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A Dutch Tradition

Elly van de Pols
Albeda College Oud-Beijerland

Every year in November many Dutch children (and grown-up people!) become very restless. What is going to happen? St. Nicholas is coming!

In autumn the old bishop leaves his castle, which is situated in Madrid in Spain. A great number of black man-servants attends him on his trip. According to the tradition St. Nicholas travels to Holland by steamboat, which has been loaded with presents and sweets for the Dutch children. It is a treat in Holland when he arrives! The children look forward to his coming very impatiently. Many of them face wind and weather and wait for his arrival on the quai-side of a typical old-Dutch town. Others watch TV to see the good old man and his black servants.

When St. Nicholas comes ashore, the Mayor of the town pays his respects to him. While waving his hand and shaking the hands of thousands little children St. Nicholas mounts a beautiful white horse. It is really an imposing sight: this grave old bishop with his long white hair and long waving white beard, the beautiful red robe round his shoulders and a crosier in his hand. His servants strew and distribute gingerbread cubes. They are real acrobats: they easily climb the roofs.

About his age he is very mysterious, so we can only guess: could it be possible that he is more than 400 years old or could he even be older? It is clear that he is very old, centuries- old.

The next few nights St. Nicholas rides on his white horse all over Holland, assisted by his servants. When you are very lucky you can see him riding on the roofs, throwing presents and sweets into the chimneys of the houses where good children live. But naughty children don't get a present: they get a small bag filled with salt. All the children know that St. Nicholas is riding around and in the evening, before they go to bed, they put one of their shoes in front of the stove. They sing some St. Nicholas songs and they put some water, carrots or bread near the shoe, because the white horse loves such sweets. When they awake next morning they find some present in their shoe! St. Nicholas was on their roof that night !

On December 5th we keep his birthday and in stead of giving presents to the bishop, he gives presents to every child and adult in Holland. This night he has to visit many people and most of the times he puts the presents near the front-door. But sometimes he pays a visit to some children.

St. Nicholas is one of the most popular festivities in Holland. Did he really exist in former days ? Some historians say there really lived a bishop in Myra, Turkey, in the 4th century, called Nicholas, who was very good and helpful to children. Therefore he became the protector of the children.

Several legends are added to this information. So St. Nicholas moved from Myra to Spain. It is said that his first black servant was the devil himself, who resigned himself to St. Nicholas. Other people tell that St. Nicholas is the same person as Wodan, one of the Teutonic gods. In former days Wodan (with a long white beard and long white hair !) rode on a white horse in the air and his servant strewed nuts and peas, symbols of fertility. Nobody knows the real truth about this mysterious lover of children.

Anyway, the 5th of December is for the Dutch a very special day, full of presents, sweets and especially coziness.

The following was posted to the Christmas International group at from "Tink."

Sinterklaas (Sint Nicolaas) celebrations in the Netherlands.

When I was young there weren't any presents on Dec.5 or 6 But I know
how it was celebrate at others and how it's celebrated now.

Sint as ST. Nicolaas is called arrives on his steamer from Spain 3 weeks prior to his birthday which is December 6. The steamer is all dressed up with flags and balloons. Sint with have helpers with his called 'Zwarte Pieten' this translates into 'Black Peters' in English. The Pieten ar so black because they had to go to the chimneys to deliver toys and good. besides being black they were 'Moor's coming from Maroc or North Africa.

These Pieten are always hilarious, children have a bowl watching their acrobatics and naughty behavior. These Pieten according to the legend will clime on the roofs and go through the chimneys while Sint stays on his white horse on the top of the roof and tells them which child has been good or bad.

In my younger days the story was that if you were bad you had to go in the sack and the Pieten would take you with them to Spain and you had to work for the Sint for a year. Nowadays that isn't mentioned anymore because it scared the heck out of the small children and caused some trauma's ;-)

Pieten also carried  a 'roe', small branches from a tree and also in the earlier days they would spank you with it if you were bad. Throughout the years parents would warn innocent children that they would get spanked with the roe if the Sint found out.

In the weeks leading up to Sint's birthday children will place their shoe once a week at the chimney (modern houses under a window) The shoe needs to be filled with a carrots or old bread from Sint's horse and some water also for the horse who can clime roofs as well! The next morning if you were a good girl or boy the shoe would be filled with a chocolate. (nowadays a toy) You were also suppose to put your wish list in the shoe and hope that you were a good girl and Sint would bring you some presents.

Sint visit schools with his Pieten as well, children sing Sinterklaas songs and Pieten will throw candy and Pepernoten (gingernuts).

On December 5th you place your show for the last time, putting an extra nice carrots and sugar cubes and water in it while singing Sinterklaas songs. You went to bed waiting and listening for Sint and the Pieten on the roof. Some children who new they weren't good and nice, laid in bed shivering and fearful. Next morning you run downstairs and there would be presents! Even for the bad children ;-)

These days people celebrate Sint's birthday on dec 5th in the evening. It's easier because children used to have the morning off school on Dec. 6th. That's not the case anymore. After dinner on December 5th,  Children will be sitting in the livingroom, singing Sint songs, there will be warm chocolate milk to drink for the children and the grown ups will drink 'Bishops wine'. There will be 'Amandel Letter' and 'Speculaas' to eat.

When all is calm and children are sweet and singing songs there will be a banging on the door. Eeveryone rushes to the door and all of a sudden there will be a sack left by the Pieten and Sint with gifts for everyone!

Gifts will be unpacked, most of the time they will have poems or rhymes pointing to that child or adult's behaviour last year.

On December 6 Sint leaves the Netherlands to go back to Spain and prepare for next year.


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