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!

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

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2 thoughts on “Sinterklaas, Zwarte Pieter, and Christmas in the Netherlands

  1. Brillant story again Veronica!! Very nice to read it and see some pictures. We missed it a little bit i must say, but the video made it all good ha ha. Lol!!

    Good luck in Canada and hopefully we will see eachother again in the near futher.

    Christian and Marjolein

  2. Thank you Christian and Marjolein! I am glad that I could ease a bit of your homesickness. 🙂

    We are looking forward to spending time in Canada but we will certainly miss Holland. We’ve loved staying at your home and we definitely would like us all to stay in touch. I wish I could have met you both in person but I understand your travels had some snags too that are delaying your return. Stay safe and have fun! And let us know of your further travels and we’ll do the same! Perhaps we can meet up some place in the future again!

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