On this day in Dutch history
The 5th of December has traditionally been the day that the Netherlands (and some other areas) celebrate Sinterklaas. The Belgians celebrate Sinterklaas on the 6th of December (which is obviously because Sinterklaas can’t cover TWO countries in only one day.)
There are many traditions surrounding Sinterklaas, so let’s discuss a few of them.
Putting your shoe out
This was already a tradition in the 15th century. Sources from 1427 indicate that poor people put their shoes in the Saint Nicholaschurch in Utrecht on the 5th of December. Rich people would then visit the church and put money or something else in the shoes. The next morning all donations would be shared equally amongst the poor.
At some point, the shoe tradition moved to people’s homes. Jan Steen depicted Sinterklaas Morning on the 6th with children receiving presents and shoes lying about. There were both presents and candy in those shoes.
As the Netherlands is mostly a Protestant country, there were some objections to the Saint Nicholas celebrations from Protestants in the 17th, 18th and 19th century, who objected to the Catholic worshipping of saints.
The current shoe tradition starts earlier, with children putting their shoes underneath the chimney (as that is where Zwarte Piet climbs down) as soon as Sinterklaas arrives in the country in November. Children without a chimney put their shoes at the heater or the backdoor. They usually leave hay or a carrot for the horse in the shoe, and sing a traditional Sinterklaas song.
While the gifts in the shoes were an old tradition, the growing affluence after World War II meant that parents could give their children more presents. Sinterklaas transformed from a mysterious figure to a grandpa-like friend who would deliver a whole sack of presents to families. Companies and unions also started celebrating Sinterklaas, giving small presents to the younger children of the employees. Primary schools also joined in on the festivities. For the younger children, the parents are usually responsible for buying a gift which the child gets at school from Sinterklaas. The older children do the same thing a lot of other grown ups do amongst themselves:
Basically, Secret Sinterklaas is a lot like Secret Santa. You get a group of people together, have them draw cards with a name on it, and then they have to buy a present for that person. The group then gets together around the 5th of December and celebrates Pakjesavond.
However, Secret Sinterklaas is different from Secret Santa in two important ways:
Everyone usually writes a short (or long, if you’re feeling cruel) poem in the aabbccdd rhyming scheme for their recipient. This poem is always about the recipient, and is often used to gently mock the recipient for past mishaps, their hobbies, their habits, and things like that. The poems also tend to have a few tantalising hints as to what the present is. If you take part in this long enough, you will learn the generic clichéd rhymes that always work.
Surprises are, well, surprises. They’re packages that contain the present, often involve paper maché and can be quite annoying to unpack so you can finally get your present. If your recipient loves Pokemon, make them a Pokemon ball, where I suspect the presents are in the two halves. Or you can turn your present into a steamboat. (glueing swabs of cotton wool onto paper is hellish, by the way.) It’s a handy way of disguising what your present is until the recipient actually unwraps it.
Apart from the presents, these are the most important part of Sinterklaas. Traditional sweets and candies include but are not limited to: pepernoten, chocolate letters (often the first letter of someone’s name in chocolate. Otherwise, the first letter of the last name will do, or simply the S for Sinterklaas.), speculaas dolls (ginger dolls, basically), taai taai and marsepein (marzipan).
Have a good Sinterklaas, everyone. Tomorrow, I’ll write a bit about Saint Nicholas of Myra himself, seeing as how the 6th is his deathday.
(There are more Sinterklaas traditions than this, obviously, but I think I picked the most common ones)