In the Netherlands, the Christmas season is marked by a sequence of typical Dutch festivities. Enjoyed by both children and adults, these events are a great way for expats to enjoy and learn more about Dutch culture. Some traditions, however, have considerable controversy attached to them. We will not only walk you through the lighthearted elements of the yuletide months in the Netherlands. On this page you can learn about both sides of the argument over ‘zwarte piet’ as well.

Sinterklaas in NL

Arrival of Sinterklaas

There is no festivity more quintessentially Dutch than ‘Sinterklaas’! Here is the story:

  • ‘Sinterklaas’, or ‘St. Nicholas’ is a 4th-century Saint 
  • He is considered to be the patron saint of children in the Netherlands
  • December 5th was his birthday
  • According to legend, he gave gifts of gold to three poor girls for their dowries on this date
  • To commemorate it today, children receive chocolate coins and presents ‘from Sinterklaas’
  • He brings gifts to each household in secret, and drops them off in a sack on the doorstep 
  • Usually, neighbors help one another out with this process
  • ‘Sinterklaas’ has to drop the sack outside the house, bang on the door and scram before the children run to it shouting ‘Sinterklaas!’ 
  • The kids always hope to catch sight of the retreating Sinterklaas
  • However, if all goes to plan, they simply find the sack of gifts and fail to notice their happy neighbor, peeking round the corner and giggling

The Arrival of Sinterklaas in NL

In mid-November, Sinterklaas makes his official entry into the Netherlands. This is a big event in Holland! Here is what happens:

  • Sinterklass travels to the Netherlands from Spain in his steamboat
  • He comes accompanied by his helpers: the ‘Zwarte Pieten’
  • Every year, a Sinterklaas ‘procession’ is televised
  • Preceding this day, Dutch television broadcasts three weeks’ worth of the ‘Daily Sinterklaas News 
  • Between his arrival and December 5th he is very busy
  • He brings candies, cookies and gifts to schools, businesses and hospitals all across the country
  • He and his helpers may even decide to pay a surprise visit to some children’s homes at night
  • In order to control the excitement, parents usually only let him visit twice a week
  • This means they are not dragged out of bed at 6 o’clock every morning, to see if there are any new surprises

Sinterklaas for Grownups in NL

Sinterklaas is not only a holiday for children. Grown-ups like to participate in the fun too:

  • Adults give one another gifts called ‘surprises’
  • They can be either serious or silly
  • Typically, they are homemade and accompanied by a poem
  • The poem is meant to gently mock the receiver
  • It will summarize a few events from their past year
  • It might also mention their quirks, habits and the silly mistakes they have made

Zwarte Piet: A Controversial Children’s Friend

Traditionally, ‘Zwarte Piet’ is Sinterklaas’s helper. Whilst he is popular with children, he is a very controversial character as well:

The Zwarte Piet Debate in NL

  • Most Dutch parents had considered zwarte Piet to be a fun, innocent part of the Sinterklaas festivities 
  • Zwarte Piet has been given an iconic status in Dutch culture
  • Now, some Dutch people believe that families have been tolerating racist activities in their very own homes

How to Settle the Controversy?

The traditional answer to any discussion of this nature in the Netherlands is, of course… compromise! However, because the topic is so delicate, reaching a peaceful agreement has proved challenging:

  • Concessions have been made to try and ease the tension
  • There was a suggestion that Zwarte Piet could be given another color and a new name, such as ‘Rainbow Piet 
  • This was immediately rejected by those who radically oppose his existence
  • They feel that the entire symbol of slavery must be eradicated
  • The mayor of Amsterdam decreed that during the Sinterklaas procession through Amsterdam, the Zwarte Pieten were not to wear golden hoops in their ears
  • How democratic this decision was is unclear 
  • It received a mixed public response, and did not put an end to the controversy

In the fall of 2014, it looked as if a final answer had been settled upon:

  • The ‘Sinterklaas News program‘ for children showed an old factory in which candidates for the position of Zwarte Piet had to go down a chimney
  • When they reemerged, their faces were covered in black soot
  • The Zwarte Pieten who had already qualified for the position in previous years kept their blackened faces
  • The sooty-faced Pieten opened up the possibility of there being other ‘Piet’ colors in the future
  • Some of these are now used in Sinterklaas parades around the Netherlands

The Zwarte Piet Protest 

  • During the nationally televised arrival of Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet’s opponents held a silent protest
  • They gathered in the square where the mayor was to welcome Sinterklaas
  • They were removed by the police, with force 
  • This led to a lot of commotion as well as heated and emotional online debate 

It remains unclear how this is all to end. Only one thing is certain:

  • One side believes that Zwarte Piet is to the Dutch what bullfights are to the Spaniards. For them, this is reason enough for this typical Dutch festivity to live on
  • The other side maintains that Zwarte Piet has lost his innocence forever. No amount of change will eliminate or undo his tainted identity. They believe the custom must be extinguished

Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve in NL

Unlike in many other countries, Sinterklaas could be considered a bigger festive event than Christmas day and New Years Eve in NL:

Dutch Christmas Day

  • Christmas Day itself is normally reserved for religious observances and family get-togethers
  • It is, however, becoming more common to give even more gifts on this day in the Netherlands

New Years Eve in NL

  • The stroke of midnight, on New Year’s Eve, signals that it is time to pay a quick visit to your neighbors
  • It is customary to offer them good wishes for the coming year
  • Typically, New Year’s Day is a quiet continuation of the celebrations
  • This sounds rather tame and civilized, but don’t worry: 
  • There are plenty of wild New Year’s Eve parties to attend in Dutch cities. Those who want to mark this festivity by going all out will be well catered for!

Side Note

Dutch National Holidays

January 1: New Year’s Day

February 14: Valentine’s Day

February/March: Carnival

March/April: Good Friday

March/April: Pasen – Easter Sunday and Monday

April 27: Koningsdag – King’s (Birth)day

May 4: Dodenherdenking (Commemoration of the Dead)

May 5: Bevrijdingsdag (Liberation Day)

May: Hemelvaartsdag (Ascension Day)

May, 2nd Sunday: Mother’s Day

May/June: Pinksteren (Whit Sunday)

Tweede Pinksterdag Monday (Whit Monday)

June, 3rd Sunday: Father’s Day

September, 3rd Tuesday: Prinsjesdag (Opening of Parliament)

October 4: Dierendag (International Animal Day)

November 11: St. Maarten

December 5: Sinterklaas

December 25 and 26: First and Second Christmas Day

December 31: New Year’s Eve

Around Easter, the Dutch eat 32 million eggs.

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