The holiday season will not be complete without one important figure – Santa Claus. However, for the Dutch, it is a little bit different (though they share some similarities) for they believe in Sinterklaas or St. Nicholas.
The annual arrival and Sinterklaas parade marks the start of the Dutch capital’s Christmas season. It signals other events to follow that both locals and visiting tourists all look forward to – Christmas markets, Festival of Lights among others. Saint Nicholas is a character that the Dutch cherish and his traditional like his arrival in Amsterdam is an observance observed by different generations.
Who is Sinterklaas?
Sinterklaas with his peaceful aura, white beard and red robe is a legendary character known in Amsterdam all the way back to 343 AD. For non-Dutch, Sint should not be mistaken as Santa Klaus they are totally different.
This event centers on the legend of Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children. According to the stories, Sinterklaas as St. Nicholas is a Bishop of Mira. This explains his attire from the bishop miter, robe, ruby ring, and staff. Sinterklaas from his look will remind you of the pope. He is also called “ Sint” or “De Sint” which means, “ Saint” or “ The Saint”.
He is said to live in Spain and the story goes when he arrives – from Spain to Amsterdam and back again. And because he is a bishop, Sinterklaas is not married.
They may look similar – beard and the red attires- and their Christmas gift giving. However, in the Netherlands as well as in neighboring European countries, Santa Claus is regarded as Father Christmas. Still, much of the story about Santa Claus is from Sinterklaas based on the name alone.
Santa Claus lives in North Pole while Sinterklaas lives in Spain. Sinterklaas is not married while Mrs. Claus is waiting in North Pole. Sinterklaas rides a white horse with his Zwarte Pieten while Santa Claus rides a sleigh with his reindeers. No mention of elves either with Sinterklaas.
Here comes Sinterklaas!
Where you naughty or nice? Can you get some gifts for Christmas? Can you have Sinterklaas’ spiced biscuits and other treats? Part of every child growing up in Amsterdam is lining up the streets and canals of the city to have a glimpse of Sinterklaas and get some of his treats.
Sinterklaas arrival and parade is observed not just in Amsterdam or in Netherlands, it is observed in other countries due to the fact that many centuries ago, Holland had other territories. Spain, believed to be where Sint lives was once part of the Dutch colonies.
The Dutch capital city’s St. Nicholas parade is the largest in the world marked with floats and boats along its river and canal. There is no exact day for this event, but it happens every mid-November; for this year, it will be on November 15th.
Grand and elegant, Saint Nicholas arrives in the town with his whole entourage, the characters unique to Dutch culture, Pieten. Pieten serves as Sinterklaas’ assistant wearing medieval costumes and tasked to give away Dutch treats, called pepernoten or spiced biscuits. Zwarte Pieten or Black Peter is plays a significant role of the whole event and tradition from his mysterious history and the controversy many people forcibly want to bring up due to his black color.
Sinterklaas arrival is welcomed by thousands of people of all ages, lining up the kilometer of canals of Amsterdam. From the festive boats and floats, everyone wants to see a glimpse of Sinterklaas and his 400 Pietens. His arrives at Amstel River, the place where Amsterdam was first established (and where the name of the city came from) and follows a long route to major parts of the city like Magere Brug, Torontobrug, Nieuwe Amstelburg and the Hoge Sluis by the Royal Theater Carre.
The route culminates at the Maritime Museum or Scheepvaartmuseum and welcomed by the city mayor. From there, the parade starts.
Sinterklaas around Amsterdam
Once he disembarks his boat, Sinterklaas will tour around the city riding a white horse named Amerigo strutting all over the streets of Amsterdam to the delight of the spectators. His helpers, the Zwarte Pieten, throw cookies, candies, biscuits and treats to the beaming crowd while Sinterklaas waves at the audience.
Just like his arrival, the parade follows a route, passing important streets of the city including Prins Hendrikkade as well as Damrak. It has been calculated that Sinterklaas arrives at Dam Square by early afternoon. Once there, a musical program is held for kids across all ages and a time for Sinterklaas to rest and enjoy the spectators.
While the program is about to end, Sinterklaas continues his town visit and proceeds to Rokin, Rembrandtplein, Muntplein, Weteringcircuit, and Utrechtsestraat. His final stop is Leidseplein at the balcony of Stadsschouwburg, where he will give a special holiday message to everybody.
Saint Nicholas Day
Although the arrival and parade are held in mid-November, St. Nicholas day is observed every December 6 and on gift giving are held on the night of December 5th. Unlike Santa Claus, who gives his presents during Christmas Eve from the chimney, kids would lay their shoes where Sint can give his treats.
According to the legend, before going back to Spain, Sint would live a sack of treat for nice kids. Thus, kids would also include water or wine and even carrot for Sinteklaas’ horse. Treats given to kids are chocolate letters, marzipan, and other small bite treats. If naughty, kids will get coal though it seldom happens.
Sinterklaas arrival and parade all the way to Saint Nicholas Day has a strong religious connection compared to other Christmas festivities in other countries. Not just your usual Christmas event, Sinterklaas arrival and parade depict the deep connection of Dutch culture with Saint Nicholas and the spirit of Christmas.
This is a wonderful time to see locals enjoying the spirit of Christmas, less commercialized compared to other countries. Thus, this is something to look forward to and a wonderful event to witness when in Amsterdam during Christmas.