The Netherlands helps Sint Nicolaas celebrate

December 5th national birthday for everyone’s friend from Spain

AMSTERDAM, the Netherlands - For centuries in the Netherlands, the 6th of December - and for the grown-ups especially the evening of the 5th - has been a day when nearly everyone is at home, celebrating the birthday of Sint Nicolaas, the kind Spanish bishop. Every year, Sint Nicolaas (also known as Sinterklaas) makes the trip to Holland to celebrate his birthday. He has been doing this for ages, not to receive presents, but to give them, especially to the children.

A few weeks before December 6th, Sinterklaas officially arrives in Holland on board a steamship, dressed in full pontifical - a long, wide, flowing red robe, mitre - and carrying a crosier. He is accompanied by his valet Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) and other helpers.

Each year a different city is picked, where the local mayor waits at the quay to welcome the bishop. Following the welcoming ceremony and a short speech by the mayor, Sint Nicolaas makes his entry into town, with brass bands playing special songs for the occasion. Sint Nicolaas rides a white stallion, cheered on by the crowds.

Shopping streets lit up
The day after his official arrival, nearly everyone in the country starts making extensive preparations for the festivities on the eve of Sint Nicolaas’ birthday. The shopping streets are decked out, lights are added everywhere (in December, in the Netherlands it gets dark around 4:00pm) while all shops have a Sinterklaas theme in their windows. Holland goes all out for the event. Although Sint Nicolaas comes especially for the children, it is also a great party for the adults and they enjoy it just as much.

On the evenings before December 5th, the children sing Sinterklaas songs with time-honored lyrics. With much anticipation, they put a shoe close to the chimney before going to bed. They know that Sint Nicolaas and Black Peter ride their horse through the streets and over the rooftops at night. Shoes end clogs filled with carrots, bread or hay for the horse await Black Peter’s visit who will exchange this for some marzipan, ginger cake or chocolate. Just like Sinterklaas himself, Black Peter can ‘enter’ a house through the chimney. 

Through the chimney
The names of naughty children are recorded in a large book which Black Peter keeps handy for Sint Nicolaas. Therefore the children will behave and be nice and sweet during this time. They also know quite well that Black Peter carries a rod with him as well as a huge burlap sack, large enough for naughty children to be taken along to Spain.
Not only is Sint Nicolaas renowned for knowing everything that goes on during the year but also for his ability to do some amazing things. He rides his horse over the rooftops and eavesdrops at the chimneys. Black Peter even enters homes through chimneys at night and takes the horse’s food from the shoes and clogs to exchange it for candy and other treats.

Presents and more presents
Sometimes Sint Nicolaas arrives unannounced and before the children have gone to bed. Then, suddenly a hand can appear around the door and to throw small ginger cookies called pepernoten into the room. The children crawl all over the room to collect their treats. The most courageous among them will run after Peter to catch a glimpse of him in his disappearance act. He is busy, off to surprise another family.

If Sint Nicolaas cannot visit in person, he still makes sure that all sorts of presents will arrive. No one is more accurate than Sinterklaas in selecting presents. Often, children receive the very things they have wanted for a long time. They put a wish list in their shoe or clog together with the food for Sint Nicolaas’ horse. Of course, much singing will be done that gift-giving evening.

Food and pepernoten
The food also is different on this occasion. Normal eating habits just disappear. Besides, the children don’t have much of an appetite when so taken by anticipation. After all, one never knows what might happen when Black Peter drops by. Is your name in Sint Nicolaas’ book, has Black Peter’s sack still more room and did he bring enough pepernoten along? Even if Sint Nicolaas runs short, there is plenty of delicacies on hand, chocolate letters, ginger cookies, pastry and marzipan.
St. Nicolaas’ birthday is also for grown-ups who receive their presents on the evening of the 5th. The children need to wait till the following morning.

Gifts and poems
According to tradition, especially the presents for adults, elaborately wrapped, must be accompanied by a poem or rhyme in which Sint Nicolaas and Black Peter take the liberty to ‘roast’ the recipient. This in many cases is the icing on the event’s cake. In most families these days, the adults do a gift exchange on the evening of the 5th, pakjesavond. They draw names from a hat, and prepare a special gift - and poem - for the selected individual.
The excitement usually lingers for a while, especially at school whens children tell each other of how good Sint Nicolaas and Black Peter have been to them. By then, Sint Nicolaas will have slipped out of the country, making his way back to Spain. The stores remove their window dressing, the streets return to normal and everyone goes back to doing homework, to their studies or job.

Yet, the memories linger.
Which is why so many of us keep this special day in hearts. December 5th. It is not just any birthday. It is one we all celebrate.

First published in The Windmill Herald, used with permission

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