Learning about Sinterklaas

It’s always an unwritten rule that Americans should wait until after Thanksgiving to start embracing Christmas season and the holiday spirit. If you hear Christmas music even a day before it’s socially acceptable or see Christmas decorations in stores before Thanksgiving, you might hear grumblings from others about how it’s “too early.”

Luckily for me, an American in Holland, it was socially acceptable to start getting in the holiday spirit in the middle of November. Why? Because this is when Sinterklaas arrives in Holland!

The tale goes that Sinterklaas, who lives in Spain for most of the year, spends his time writing down all the children’s good and bad behavior while his helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) gets the presents ready for the good children (hmm, sound familiar?).

Then, in early November, Sinterklaas boards his Steamboat along with his white horse and helpers (Zwarte Pieten) and they start their journey to the Netherlands. They finally arrive around mid-November and each year they dock in a different Dutch harbor-town (this year near Rotterdam). Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten parade through the streets of each town and are welcomed by the townspeople and their excited children.

So from Mid-November to December 5, it is a busy time for Sinterklaas and his helpers and an enchanting adventure for Dutch children. They put their shoes by the fireplace, perhaps with a carrot or some hay for the horse. During the night Zwarte Piet jumps down the chimney and leaves candy or a small gift in the children’s shoes.

Finally December 5 is pakjesavond (present evening). Everyone gets a present, usually accompanied by a witty poem that is written about their good and bad habits. Some gifts are even wrapped with trickery and surprise. Perhaps the real present has been hidden inside a larger box and is enclosed in layers of tape for example.

I am incredibly fascinated by cultural traditions, the meaning behind them and watching people and children enjoy the spirit of the holidays. My first Sinterklaas experience has been a blast. Here are some of the highlights:

sinterklaas candy_

pepernoten and chocolate-covered pepernoten

Tplain-chocolate-coverd-kruidnoten-20384809here are two types of candy referred to as pepernoten 1) pepernoot:  chewy and made with aniseed, rye dough and brown sugar 2) the tastier and seemingly more popular is the kruidnoot, a mini biscuit made from speculaas. Let me tell you, the chocolate-covered pepernoten are the most addicting and dangerous little  treats you can eat.

The kruidnoten (pronounced crowd-note-n) used to be thrown at children by Sinterklaas and his helpers, whereas nowadays they are delicately handed to children in the streets. I’ve been told the change in behavior is due to some overly enthusiastic kruidnoten-throwing incidents.

Bill and I happened to be traveling by bus on the weekend Sinterklaas and his helpers arrived to town. Our bus suddenly made an abrupt stop to let the Sinterklaas parade proceed down the street. It was at this point that the helpers (Black Peters) barged onto our bus and started throwing kruidnoten and candy to the passengers. It was awesome (well, awesome for me)! Bill did not find this a very sanitary snack. I guess he really believes you shouldn’t take candy from strangers!

other treats: chocolate letters and speculaas


Chocolate letters are usually left in the children’s shoes with the letter S (Sinterklaas) or P (Piet) or the first letter of the child’s name.

Speculaas is a spiced biscuit made with cinnamon, ginger, cumin, nutmeg and more. Delicious with tea or coffee!

sinterklaas games_

Bill’s colleagues invited us to a Sinterklaas game party (Het Sinterklaasspel). Here’s the general idea from the invitation:

As it seems you all behaved really well this year, I would like to invite you all to play ‘het Sinterklaasspel’!
Het Sinterklaasspel is a game based on the Dutch tradition Sinterklaas which is celebrated annually with the giving of gifts on December 5. For this game each player must prepare by purchasing and wrapping presents – minimum of 2 presents per player. The budget for these presents is around 10/15 euro, but it is also acceptable to put in your old things (as long as it is in decent condition!). Tips for buying presents are to buy things you wouldn’t mind getting back, but that you don’t mind ‘losing’ either.
On the evening itself, everyone adds their presents to the pile and the game can start. The game is basically a combination of taking turns to role the D6, cards with tasks and the exchange of presents (unwrapping, stealing, giving, etc.).
Next there will be sweets, soft drinks, beers and vodka (of course), but please feel free to bring your own.
As the game is about having fun (and drinking vodka), so we are looking forward to celebrate it with you J

Bill and I decided that Het Sinterklaasspel is like Yankee Swap on steroids. It involved multiple, timed, 1 hour rounds, lots of challenges, rules, shots, pepernoten eating contests, pepernoten being thrown at people’s faces etc. It was rowdy, lively, and interactive. I loved it! We ended up with a mish-mosh of presents, which is what you might expect: little trinkets with little value. The biggest win was the poop emoji keychain, obviously!
Now that I know what the Sinterklaas season is all about, I can’t wait to celebrate again in a year and really do it right. Hopefully Bill and I can take some of these traditions and make them our own in the future, even if we are back in America.

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