broken by a lot of stores. But this recent development isn't very popular among many people. "It shouldn't be like that, they shouldn't start with Christmas that early", says Manja Kemp, employee at Etos, a shop where they stick to the old tradition. "I think this new trend makes everything the same everywhere. We are Dutch and we should keep our Sinterklaas," says Karin Langendam at La Pomme, a shoe store where no Christmas things appear in the windows before December 5. And even at the stores where the rule is broken, the new development isn't always popular: "We start in November to build up our advertisements for Christmas in the store. I don't like it myself, but I think it is the people without children who want to have it like that. They like Christmas better than Sinterklaas," says Gabrielle Veldhuis at Blokker. Others would explain the gradual commercialisation of Christmas with the interest of the shop-keepers, or influence from abroad. Herman Pleij thinks that the internationalisation will force Christmas upon Dutch people. But, as Christmas replaces Sinterklaas, Christmas will transform and become more like Sinterklaas. The Dutch will still need to light the pressure, or blow off some steam as they say themselves, and tell exactly what they feel about their fellow beings once a year, no matter if it is on Christmas or Sinterklaas. It is a necessity in country where people have to be tolerant to everyone 364 days a year.