The various manifestations of the St. Nicholas character seem to make an appearance in many cultures around the Christmas season. Where Santa Claus is the familiar character in America, Sinterklaas is the bearer of gifts and treats in the Netherlands.
According to the Dutch, Sinterklaas (or Sint Nikolaas), lives in Spain and arrives in Amsterdam by steamboat. Each year in November, he enters the city at NEMO, where eagerly awaiting children greet him enthusiastically. From there, Sinterklaas embarks on a tour of the country, stopping at schools to hand out pepernoten – small, round biscuits similar to gingerbread.
Sinterklaas is also the bearer of gifts, and in eager anticipation, children set their shoes next to the fire place on the evening of December 4th. That night, Sinterklaas rides around the country’s rooftops on his white horse, delivering gifts. In contrast to the American tradition of leaving milk and cookies, Dutch children leave out a carrot for Sinterklaas’ horse. On December 5th, children awake to find their shoes filled with treats and small gifts, the most common of which is a chocolate letter (the first letter of the child’s name).
However, Sinterklaas doesn’t actually go down the chimney himself; it is the job of his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) to climb down the chimney and deliver the gifts. This is the official reason that the Zwarte Pieten are black – it’s from all of the soot. However, these days it’s more commonly accepted that the Zwarte Pieten were actually slaves, and not black from the soot at all.
Christmas is also celebrated with an exchange of gifts, and families place presents under the tree on Christmas Eve. However, Sinterklaas plays no role in this part of the holiday.
In November and December it is not uncommon to see a man dressed as Sinterklaas, accompanied by his black faced helpers, around the neigbhorhoods of Amsterdam (yes, even in the Red Light District). If you see them, don’t be alarmed. They just want to feed you some pepernoten.