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Sinterklaas, A Traditional Dutch Holiday

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Sinterklaas, A Traditional Dutch Holiday Photo © Sander van der Wel

"Sinterklaas – who doesn't know him?" ask the lyrics of a Dutch chart-topper from 1982. If you're from outside the Low Countries, however, chances are that you've never heard of "Sint", his colorful folklore or the cherished holiday in his honor. Full of fanfare and seasonal treats, the weeks that lead up to Sinterklaas's name day, December 5, are a favorite time of year for children and adults alike in the Netherlands.

Sinterklaas & Santa Claus:

Based on the Christian Saint Nicholas, the Dutch Sinterklaas is actually the inspiration for the North American Santa Claus – but the two are clearly different from one another. While each has a snow-white beard and red bishop's robes draped over the iconic round belly, Sinterklaas lives in a far more temperate climate than the North Pole: his year-round home is Spain, from which he sets out for the Netherlands by steamboat each November.

Sinterklaas's Return:

Thousands of children and parents turn out to celebrate Sinterklaas's return, or intocht, in mid-November; he's received with festivals and parades at several ports of call, one of which is naturally Amsterdam. Once he disembarks from his ship, he circles the capital, and stops in several squares and other public spaces to address his fans. Afterward, he will embark on a secret tour of the Netherlands, as he delivers Sinterklaas treats to children all over the country until December 5.

Just like Santa Claus and his elves, Sinterklaas can't do it alone: his helpers are the "black Peters", or zwarte Pieten in Dutch, whose faces are covered in jet-black chimney soot. Because of its close resemblance to the "blackface" make-up that was once used to caricature blacks in the US, UK and other countries, some visitors are shocked to encounter this; however, the character of "black Peter", attested from medieval times, pre-dates blackface by centuries.

Sinterklaas Rituals in the Netherlands:

In the weeks that follow, Dutch children set their shoes next to the fireplace at bedtime, in the hope that Sinterklaas will leave treats in them. Popular favorites include chocolate letters and a variety of spiced cookies, from slabs of speculaas to bite-sized pepernoten and kruidnoten. The holiday season culminates in family celebrations on December 5, Sinterklaas Eve. Visitors who witness the spirit of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands leave with an indelible memory of one of the country's most beloved traditions.

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