Hey everyone! Guess who should be studying his ass off for competition law? That’s right, me! Guess who ISN’T studying his ass off right about now? Yup, me as well. So why would a total honorstudent like myself take a day off to procrastinate by writing a lengthy Dtoid post?
Because today is my favorite day of the year. Today is Sinterklaas day! And I love telling you all about it. I’ll start with the general story and mythology, and then I’ll explain how the Dutch celebrate this holiday. Strap in, this is going to be quite a ride.
For those of you who don’t know, which is to say all but like two of you, us here in the low countries of Europe aren’t very big on Christmas. We in the Netherlands do have a holiday on the 25th of December, but it’s very uncommon for people here to really do something with it other than maybe have dinner with the folks. There are no presents under the Christmas tree (if there is one in the first place), and Santa doesn’t visit us. No, after what I assume must’ve been a long and difficult legal battle, it was decided that the Netherlands would fall under Sinterklaas’ jurisdiction. So instead of going all out for Christmas, the Dutch celebrate their own holiday on or around December 5th, Sinterklaas’ birthday.
So who is Sinterklaas? Well, Sinterklaas is much like Santa. In fact, those of you with keen eyes may have spotted that “Sinterklaas” and “Santa Claus” are pretty similar. This is correct, as you totally nicked him from us (pun intended). Anyway, just like Santa, Sinterklaas is an old fellow with a special place in his heart for the children of the world (read: The Netherlands). And just like Santa, he drops by every year to give the children presents and has been doing so for hundreds of years.
There are a few key differences, though. As you can tell from the picture above, Sinterklaas is not morbidly obese like Santa. He’s also much more stately and not quite as jolly. Secondly, in some ways Sinterklaas is a little more grounded in “reality” than Santa is. For one, he doesn’t live on the north pole, but he lives in Spain. Yep, just Spain. He has a huge castle where he spends all of his days, but around half November he comes to the Netherlands. Not by magical sleigh, off course, but by steamboat. Again, yep, just by steamboat. Every year a different city gets to host a special televised arrival, which is always a huge event and is accompanied by a parade through the city and everything. Thirdly, unlike Santa who has his little elves make all the toys for the children, the story in the Netherlands is that Sinterklaas is just very very rich. Because we are the Dutch, after all.
Sinterklaas doesn’t come alone, though. I mean, how could he get all the presents to all of the children all at once? Magic? Come now, don’t be bloody ridiculous. Nope, while Sinterklaas doesn’t have his own private elves, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any helpers at all. It’s these helpers who do a lot of the work, checking up on which children have been naughty or nice, and delivering most of the presents. These are Sinterklaas’ “Zwarte Pieten” (plural: “Black Petes”).
Now, Zwarte Piet (singular) has been the subject of some controversy over the past few years. Why? Well, because Zwarte Piet looks like this:
…Yeah. Let’s address the elephant in the room, shall we?
These are people in blackface. And yes, they are Sinterklaas’ servants. I’m sure anyone would think this is totally racist. You wouldn’t be wrong. We in the Netherlands just kind of…don’t agree. Zwarte Piet is as much a part of our culture as Sinterklaas is, and the two just go together. I can’t imagine the December season without Zwarte Piet. On top of that, while these guys are Sinterklaas’ “servants”, that has become kind of a misnomer. They stay with him out of their own free will, and he’s as much a father to them as anything else. They are incredibly friendly and competent people, friends to all the children, who love doing what they do. Finally, the story goes that Piet is black from soot, having to climb down chimneys all the time. (Does that make it better or worse? I legit can’t tell.)
Anyway, it’s interesting to note that nowadays, the Zwarte Pieten work on Smurf logic, in that there’s a specific Piet for each job, and there’s tons of them. There’s one Piet devoted to writing poems, one who has mapped out all of the houses in the Netherlands, one who giftwraps all the presents, and so on. There’s even one whose sole job description is “being cool” and writing songs that are way catchier than they have any right to be.
- I can't begin to imagine how weird this video must be to you out of context.
This didn’t always used to be the case. Originally, Sinterklaas only had one helper, one Piet. So who do we have to thank for getting the Dutch hooked on a whole legion of Pieten? Well, the Canadians of course! Some context: during the second World War the Netherlands were occupied by the Nazis. While most people nowadays credit the Americans and the Russians for defeating them, it is often forgotten that Canada had military presence in Europe too. In fact, they were largely responsible for the Dutch liberation, and you’ll find that many Dutch senior citizens are profoundly grateful to the Canadians more than anyone else. The story goes that come December 1945, after the liberation, the Canadian troops remaining in the Netherlands wanted to hold a big celebration for us lowly folk. In their infinite wisdom they figured that if the Dutch like one Black Pete, they would LOVE a whole army of them. It turns out they were right, and having a huge amount of Petes has remained a tradition until this day. Although I’m not sure Canadians would be too happy about this anymore, it is what it is.
Anyway, what does all of this mean for December 5th? For most people, the whole family gathers around sometime during the evening. If there aren’t any children involved (because Sinterklaas is a celebration for everyone) the presents will simply be deposited in the room or directly given to everyone. It’s also common to hold what I think you guys call “secret santa” sessions, in which everyone buys presents for someone else after drawing lots. Usually, these gifts will be accompanied by a short poem about the person receiving the gift. Often the poem will poke fun at his or her stranger habits, or wonders why he or she would possibly want such a weird gift. If there are young children involved, the room will start out empty, until one of the adults goes to the “bathroom”. Soon after, a loud knock on the door is heard, and upon arrival the kids will find that “Sinterklaas” has just delivered their presents to them. After that, handing out the presents to their respective recipients goes about as you’d expect.
During all of this, we fucking ENGORGE ourselves with candy. I’m not sure if you have this for Christmas, but the Dutch have some very specific Sinterklaas candy, that you can only get around November/December. First, and most importantly, are “pepernoten” (literally “pepper nuts” but also commonly called “kruidnoten”; “spice nuts”). These are basically tiny top-rounded cookies, which we eat by the truckload. They’re delicious, not to mention totally addicting. For comparison, we eat them much like you would potato chips, which is to say put a bag or a bowl on the table and eat them by the handful.
- A bowl of pepernoten I just got for myself
- The same bowl, about five minutes later.
Secondly, there are chocolate letters. These are exactly what they sound like. They’re letters made out of chocolate. It is very common in the Netherlands during Sinterklaas-time to gift someone the first letter of their name made out of chocolate, although in families with young children an “M” for “mommy” and similar substitutes also work. These letters come in all shapes and sizes, although obviously not every store will stock a sufficient quantity for each letter. People named Quincy or Xander are often shit outta luck.
- Fortunately for me, there are usually plenty of P’s to be found.
Finally, there’s marzipan, which I positively adore. This is the only of the three which you can get all year round, but it’s still only commonly eaten at Sinterklaas. They’ll mold the marzipan into all sorts of different shapes, usually including Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet themselves; over the years I’ve gotten cakes, French fries, bread, a frog, a duck, potatoes, and lots of other things I can’t even remember anymore. …
And people wonder why they gain several pounds each December.
Well, I think that just about covers all of it. Instead of celebrating Christmas each December 5th the Dutch come together to give each other lots of presents with silly poems attached, while eating all of the delicious sweets they can find. And all in the name of a rich old Spaniard’s birthday, and his vaguely racist army of helpers. I fucking love Sinterklaas day.