Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town…

Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town...

The tradition of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) arrived in North America with Dutch Settlers to New Amsterdam, now New York, in the 17th century. At the time, the gift-giving at the celebration of St. Nicholas' feast day was separate from the celebration of Christmas on December 25. As a result, the English-speaking community adopted him as Santa Claus. Since then, he has remained the patron of the gift-giving festivity of Christmas. Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) is known as Father Christmas in the United Kingdom.

St. Nicholas of Myra. Image courtesy of the Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church Erie

Saint Nicholas and His Servant by schoolteacher Jan Schenkman

Sinterklaas visiting the Hendrick I. Lott House (2020)

St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas did exist and lived from 271 A.D. to December 6, 342. Archeologists have even dug up his 4th-century tomb in the town of Myra, near the city of Anatolia in present-day Turkey. Nicholas was raised as a devout Christian in a wealthy family. When his parents died of an epidemic, he distributed his wealth among the poor and became a priest. Later he became Archbishop. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Holland built 23 churches dedicated to St. Nicholas, many of which still stand in Amsterdam, and adopted St Nicholas as its patron saint. St. Nicholas is pictured in medieval and renaissance paintings as a tall, dignified man dressed in red vestments


All Dutch children know that Sinterklaas (a derivate of "Sint Nicholaas") lives in Spain. In Spain, he spends most of the year recording the behavior of all children in a big red book while his helper Zwarte Piet stocks up on presents for next December 5. Then, in the first weeks of November, Sinterklaas gets on his white horse, Schimmel, Piet swings a huge sack full of gifts over his shoulder, and the three board a steamship headed for the Netherlands. Finally, around mid-November, they arrive, and the Mayor and a delegation of citizens greet them. The whole country watches their parade through town live on television, marking the beginning of the "Sinterklaas season."

Sinterklaas and his helpmate are suddenly everywhere at once. At night they ride across Holland, and Sinterklaas listens through the chimneys to check on the children's behavior. Piet jumps down the chimney flues and ensures that the carrot or hay the children have left for Schimmel are exchanged for small gifts and treats like pepermoten, taai-taai, or schuimpjes. 

So how do they manage to be all over the Netherlands at once? This is thanks to the "hulp-Sinterklazen," or Sinterklaas helpers, who dress up like Sinterklaas and Piet and help them. Children who become wise to these simulations, known as "sint-sightings," are told that since Sinterklaas cannot be in two places at once, he gets a little help from his friends. In the past, Sinterklaas carried a Birch switch used to punish naughty children, and Zwarte Piet was said to put bad children in his sack or leave them a lump of coal in their shoes instead of treats. Today, St. Nicholas is portrayed as a gentler figure, and Zwarte Piet is a jokester.

The Dutch have celebrated the Feast of Sinterklaas for centuries on the eve of his feast day on December 5.

Zwarte Piet and Schimmel

One of St. Nicholas's most notable companions is Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who entertains the children and distributes sweet treats as they travel through the Netherlands. The earliest illustration of Piet is found in the 1850 book Saint Nicholas and His Servant by schoolteacher Jan Schenkman, where he is depicted as a Black moor from Spain. In recent years, there has been controversy around Piet's appearance — his colorful and exaggerated 16th-century outfit, gold hooped earrings, curly wig, exaggerated large red lips, and full blackface — and its deeply rooted racist depiction of a servant. The second familiar character is Sinterklaas' fine white horse, Schimmel, who rides with him on December 5, delivering presents. Children often leave treats, like hay and carrots, for Schimmel, inside their shoes as a snack.

Sinterklaas Today

During this season, Dutch adults are busy shopping for and making presents. Tradition demands that all packages are camouflaged in some imaginative way and that an original poem accompanies every gift. Part of the fun is how presents are hidden and disguised. Recipients often have to go on a treasure hunt all over the house, aided by hints, to look for them. The original poem accompanying each present is another old and particularly challenging custom. Here the author has a field day with the recipient of the gift. Foibles, love interests, embarrassing incidents, funny habits, and well-kept secrets are all fair game. Finally, the recipient, the butt of the joke, opens their package publicly and reads the poem aloud. The real giver is supposed to remain anonymous because all presented technically come from Sinterklaas, and the recipients say, "Thank you, Sinterklaas!" even if they no longer believe in him. On December 5, most places of business close a bit earlier, and people head home to a table laden with traditional sweets and baked goods. Large chocolate letters - the first initial of each person present - serve as place settings. They share the table with gingerbread men and women known as "lovers." Early in the evening, sweets are eaten while everyone takes turns unwrapping their gifts and reading their poems. The emphasis is on originality and personal effort rather than the commercial value of the gift, which is one reason why Sinterklaas is such a delightful event for young and old alike.

Since 2015, the Lott House has been visited by Sinterklaas and Schimmel, greeting the children of Marine Park, handing out presents, and enjoying our holiday tree-lighting celebrations.