Who is this man in red who looks a little like Santa, a little like Saint Nick, and comes from Madrid on a boat with his horse? Simone Davies explains this very important tradition…

Who is Sint? 

Sinterklaas is the Dutch iteration of Saint Nicholas, a 4th century Christian Bishop, and is the central figure in the revered Dutch holiday celebrating St. Nicholas Day on 6 December. Sinterklaas wears a red mitre, holds a staff and has a long beard. Though the historical Saint Nicholas lived in modern-day Turkey, Sinterklaas resides in Spain with his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten, who travel with him to the Netherlands every November to celebrate his birthday. Sinterklaas brings presents for all the children in the Netherlands, or at least those whose names are on the “good” list in his big book of names. 

Arrival in Amsterdam 

Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands in mid-November (the first Saturday after 11 Nov) by steamboat from Spain along with his helpers. A different city is selected each year as the official arrival place, followed by his arrival in Amsterdam (and other cities) the next day. In Amsterdam, Sint arrives in his boat along the Amstel river, greeted by hundreds of children waving flags and many dressed up as Sint or Piet. He then does a tour of the city on the back of his white horse, AmerigoThe Pieten are a favorite among the children, with some on roller skates, some abseiling down the walls of the Bijenkorf, and almost all giving out candy and pepernoten.

Note: The parade in Amsterdam can be crowded and you have to be prepared to wait sometimes too.

Shoe Setting and Pakjesavond

Once Sint is in the Netherlands (and when the parents allow), the children “set their shoe” in the evenings by singing a little song, and leaving a carrot for Amerigo. Sint leaves them little presents like a pencil, some pepernoten or a chocolate letter.

The birthday of Sinterklaas is 6 Dec, but the main celebrations take place the night before, on 5 December, or pakjesavond (present evening). In the early evening, children are supposed to sing songs for Sint. Then there is a knock at the door and a sack of presents is found by the children on the doorstep. Once children are older, another tradition is to write poems and make “surprises” for one another. For example, if a child enjoys Lego, someone may decorate a box as a big Lego brick, hiding the real present inside. Crazy but fun.

Good to Know

Every evening while Sint is in the Netherlands there is a “news brief” for children, called the Sinterklaas Journaal, where the activities and antics of Sint and the Pieten play out in a storyline. Many children will also watch it in school. More info here

Sinterklaas and Christmas are separate holidays, and Christmas decorations don’t traditionally appear until after Sint has left, on 6 December. In the Netherlands, 25 December is mostly celebrated with a family meal. Some families are beginning to give presents at Christmas as well, but mostly only at Sinterklaas.

Here are a few songs for your child to sing while they ‘set their shoe’:

Dag Sinterklaasje

Dag Sinterklaasje dag dag

Dag dag Zwarte Piet

Dag Sinterklaasje dag dag

Luister naar ons afscheidslied

Sinterklaasje, Bonne, Bonne, Bonne

Sinterklaasje, bonne, bonne, bonne

Gooi wat in mijn lege, lege tonne,

Gooi wat in mijn laarsje,

Dank U, Sinterklaasje

Sinterklaas Kapoentje

Sinterklaas kapoentje,

Gooi wat in mijn schoentje,

Gooi wat in mijn laarsje,

Dank je Sinterklaasje!

Zie Ginds Komt de Stoomboot

Zie ginds komt de stoomboot uit Spanje weer aan.

Hij brengt ons Sint Nicolaas ik zie hem al staan.

Hoe huppelt zijn paardje het dek op en neer,

Hoe waaien de wimpels al heen en al weer.


Read more about Sinterklaas.

photo credit: Marianne de Wit via photopin cc photo credit: Meindert Arnold Jacob via photopin cc
Simone Davies

Simone Davies is the owner and directress of Jacaranda Montessori Playgroup. As well as being a mama of 2 children, Simone provides a Montessori environment for parents and babies and also hosts courses and workshops.