Knowledge Base Now Events & Celebrations,Lifestyle,Netherlands Do you know why Sinterklaas is an important aspect of Christmas in the Netherlands?

Do you know why Sinterklaas is an important aspect of Christmas in the Netherlands?

Carrots placed on the wooden painted dutch shoe for sinterklaas

How does Dutch celebrate Christmas? When do Christmas celebrations begin in the Netherlands? If you are new to the Netherlands, it is important to delve into the history and understand the unique traditions of Christmas. 

Sint Martin

The celebrations kick starts at the beginning of November with Sint Martin. Sint Maarten is mostly honoured in the southern catholic regions (Limburg) and those bordering Germany. Although mainly Protestant, Utrecht, whose patron saint is Saint Martin, as well as other minor towns like Voorburg, commemorate it with the light procession. This day honours Saint Martin of Tours, a Gaulish bishop (modern-day France). Children can be seen holding a paper lamp and walking down the street, singing traditional songs and knocking on the doors asking for candy. Besides, this is not Halloween.     

Saint Martin served in the Roman army. His generosity in cutting his cloak in half and giving it to a sparsely dressed beggar led him to see Jesus in his vision. “Martin, who is yet a catechumen, dressed me in this robe,” Jesus said to the angels. Thus, the day is observed by children strolling together holding lamps and handing out sweets and fruit to honour Sint Martin’s kindness.


Approximately a week after Sint Martin (the first Saturday after 11th November), another famous Saint, Nicholas (better known as Sinterklaas) marks his way to the Netherlands. According to Dutch custom, St. Nicholas resides in Madrid, Spain, and each year, 6 weeks before December 5th he comes to the Netherlands in a steam boat. He stays in a castle in Helmond or in an old church, a house is being built for him to stay. It is being said that during his stay he purchases gifts and then again on December 5th he travels with his servants referred to as ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (Black Peters) to distribute gifts to the kids. When Sinterklaas and the Piets arrive by steamboat, all of the local church bells clang in joy. Sinterklaas, clothed in red robes and riding a white horse, leads a procession through town. The procession is followed by Sinterklaas’s assistants, dressed in the same costume as Sinterklaas and Piets to assist them in distributing gifts to the children. 

On the evening of Sinterklaas’ arrival in the Netherlands, children put a shoe by the fireplace or, on a windowsill and sing Sinterklaas songs in a hope that Sinterklaas will appear in the middle of the night with some goodies. Kids also think that if they leave hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas’ horse, they would be left with sweets or little gifts. 

The evening of December 5th is known as St. Nicholas’ Eve ‘Sinterklaasavond’ or ‘Pakjesavond’ (present evening). Dutch usually prefers exchanging gifts on December 5th itself. On December 6th, Sinterklaas (Sinterklaas’ birthday) departs the Netherlands by steamboat via the entrance of the port of Rotterdam and sails back to Spain.

Who was Sinterklaas?

Nicholas Sinterklaas was born in the 4th century in Myra, Asia Minor, and became a saint there. Except for the fact that he adored children, little else is known about him.

The story of three little boys who were burnt live in the stew as they were not able to pay the bill for the dinner, they had in a restaurant resonates with his love for children. When Nicholas arrived at the inn after hearing about the horrible crime, he found the guys cooking away in the pot. He informed the innkeeper that if he, Nicholas, could locate one nice piece of each youngster, he would perform a miracle and bring him back to life. Nicholas Sinterklaas brought the lads back to life and drove them away in his car. 

There are other stories too like of three beautiful sisters, daughters of a poor peasant. Each fell in love with a charming young man but were unable to marry due to a lack of dowry. That saddened them greatly. Sinterklaas was out riding one night when he glanced through a window and spotted three gorgeous, sorrowful sisters. Upon finding the reason for their sorrow, he went back to his castle and handed the Grumpus three little bags. Each bundle contained one hundred golden ducats. He told the Grumpus to put the little bags in the girls’ shoes, and they were rich an hour later. They married the three charming young guys and lived happily ever after! To this day, kids place a carrot in their shoes in the hopes of attracting Sinterklaas’ notice and reward.

Some Dutch believe that Sinterklaas never resided in Spain. He migrated to the Netherlands because at that time the Netherlands was Catholic and so was Spain. This is the relation between Sinterklaas coming from Spain to the Netherlands. By the 11th century he had become the patron saint not just of kids and unmarried maidens, but also of sailors and the City of Amsterdam.


Also, read our article: Celebrating Dutch Christmas

Image Credits: Unsplash