The Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas (the name is a contraction of Sint Nikolaas) on Dec. 5 and 6. The holiday, consisting of St. Nicholas's Eve and St. Nicholas's Day, honors the life of St. Nicholas.
This real life Santa Claus was born to wealthy parents in the third century in Patara (the area was Greek at the time, but is now part of Turkey). He spent his life giving away his money to the poor and doing good deeds.
He died on December 6 and was buried in Myra, and it is this date that is commemorated.
Although St. Nicholas is always shown wearing his bishop's attire, the Dutch tend to see him as a kindly old man, rather than as a Catholic saint. The result is that Sinterklaas is celebrated by Dutch people of all ages and beliefs, without any real religious connotations.
Gifts, Poems, and Treats
His feast day is observed by exchanging gifts and chocolate letters (of the recipient's initial). It is also customary to make good-natured fun of your loved ones, by way of humorous poetry written by the giver and the infamous 'surprise', which is basically a (homemade) gag gift that hides another present inside.
At Sinterklaas, the Dutch feast on:
- speculaas (spiced cookies)
- kruidnoten (mini spiced cookies, also called ginger nuts), chocolate-covered kruidnoten, and truffle kruidnoten
- pepernoten (small aniseed flavored honey cookies)
- taai-taai (aniseed and honey flavored figurines)
- borstplaat (fondant candies)
- colorful marzipan
- almond filled pastries
- chocolate letters
- duivekater (a sweet festive bread)
- bischopswijn (mulled wine)
In Holland, it is more common to give presents on Sinterklaas than at Christmas, which remains a day to spend with family and attend church.
Waving a Carrot
Dutch children believe that Sinterklaas writes down whether they've been naughty or nice in his red book. They put carrots in their shoes for his horse, hoping St. Nicholas will exchange them for presents if they were good. Sound familiar?
Real Life Santa
It is said that Sinterklaas was the precursor of Santa Claus. Historians believe that Dutch and German settlers took the tradition with them to America. There, his Catholic garb was gradually transformed into the jolly non-sectarian red suit with the white fur trim we are all so familiar with. Additionally, his lithe frame gave way to a well-padded potbelly and his trusty white steed was traded in for a troupe of reindeer. Either way, both Sinterklaas and Santa Claus stand for generosity of spirit and kindness to children. And that cannot be a bad thing.
Jan Steen's The Feast of St. Nicholas (c. 1663-65) perfectly captures the mood.