The Christmas traditions in Amsterdam, the Netherlands are much different than in the United States.
Twas the night before…
The Dutch celebrate the arrival of Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) or Sint Nicolaas (Saint Nicholas) in mid-November where the Saint arrives by ship from Spain.
He traveled up the Amstel River by steamboat, accompanied by sounds of horns, cheers, and bands… and surrounded by boats full of excited children and parents.
He and his helpers, the Piets or Zwarte Pieten* (which means Black Peter, the name for the Moorish helpers who accompany Sinterklaas) are greeted with a massive parade. (These are the equivalent of Santa’s elves).
Sinterklaas rides a white (or gray) horse and they parade through the city tossing sweets and pepernoten (a traditional small round cookie with a gingerbread/anise flavor) to the children.
Sinterklaas Season officially kicks-off when the parade arrives at the city theater where Sinterklaas addresses the crowds of children and their parents.
For the next few weeks, until December 5th (the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas), Sinterklaas and his helpers travel around visiting hospitals, schools, restaurants and homes to check to see if the children have been good.
During this time children leave their shoes by the fireplace at night… putting a carrot, turnips or hay for Sinterklaas’ horse. If they’ve been good, the Piets come down the chimney and put candy or a small gift in the shoes.
Finally, on December 5th, Sinterklaas visits all children’s homes. If they’ve been good knocks at the door and leaves a bag of presents. (Bad children used to be brought back to Spain in the burlap bags that held the presents of the good children, or they would get the “roede” (rod). Nowadays is seems that most children are good).
Many families exchange presents by drawing names. They write a poem reviewing what the person has done right or wrong in the past year. The recipient has to read the poem before they open the present.
The Feast of Saint Nicholas” by Jan Havicksz Steen c. 1663/65
This Dutch painting captures life in the 1600’s and the moment when a good little girl got her presents…and a bad little boy (left, and crying) got nothing
Saint Nicholas was known for his generosity the needy, his love for children and his concern for sailors and ships. (It is said that while making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land by sea, the ship he was on was threatened to be wrecked in a storm. Nicholas calmly prayed and all were amazed that the wind and waves suddenly calmed.)
Being such a sea-based country it is no surprise that Saint Nicholas is the Patron Saint of the Netherlands.
* – An immediate indicator of living in a different culture are people wearing black-face make-up (the pieten) and it not be considered a racist or offensive act.
Source: Some images from SintInAmsterdam.nl