Sinterklaas has Arrived !

Sinterklaas arrived today!

He, as I’m sure you probably assumed, is the Dutch version of jolly ole’ St. Nick. The story goes something like this…

Sinterklaas comes to Holland on a steam boat from Spain, and he brings with him his ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (Black Pete) helpers. Together, between his ‘intocht’ (arrival) and his birthday on December 5th, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet go down the chimneys of the good children in Holland and deliver gifts. Traditionally, kids would leave shoes and notes to Sinterklaas by the fireplace and the gifts would be left in the shoes. I’m not sure if this tradition still happens today, but regardless I think the incentive for children to be good year round is higher here in Holland as opposed to North America. If you’re on Santa’s naughty list in the U.S. you get some coal in your stocking. If you’re on Sinterklaas’ bad side then you get ripped from your family, thrown on the boat & taken to Spain when he heads back home. It should also be noted that Sinterklaas is NOT part of Christmas. These are two separate things. Traditionally, presents happen during Sinterklaas, and Christmas is a more low key celebration with family over a nice meal.

To welcome Sinterklaas & the Zwarte Pieten the city has a 2 part arrival parade! First, he arrives on his boat and navigates through the canals. This part was really fun. EVERYONE is excited for Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piete, and each boat was like its own little party. One boat had a marching band, one had some very active Zwarte Pieten & everyone on the boats were waving and singing. This one is stuck in my head now. Translates to…

St. Nicholas I beg you,throw something in my shoe, throw something in my boot, thank you St. Nicholas! 

After Sinterklaas makes his rounds through the canals he disembarks and heads into the city on his white horse surrounded by Zwarte Pieten handing out candy and small spiced cookies called ‘pepernoten’. Eventually, here in Groningen, he ended up in city center where the Mayor was waiting to welcome him. I read somewhere that the city parades were made up of things that represented the province of that particular city. I’m not sure if that is true or not, but based on today it would make sense. Groningen is farm country, and today’s parade had lots of horses, Zwarte Piet handed out fruit as well as candy, and there were even sheep!

Sinterklaas seems like a pretty cool guy.

So. Let’s talk about the elephant in the blog. Zwarte Piet.

Yes, they are in full black costume/black face paint. No, it’s not meant to be racist.

It’s been quite the hot topic here lately as the holiday has approached (you can Google it). The entire tradition is being debated, and coming from an outsider’s perspective it’s easy to see why. White Sinterklaas and his black helpers? You can’t help but instantly think the worst. My impression? The Dutch genuinely don’t see it this way at all. To them, Zwarte Piet is a beloved & respected character. I think the Dutch see Zwarte Piet in the same way that we see Santa’s elves. So why is he depicted this way? He is supposed to be part of the Moors of Spain who, according to the story, started working for good ole Sint when they were chased into the Sierra Nevada by the Catholic Spaniards.

Since this has drawn more attention recently The Netherlands has been working on shifting the tradition some. Each year one city hosts the National Arrival of Sinterklaas (it was in Groningen last year, one year too late!) and in this parade Zwarte Piet looks like he is covered in soot rather than full face paint, and I’ve seen candy and figures in the stores with blue, yellow, or red faces.

As an outsider, I think one thing we have to remember is that when it comes to the traditions of other cultures you can’t jump to conclusions. As an American, I think we have to be even more conscious of this since we live in a world where you are constantly having to evaluate if something is offensive to the masses. This is not to say that both sides of this argument can’t be seen, and perhaps it’s OK (and time) to modernize some traditions. #endrant

Yay Sinterklaas! 🙂

OH! I forgot! I saw this at the grocery store the other day. It’s a pig made out of Marzipan. Not sure the significance of the pig *update – the pig is for goodluck!* , but Marzipan is a big holiday treat along with the pepernoten & olieballen (deep-fried dough covered in powdered sugar. de.lish.)

On a completely different note, Shane did indeed make it back from Tanzania! And here is proof….

He has lots of pictures and stories and science to share, but November is crazytown Netherlands for him. (I would usually say crazy town USA here, but that doesn’t seem appropriate…). Once things calm down I’m sure he will start dishing.

Tot Ziens!




  1. I loved reading this. I lived in Utrecht last year and was in total awe of intocht sinterklaas. I was studying in the library and Sinterklaas & de Zwarte Pieten even made a visit to us and left pepernoten at the end of each stack 🙂 You cannot even begin to comprehend this tradition unless you are physically in the netherlands to experience yourself. I am very jealous that you got to experience this in Groningen!! Very happy I stumbled across your post!

    1. theshwits says:

      Thank you! And I agree, you gotta see it to understand! 🙂

  2. Clancy says:

    This was always my favorite time of year there! Sigh…thanks Whit, for the trip down memory lane! Sinterklaas is the BEST!

  3. danac2014 says:

    I love reading this! Thank you, what a great description!! And with the pictures it’s almost like being there!

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