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December 9, 2020

Christmas in The Netherlands: 30 Vintage Photos of Sinterklaas and Piet Traveling on Saint Nicholas’ Eve in the 1940s and 1950s

Sinterklaas, also known as Saint Nicholas, is dear to the hearts of Dutch children. He can be recognized by his eye-catching red cape with red miter and his long white beard. The saintly man arrives each year in mid-November on a steam boat filled with gifts and together with his helpers, all referred to as Zwarte Piet, who dressed in Moorish attire and in blackface.

For most children in The Netherlands, the most important day during December is December 5, when Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) brings them their presents! St. Nicholas’ Day is on December 6, but in The Netherlands, the major celebrations are held on December 5, St. Nicholas’ Eve. The name 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. Dutch tradition says that St. Nicholas lives in Madrid, Spain and every year he chooses a different harbor to arrive in The Netherlands, so as many children as possible get a chance to see him.

Sinterklass travels with his servants called Zwarte Piet (‘Black Pete’). When Sinterklaas and the Piets come ashore from the steam boat, all of the local church bells ring in celebration. Sinterklaas, dressed in his red robes, leads a procession through the town, riding a white horse. Every town in The Netherlands has a few Sinterklaas helpers, dressed the same as Sinterklaas and the Piets who help give the presents out.

Children are told that the Piets keep a record of all the things they have done in the past year in a big book. Good children will get presents from Sinterklaas, but bad children will be put in a sack and the Piets take them to Spain for a year to teach them how to behave!

On the evening that Sinterklaas arrives in The Netherlands, children leave a shoe out by the fireplace or sometimes a windowsill and sing Sinterklaas songs. They hope that Sinterklaas will come during the night with some presents. They also believe that if they leave some hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas’s horse, they will be left some sweets or small presents. They’re told that, during the night, Sinterklaas rides on the roofs on his horse and that a Piet will then climb down the chimney (or through a window) and put the presents and/or candy in their shoes.

In many families the children are told that Sinterklaas and a Piet make a weekly visit, so the children leave their shoe by the fireplace or window i.e. every Saturday until the main Sinterklaas party on December 5.

Many people now don’t like the use of Zwarte Piet, this is because the helpers who dress up as Zwarte Pieten are normally white people who wear black makeup as this is seen as racist. So now you will often see more Sooty Piet'/'Roetpiet (‘Sooty’ or ‘Chimney Peter’) where people just have soot and dirt smudges on their face rather than being completely made up with black makeup.


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