Monthly Archives: January 2013

Sinterklaas, Zwarte Pieter, and Christmas in the Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten

I know it’s New Year and past Christmas but I’ve been really bad with my travel blogging so we’re going to go back a couple of weeks to Christmas and you’re all going to like it! So there!

Well, where do I begin? First of all, here in the Netherlands they still celebrate Christmas on December 25th like the rest of the Christian world but they also celebrate what is known as ‘Packet Evening’ which is a children’s party basically. On the evening of December 5th Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten (‘Black Peter’) come and leave something for the kids.

Now Sinterklaas is a really big thing and his arrival here in the Netherlands (they also celebrate it in Belgium, Luxembourg, some parts of Germany, and a few other Dutch colonies) is met with much fanfare. Children eagerly await the first glimpse of him and his helpers, Zwarte Pieten, when he arrives during the second week of November. Unlike Santa Claus and his reindeer, Sinterklaas rides on a white horse on to rooftops and his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten, listen down chimneys to find out which children are bad or good and then report back to Sinterklaas.

Sinterklaas waves to everyone at the I-Center (Apple store), Alphen aan den Rijn

Sinterklaas waves to everyone at the I-Center (Apple store), Alphen aan den Rijn

Sinterklaas, his horse, and helpers arrive here via boat coming down the canals. It is said that he is coming from Spain and Dutch people have told me that the story is that the kids are told if they are good they will get presents. If they are bad they will go back to Spain with Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieter. Now that’s the kind of incentive I think we should give kids…seriously, how much better would kids be if they knew that if they were bad they were being ‘shipped out’ so to speak to another country? Brilliant!! I almost regret not having children now because I would love to use that on them. LOL!

Now the history of Sinterklaas seems to be directly related to Saint Nicholas who was a Bishop. He is also known as De Goedheiligman (The Good Holy Man), Sint Nicolaas (Saint Nicholas) or simply as De Sint (The Saint). He is the patron saint of children, sailors, philatelists, and the city of Amsterdam, among others. The reason that it is said that Sinterklaas comes from Spain is because the remains of Saint Nicolaas are buried there. Also being Saint Nicolaas is the patron saint of sailors that is why he arrives via boat in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Sinterklaas and his helpers arrive in the Netherlands

Sinterklaas and his helpers arrive in the Netherlands

One of the things that was a bit strange for me when I first saw it was the Zwarte Pieten (‘Black Peters’). Coming from the States where everything is considered ‘politically incorrect’ and people always find something to complain and sue about my brain had trouble processing the multitudes of people running around in Moorish costumes and black face. It didn’t bother me but I definitely was feeling like someone was going to yell or protest or something…but no one did much to my joy (although in the past there have been a few protests). I knew there was a story why these Zwarte Pieten were black faced so I had to look it up.

The arrival in Alphen!

The arrival in Alphen!

You see there are stories of Saint Nicolaas or Sinterklaas where it was stated that he had a page or servant who was a Moor. This helper or helpers were also considered mischievous. However, in the Middle Ages the term Zwarte Piet was a name for evil and this holiday is all about good and evil, black and white, right and wrong. Good children are rewarded and bad children are punished. Therefore the reference to Zwarte Pieter shouldn’t really be taken so literally as someone who is black or a servant. It’s more a symbol rather than a literal interpretation. Throughout history black has always been representative of evil and white of good and angelic.

Apparently our neighbors know Sinterklaas personally!

Apparently our neighbors know Sinterklaas personally!

Anyway, there are other stories of the history of Sinterklaas too but it would make this blog way too long (I think it already might be…but oh well) so you can do a search and see what you come up with too. Feel free to post your findings in the comments below too. Enlighten us!

Check out our neighbor's kid in the window watching Sinterklaas! Priceless!

Check out our neighbor’s kid in the window watching Sinterklaas! Priceless!

So in the two weeks or so that lead up to Sinterklaas leaving presents or taking children back to Spain with him you’ll find him and his helpers marching around town playing music and handing out candy to the kids. It’s quite fun and festive. In one of our walks into the center of town here in Alphen aan den Rijn we were delighted to run into them doing just that. You can see the video below.


At the end of the video you’ll see me point the camera down because out of the blue one of the Zwarte Pieten was standing beside me so that Matt could take a picture of us together.

