How to be Dutch: Sinterklaas
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
This is to all international students who are desperately trying to find their place in the Netherlands. It might come as a shock, but speaking Dutch, riding a bike and smoking weed is not going to make you blend in with the Dutchies as much as you would like to. We appreciate your effort, but we see straight through it. So how does one become what we consider “Dutch”?
In the Netherlands, there are several dates you need to remember, such as Kingsday, Carnaval and my birthday (19th of May, if you were wondering). The most important day of the year, however, has just passed: the 5th of December. The day all Dutchies gather around the fireplace to celebrate the tradition of Sinterklaas.
What is Sinterklaas and what does it have to do with your integration process? Sinterklaas is the essence of Dutch culture. It’s a tradition we proudly defend against antiracists by shouting how ‘gezellig’ it is – a crash course on how to defend your opinions like a Dutch person will follow. I decided to break this century old tradition down for you by discussing seven key elements, which I will elaborate on in a minute. First, let me tell you a bit more about this guy named Sinterklaas – not Santa Claus.
There are various stories on the life of Sint Nicolaas and how he came to be seen as the protector and patron saint of little children. He was the bishop of Myra around 300 A.D., in today’s Turkey. According to some legends, he saved three sisters from prostitution by giving them money to marry. Another story tells about how he brought three scholars back to life after they were killed by an innkeeper. Whatever it was he did, he did it right, as he is currently still enjoying the fame it brought him. Nowadays he lives in Spain, coming down to the Netherlands (and Belgium) every year in November. During his stay here, you will surely see the following:
Taking an annual trip from Spain to the Netherlands requires quite some effort, especially for an old man who is too stubborn to just take an aeroplane. Instead of using modern transportation, he stays loyal to his old steamship year after year. This ship, also known as the ‘pakjesboot’, is part of his spectacular entrance into the Dutch harbour.
2. Pepernoten, chocolate letters and marzipan
Traditions are nothing without traditional food. Although economically speaking it is way smarter to just buy a chocolate bar instead of a chocolate letter, and marzipan is not at all typically Dutch, pepernoten are definitely worth the try. In fact, there is even a pepernoten shop here in Maastricht, that will give you any possible flavour. Of course there is also Albert Heijn, Jumbo or Aldi to get your share. If you have never tried them before: start with the original one and proceed from there on. Stay away from any version covered in chocolate, it’s addicting.
When Sinterklaas finally arrives in the Netherlands with his ship, his tendency to use rather backward means of transportation continues. Instead of taking a cab, the train or even a bike, he rides his horse across the Netherlands. This horse, Amerigo, has been serving his boss from the very start and still walks over the rooftops every evening for about a month. If you do the math, this adds up to roughly 1700 months.
4. Schoentje zetten
‘Schoentje zetten’ is similar to hanging your sock on the chimney in the hope of getting it filled with an unreasonable amount of sweets and presents. As a poor student, you might want to give this one a go. Keep in mind that singing is obligatory. So is putting in a carrot for the horse.
This brings me to the next point. As said before, singing songs is essential during the process of ‘schoentje zetten’. There are hundreds of songs, varying in complexity. One of the easiest ones is Sinterklaas kapoentje. Every Dutch person knows it and will immediately sing along with you – or at least help you pronounce “schoentje” correctly. The full lyrics consisting of the impressive amount of four lines go as followed:
Sinterklaas kapoentje Gooi wat in mijn schoentje Gooi wat in mijn laarsje Dank u Sinterklaasje
Pakjesavond is on the night of the 5th of December, the eve of Sinterklaas’s departure. It is, in fact, not very different from Christmas eve: an enormous commercial happening that makes you five pounds heavier and your wallet five pounds lighter (if you’re lucky). There are tons of presents, excited children and parents acting surprised at the gifts they got “from Sinterklaas”.
Whereas families with small children usually follow the traditional ‘pakjesavond’, those with children above the age of twelve often turn to ‘surprises’. For this, every person participating makes a creation for someone else in the group. This creation is supposed to be personal and typical for the receiver and ideally includes a poem explaining exactly why it is so typical. Usually a small present is included, but not necessarily. If you were already broke before Sinterklaas even started, this may be the best way to celebrate.
7. Zwarte Piet
Zwarte Piet (the literal translation goes: ‘Black Pete’) is the most controversial element of Sinterklaas. He is Sinterklaas’ helper, assisting him in handing out presents and punishing badly behaving children. Those who take up the role of Zwarte Piet wear a colourful costume and paint their face black. The black face has been heavily criticised over the past couple of years by people who felt it was racist and linked to the slavery of colonial times. Others fiercely defend this traditional face paint by arguing that it is due to the ashes of the chimneys he has to climb through. I will leave it to you to develop your own opinion in this debate, although I can say that I’ve never met a non-Dutch person who did not think of it as racist.
Now that you have learned the basics, I would encourage you to get your carrots, pepernoten and surprises and practice Sinterklaas the Dutch way. Go ahead and start integrating while celebrating. Good luck!