For most children in the Netherlands, the most important day of December is December 5, when Sinterklaas (San Nicolás) brings them their gifts.
The day of San Nicolás is on December 6, but in the Netherlands, the most important celebrations are celebrated on December 5, the eve of San Nicolás. The name of Santa Claus comes from the name Sinterklaas.
It all starts on the second Saturday of November (the first Saturday after November 11) when Sinterklaas travels to a city or town in the Netherlands. The Dutch tradition says that San Nicolás lives in Madrid, Spain, and each year chooses a different port to get to Holland, so that as many children as possible will have the opportunity to see it.
Sinterklass travels with his servants called ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (‘Black Peters’).
When Sinterklaas and the Black Peters come ashore from the steamer, all the bells of the local churches ring in celebration. Sinterklaas, dressed in his red tunic, leads a procession through the city, riding a white horse. All cities in the Netherlands have some helpers from Sinterklaas, dressed like Sinterklaas who help distribute the gifts. (And sometimes one can see one or more Zwarte Pieten with Sinterklaas!)
The children are told that Zwarte Pieten keeps a record of all the things they have done in the last year in a great book. Good children will receive gifts from Sinterklaas, but bad children will be put in a bag and the Pieten Zwarte will take them to Spain for a year to teach them how to behave.
On the night that Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands, children leave a shoe by the fireplace or, sometimes, a windowsill and sing Sinterklaas songs. They expect Sinterklaas to come during the night with some gifts. They also believe that if they leave some hay and carrots in their shoes for the Sinterklaas horse, they will have some candy or small gifts left. They are told that, during the night, Sinterklaas rides on the roofs of his horse and that a “Zwarte Piet” will go down the chimney (or through a window) and put the gifts and / or candy in his shoes.
In many families the children are told that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet make a weekly visit, so the children leave their shoes by the fireplace or the window, that is, every Saturday until the main Sinterklaas festival on the 5th of December.
The evening of December 5 is called the eve of St. Nicholas ‘Sinterklaasavond’ or ‘Pakjesavond’ (current night). Children will receive their gifts during the night. You may knock on the door and find a sack full of gifts!
The Sinterklaas festivities are often celebrated on the eve of San Nicolás (5), where treasure-hunting games are played with poems and riddles that give clues. The children follow the clues to find small gifts left by Sinterklaas. They also eat cookies and special sweets at the party. A type of cake is called ‘letter blanket’ or ‘banketletter’ (meaning letter cake), which is made of marzipan or pastry. The cookies are made in the shapes of the first letter of the names of the people who are at the party. Another sweet cookie that is eaten at parties is the ‘pepernoot’, which is made with cinnamon and spices in the confectionery cookie mix. Here is a recipe for peppernoot. And here is a recipe for kerstkrans, a Dutch Christmas cake.
On December 6, Sinterklaas (the birthday of Sinterklaas) leaves the Netherlands on a steamboat through the entrance to the port of Rotterdam (the largest port in Europe) called Hook of Holland and he returns to Spain.
Surprise gifts are also given on the day of San Nicolás. A custom at the Sinterklaas festivities, often within the classes at the schools, is that everyone’s name is put on a hat and everyone chooses the name of another person, then they have to make a surprise gift for that person. Gifts are often things that the person would find useful with their favorite pastime. Those present come with a poem inside that gives a clue as to who could have sent the present, but everything is bound to be a mystery! This is a custom similar to a current shipment in Germany.
The Christmas celebrations in the Netherlands are separate from the visit of Sinterklaas!
Christmas day itself is a much quieter day in the Netherlands, with a religious service and a family meal. Sometimes, in the afternoon, in the church, there is a special Christmas day in the ‘Sunday School’, where the story of Christmas and other traditional stories are told. These are often the only gifts that children will receive on Christmas Day because they have already received most of their gifts on St. Nicholas Day.
On Christmas Eve, the Dutch children believe that Santa Claus (who is also called “Christmas man” / “Kerstman” to avoid confusion with Sinterklaas) comes from Lapland in Finland to deliver more gifts!
Christmas day is known as ‘Eerste Kerstdag’ (first day of Christmas) and the day after Christmas is called ‘Tweede Kerstdag’ (second day of Christmas). On the second day, people often visit their families and the big stores also tend to open at Tweede Kerstdag. The traditional way of eating with the family is called “gourmetten”, which is a small stove that is placed on the table and where everyone prepares their own food while sitting.
Many people in the Netherlands also have a Christmas tree in their homes.
In Dutch Happy / Merry Christmas it can be said as ‘Zalig Kerstfeest’ or ‘Zalig Kerstmis’ (both mean Merry Christmas), ‘Vrolijk Kerstfeest’ (Merry Christmas) or ‘Prettig Kerstfeest’ (Pretty Christmas).