Celebrating Sinterklaas in the Netherlands

One of the best things about living with Dutch people (6 out of 9 of my housemates are Dutch) while on exchange is that I get to experience Dutch culture first-hand. One of the biggest traditions here in the Netherlands is Sinterklaas, celebrated every year on December 5th. It is a centuries-old tradition with a fascinating history, and it was so fun celebrating it with my housemates this year.

Can you spot the Spanish flag?

Sinterklaas is the Dutch celebration of St. Nicholas Day, and has been celebrated in the Netherlands for over 700 years.  Originally Catholic, it was banned during the Reformation, but has since become a widely-celebrated event. Similar to Santa Claus, Sinterklaas carries a red book with a “naughty and nice” list. He is assisted by Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”), a controversial tradition which some consider racist and say should be banned.

Is that soot on their faces from ‘coming down the chimney’ or racist blackface?

The arrival of Sinterklaas in November is a big deal. He first “arrives” from Spain by steamboat at a seaside town in the Netherlands, an event which is broadcast on national TV. He then passes through other Dutch towns by whatever means is practical (train, horse, canal boat). People line up to see him, and his helpers throw candy and pepernoten into the crowd.


Families lined up along the Oudegracht to see Sinterklaas arrive


Pepernoten with candy gets thrown into the crowds

Children get especially excited – while we were waiting to see him arrive in Utrecht, a group of kids spontaneously began singing Sinterklaas songs! In the weeks leading up to Sinterklaas eve, children put out their shoes in the evenings to receive gifts from Sinterklaas, who rides through the night on his horse, Amerigo.

Amerigo keeping watch over Sinterklaas treats in the store

And then after weeks of anticipation, it’s Sinterklaas Eve.

While children receive a big sack of presents, this evening has something for everyone. Adults participate in a type of Secret Santa, but instead of just giving a gift you write a poem as well. The poems are supposed to be personalized and funny, and are the perfect opportunity to “roast” each other. The gift – called a surprise – is also meant to be packaged in a personalized way (for example, if I was giving a gift to someone who likes piano I would construct a hollow cardboard piano to put their gift in).

Our Sinterkaas poems and gifts ready to be opened

A few weeks prior to December 5th, our house drew lots using an app to determine who we had to write a poem and get a gift for. It was so fun writing a poem and hearing everyone read theirs out loud (although apparently the poems we wrote for each other were actually too nice).

My housemate Aleksi reading his poem out loud

While I get to celebrate Christmas with my family in Canada soon, celebrating Sinterklaas with my adopted family here in Utrecht was so special. A big thank you to my Dutch housemates for helping me get the full Dutch experience!


P.S. One of my Dutch housemates asked me to clarify that the Santa hats were provided by our German housemate – they’re not traditional for Sinterklaas. And one of my other Dutch housemates wanted me to add that Christmas trees aren’t allowed until AFTER Sinterklaas 🙂

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