Sinterklaas and Christmas in the Netherlands

Europe is big on Christmas markets. The moment December hits, Christmas markets pop up in every city and town possible. In the Netherlands, stands are full of Oliebollen (fried dough balls), mulled wine, ornaments, Gebrannte Mandeln (Cinnamon roasted almonds), and much much more. Christmas lights are hung all over the city, massive Christmas trees stand in town centers, and carolers sing on weekend mornings.

Coming from small cities all around the Midwest and raised by Russian immigrant parents, I had never truly experienced Christmas cheer to this extent. Yes, we decorated our Christmas tree, wrapped presents, and decorated the house, but I had never experienced seeing masses of people on weekly adventures to Christmas markets. It was a shock in the best way possible. Every weekend, I was able to visit a city that was decorated beautifully, and it gave me an excuse to try numerous Dutch dishes and desserts.

While abroad, there was one Dutch holiday tradition that I was not aware of previously-Sinterklaas. This widely recognized holiday is celebrated from the second week of November to December 5th. Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas), allegedly arrives on a large boat with his (Piet) helpers from Spain. When landing in a Dutch port, Sinterklaas rides through the town on a white horse with church bells ringing.

To children, Sinterklaas is a present giver to the good and a warning to the bad. “Bad” children are told that if they misbehave, Sinterklaas will come to place them in a sack and teach them how to behave in Spain for an entire year.

Sinterklaas also comes to visit the children. Children leave shoes by the door or chimney of their homes and wait for Sinterklaas to leave them a little treat. These treats usually consist of Speculoos (spiced cookies), gingerbread men, chocolate letters, and other sweet treats. If the children were good, they would also hear a knock at their door on December 5th. Opening the door, they would find presents that indicate Sinterklaas’ approval of their behavior.

If I had not gone to the Netherlands, I never would have learned about the difference in celebrations between the Dutch and my own. Having the ability to experience this holiday first hand gave me a broader appreciation and understanding of Dutch culture.

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