Me and Zwarte Pieter, Alphen aan den Rijn, NL

Me and Zwarte Pieter, Alphen aan den Rijn, NL

So it was a great cultural experience and now we know so much more about the traditions of other countries for Christmas! These are the things that make traveling to new places exciting and mind expanding! Love it!

Categories: Alphen aan den Rijn, Challenges Insights and More, Holidays In Other Countries, Netherlands | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

New Year’s Eve In The Netherlands

Fireworks Outside Our Window

Fireworks Outside Our Window

When I arrived here at the end of October I kept hearing what seemed like explosions throughout the town at strange times of the day. Matt didn’t know what they were and said he’d been hearing them all along. We came up with theories that it could be a transformer blowing or maybe something to do with the windmills that are located down the street and various other situations that we felt might produce a noise like that.

We even asked our landlord’s dad who told us he hadn’t been hearing anything but maybe it was fireworks. He stated that they’re not legal in the Netherlands with the exception of about 3 days, December 31 – January 2, but he said sometimes people try to get away with it at other times. B-I-N-G-O! After that we were looking to see who it was every time we heard a loud boom and eventually our persistence paid off. Teenagers!

They roamed around the neighborhood looking all innocent (actually they looked like they were up to something but they thought they looked innocent) and they would discreetly light  something, throw it, and run like hell. Now as clever as they thought they were they would always backtrack to the same area, usually laughing, but if they saw you looking at them they would slink off like they knew nothing.

The Neighborhood Comes Alive!

The Neighborhood Comes Alive!

Anyway, long story short (probably too late for that actually…but I digress) New Year’s Eve morning at 8 a.m. we are awoken but what sounds like a mortar round. Are we being invaded again? After all that’s not unknown in Europe and certainly the Netherlands has had their share of invasions. No! Apparently because it’s New Year’s Eve Day it’s legal and bands of teenagers with backpacks full of fireworks are roaming the streets seeing who can make the loudest explosion! Oh joy! It’s going to be a long day!

By 8 p.m. the firework explosions had been consistent for 12-hours and the novelty was worn off. There were no ‘pretty’ fireworks all day, just the loud bangs of your basic explosives, and I stated that there better be some pretty fireworks at midnight or this whole display of affection for fireworks will have been for naught. Don’t disappoint me Dutch people! Show me what you’ve really got!

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First of all, I should say tell you our town is so quiet that you hardly see anyone during the day except when they are taking their kids to school (the school yard is across the street from our apartment) or picking them up. At night, it’s like a ghost town with the exception of those few wandering teens that really should be home.

But New Year’s Eve at 11:59 p.m. it began! It was amazing! Like clockwork the town all came out of their homes and started lighting off fireworks, the booming kind and much to my delight lots of the ‘pretty’ kind too! This wasn’t the fireworks show of some organized state agency. This was private citizens who had apparently been buying and saving up for New Year’s for some time and the effort was fantastic!

We were delighted by the neighborhood display and figured that it would last a half hour at most because after all these were private citizens. How long could they possibly sustain this massive display? Well let me tell you that growing up on Long Island I remember the greatest fireworks displays were done by the Grimaldi’s. They usually were the ones doing the shows over the Harbor in New York City on July 4th and New Year’s Eve but even their shows only lasted about a half hour or so.

Kind of looks like an Angel to me! What do you think?

Kind of looks like an Angel to me! What do you think?

The show here lasted until about 2:30 – 3:00 a.m. pretty much full tilt! I found myself smiling and laughing like a kid because it was just so awesome and unexpected. Over the last few years in the States fireworks displays have been really measly and unimpressive so I just figured it was like that everywhere. I was wrong. Matt and I have already discussed the possibility of coming back to the Netherlands sometime in the future to experience New Year’s Eve by taking a canal tour in Amsterdam during the fireworks. I can only imagine that would be insanely beautiful!

Well without yammering on any more here is a video of our neighborhood letting loose on New Year’s Eve. There’s even an unconfirmed UFO sighting in there so make sure you watch the whole thing. 🙂 I hope you all enjoy it. We certainly did!

Categories: Alphen aan den Rijn, Alphen aan den Rijn, Netherlands, Netherlands, New Year's In New Places, Video Tours | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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