/ The Amsterdam Guide
Amsterdam — By Marianne on December 5, 2009 at 8:05 am

Dutch Dual Christmas

With a little bit of luck, Dutch children have two Christmases and therefore may receive presents twice. Sinterklaas on 5th and Christmas on 25th December.

Mid-November, St Nicolas, or Sinterklaas, travels by steamboat from Spain to Amsterdam. The Mayor of Amsterdam welcomes Sinterklaas and Dutch television broadcasts this event. Sinterklaas mounts his white horse and accompanied by his black helpers, Zwarte Piet, he tours the city. The Zwarte Pieten play pranks upon the cheering children (and their parents). Then on 5th December, all Dutch children who have been good during the past year get presents from Sinterklaas.

St Nicolas was a bishop in Myra in Asia Minor, now Turkey. He lived in the 4th century and was the patron saint of sailors, children and prostitutes. In the middle Ages St Nicolas’ arrival in heaven was commemorated on 6th December, the day was said to have died.

Legend has it that St Nicolas came back to earth laden with presents for all deserving children. It is believed that Spanish sailors brought the St Nicolas legend to the Netherlands. That’s why today’s Sinterklaas lives in Spain during the year.



 Sinterklaas is a charming, elegant figure with his long white beard. He has a decidedly ‘bishop’ look about him. He wears a lace-trimmed white garment and a red velvet cloak. A big sparkling ring shines on his white-gloved ring finger. A red and gold mitre covers his long white curly hair.

In one hand he carries a crosier and in the other a thick book with the names of all Dutch children in gold or black. Children whose names are in gold get presents, names in black get birch rods for a good hiding.

Sinterklaas is accompanied by his black helper, Zwarte Piet, not just one Piet, but a whole bunch. Each zwarte Piet wears puffed pantaloons and a ruffled shirts, gold ear rings and a hat with feathers. He assists Sinterklaas by performing tasks such as delivering presents down the chimney and writing down the names of naughty children in Sinterklaas’ big book.

piet 2

The origin of Zwarte Piet is uncertain. Some speculate that he is St Nicolas’ Moorish servant. Others think he is associated with darkness, the medieval Christian idea of evil. But if you ask Dutch children, they will tell that Zwarte Piet’s face is blackened with soot when he enters the house through the chimney to deliver presents.

Naughty children do not only run the risk of getting a birch rod instead of presents, they are also thrown into Zwarte Piet’s big sack. On the 6th December, when Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet return to Spain, they take the naughty children with them and grind them to pepernoten, a special type of gingerbread that can only be bought when Sinterklaas is in the country.


Sinterklaas is an international hero. At a certain time he emigrated to the US and changed his name into Santa Claus. A big make-over changed him from an austere elegant person into a fat and jolly one. Then he moved back to the Netherlands and adopted a new name, Kerstman, Father Christmas. That’s how the Dutch got their dual Christmas.





photo credits:
Sinterklaas Jarod @flickr
Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, personal collection


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