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Sinterklaas Arrives: St. Nicholas’ Eve in the Netherlands

Each year on his birthday, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands with his helpers and gives out candies and gifts to children who have been good. Saint Nicholas Eve, the night before St. Nicholas Day, is also a time of gift-giving and pleasant surprises among adults, in honor of the real saint this holiday is based on.

In this article, you’ll learn about how the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas and about the traditional Sinterklaas stories.

Ready? Let’s get started!

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1. What is St. Nicholas’ Eve?

St. Nicholas Eve is the night before Sinterklaas and the Saint’s birthday. On this night, Saint Nicholas arrives in the Netherlands with presents. Although most Dutch people have grown up with this celebration, for most non-Dutch people this holy man is an entirely unfamiliar phenomenon. So let’s get to know him!

The Saint and his helpers arrive in the Netherlands from Spain around mid-November. From then on, children get to place their shoes next to the hearth before they go to bed so that Saint Nicholas’ helpers (known as Black Peters) can put a small gift in them (for example, a chocolate letter).

Black Peter is Sinterklaas’ helper. Many children love the “Peters” because they like to be mischievous; they dance comically and throw candies around for the children to pick up. They climb on rooftops and come down the chimney at night to put a little gift in the children’s waiting shoes. Of course, this is only for children who have been good all year. Children who’ve been bad are put in the sack and taken back to Spain.

In Holland, the name of Sinterklaas’ horse is Amerigo. We also know him as a grey. But in Flanders, the name of Sinterklaas’ horse is Bad-Weather-Today!

2. When is St. Nicholas’ Eve?

December 5

Each year, the Dutch celebrate St. Nicholas’ Eve on December 5.

3. Saint Nicholas Eve Celebrations

Chocolate Letters

All the children sing special Sinterklaas songs for Saint Nicholas and his “Peters” as they put their shoes out. They also watch the Sinterklaas News daily on national television to stay informed about their activities.

Adults also celebrate by exchanging gifts on behalf of the Saint during Sinterklaas parties. These are usually accompanied by a special little Sinterklaas-themed rhyming poem—a kind of limerick—and are wrapped similarly to how Christmas gifts in the United States are. Family members and friends often draw names to know who to prepare a surprise for. The surprise element here is far more important than the actual gift-giving!

The Dutch also do plenty of feasting and drink lots of hot chocolate in celebration of the life of the real St. Nicholas, who was known for giving gifts to children.

4. Where was Sinterklaas Born?

Do you know where the good Saint originally came from, according to history books?

About 1700 years ago, Sinterklaas was born in the town of Patara (present-day Turkey), and not in Spain as most Dutch people think. The location of the Saint’s headquarters is top-secret, of course.

If you’ve been bad this year and he takes you back with him in the sack, the question is whether you’ll end up in Spain or in Turkey!

5. Essential St. Nicholas’ Eve Vocabulary

Saint Nicholas

Here’s some Dutch vocabulary for you to memorize before St. Nicholas’ Eve!

  • Wortel — “Carrot”
  • Maan — “Moon”
  • Schoorsteen — “Chimney”
  • Pepernoot — “Spice nut”
  • Speculaas — “Ginger cookie”
  • Chocoladeletter — “Chocolate letter”
  • Zwarte Piet — “Black Pete”
  • Sinterklaas — “Saint Nicholas”
  • Pakje — “Present”
  • Amerigo — “Amerigo”
  • Mijter — “Mitre”
  • Vijf december — “December 5”
  • Roe — “Birch rod”
  • Sinterklaasfeest — “Saint Nicholas Day”

To hear each of these vocabulary words pronounced, and to read them alongside relevant images, check out our Dutch St. Nicholas’ Eve vocabulary list!

Final Thoughts

What are your thoughts on the Dutch Sinterklaas celebrations? I think we can all agree that a holiday involving gifts, singing, and hot chocolate is a good one. 😉

This holiday doesn’t even scratch the surface of Dutch culture and traditions, though. If you want to learn even more about the Netherlands and the Dutch people, or perhaps some more vocabulary for the winter, has plenty of fun and informative sources for you to check out:

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