Virtual Advent Tour & Giveaway: The Dutch Celebration of Sinterklaas

Advent Tour

For the Virtual Advent Tour, I would like to discuss not Santa Claus, but Sinterklaas, the Turkish bishop, who comes to the Netherlands and Belgium every November to celebrate his birthday on the 5th of December. Iris and I have teamed up and she will continue the story about Sinterklaas on his birthday tomorrow.

Sinterklaas has been a tradition in the Netherlands for hundreds of years. Originally, this bishop came to bring money to the poor, but these days it’s a children’s celebration.

Saint Nicholas arriving by boat

Sinterklaas arrives! Image via Wikipedia

SinterklaasSinterklaas: The story

Just like lots of children all over the world believe in Santa Claus, in the Netherlands it’s Sinterklaas they believe in and usually stop believing in around 7 or 8 years’ of age.

He lives in Spain and arrives by (steam) boat around the middle of November. This event is televised and marks the beginning of the Sinterklaas season. The highlight is of course his birthday when he comes to people’s houses and delivers many presents (for kids and grown-ups alike).

He’s not alone, with him are several Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) who help him distribute presents and sweets. Soon after he officially arrives in the Netherlands, he will also visit each individual town, either by boat or by horse (he officially rides a white horse called Amerigo). As you can imagine, there are a lot of stand-in Sinterklaas’ and Zwarte Piet’s!

Zwarte PietZwarte Piet with Child

Zwarte Piet has sweets in his bag (although in the old days he would use his bag to transport naughty children back to Spain!), notably pepernoten, which are small, slightly spicy biscuits (cookies). Usually Zwarte Piet will throw these around and kids collect them from the floor (when outdoors they get a fistful in their hand).


Pepernoten with other sweets

Sinterklaas: While he’s here

While Sinterklaas is around, from mid-November, he will visit schools, shops and other places. He doesn’t have a grotto or anything like it. However, kids can come to him and tell him what they’d like to get for presents.

Meanwhile, at night the children may put their shoe ready for Sinterklaas to drop a present in. Some lucky kids may be allowed to do this several times per week, others just once a week. They put their shoe near the fireplace (as we all know, Sinterklaas rides his horse over the rooftops and Zwarte Piet will come through the chimney). Children usually leave a drawing, a carrot or some straw for the horse in their shoe or leave it empty. What they all do, is sing a minimum of one Sinterklaas song standing near their shoe.

Shoes with message for Sinterklaas

Shoes with message for Sinterklaas

We have lots of Sinterklaas songs and they are sung every time we interact with Sinterklaas in some way (e.g., when he arrives in town, when we put down our shoe).

What might “Sint” put in your shoe? Expect a small gift (such as the smallest playmobil item), a book and/or some sweeties (like “mice and frogs”, picture right) or a chocolate letter with your own initial (picture left).

Chocolate LetterMice and Frogs

If you think that’s all, you’d be wrong! There are not many movies about Sinterklaas, but there are series on t.v. in which he features (different channels will have their own series). Usually these series run every evening or week until Sinterklaas’ birthday and they usually feature a story in which things go terribly wrong and Sinterklaas may not be able to deliver his presents on December 5th, unless… So exciting!

Furthermore, we have a daily Sinterklaas news show on t.v. with news that is related to Sinterklaas – a Zwarte Piet has lost his way, a child found a very special item in their shoe, the weather forecast (will it be too slippery for Sint to ride over the rooftops tonight?).

So you see, we Dutch are completely mad when it comes to Sinterklaas!

Visit Iris‘ blog tomorrow to find out what happens on Sinterklaas’ birthday, December 5th!


Now, since it’s Sinterklaas tomorrow, Iris and I are doing a giveaway! Two people can win a book by a well-known Dutch writer. You can enter if the Book Depository delivers to your country, as we will order the books from there. Stop by Iris‘ blog tomorrow for a chance to win The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulish.

Beyond Sleep by W. F. Hermans

Today you can win: Beyond Sleep by Willem Frederik Hermans. This is my favorite ever book that I first read when I was about 14 and read numerous times since.

The story: A PhD student in Geology goes on a summer trip to Norway to find evidence that meteorites have caused craters in the surface of North Norway. He travels with some Norwegian colleagues, but from the start, he is convinced that events conspire against him. He is suspicious of his fellow team members and of the Norwegian professor who did not provide him with the aerial maps that he was promised.

Things do not go well for poor Alfred. I love the writing and the story.

This book is also recommended in the Book Bloggers Abroad 2011 Challenge, so if you’re taking part in that, here’s your chance to win the book.

Sinterklaas PostcardsYou’ll also be entered to win a Sinterklaas postcard, showing how Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piets arrive by steam boot.

To enter:

Let me know in a comment what aspect of Sinterklaas you like or dislike, or what you think of the custom in general. Only meaningful answers, that show you have read the post, will count. Don’t forget to leave your email address so I can contact you if you win.

For an extra entry, twitter about this giveaway and leave the link in your comment (this will count only once).

This giveaway will close at the end of the day (Netherlands’ time, of course!) on December 11th.

You don’t have to be a follower to enter. The winner will be announced on this blog and will also be sent an email. Please answer the email within 3 days, or a new winner will be chosen.

Good luck and happy Sinterklaas!

About Judith
I'm owner and editor at and We edit books and articles for independent writers.

66 Responses to Virtual Advent Tour & Giveaway: The Dutch Celebration of Sinterklaas

  1. Marg says:

    I love that you and Iris have teamed up on this one! So cool!

    I must admit that I have loved the idea of Sinterklaas and Black Petes ever since I first heard of them from a Dutch friend online a few years ago!

    I do wonder if the people in Spain know that Sinterklaas lives there!

    • leeswammes says:

      Marg, it just happened that I “got” December 4th and Iris got December 5th (although I think she requested it). I think people in Spain have no idea about Sinterklaas, although I don’t know how that steam boat gets back to Spain unnoticed!

  2. Cindy says:

    (I’m not entering for the giveaway, just commenting.)

    I lived in Germany for a while and the custom there is very similar to Benelux Countries, especially the holiday treats. Pfeffernussen (the German name for Pepernoten) is my all-time favourite biscuit and I cheat and have them all year round.

    • leeswammes says:

      Cindy, how can you have pepernoten all year around? Do you make them yourself? Most people here buy them in the shops, they are available from the middle of September or so. Then we’re all complaining that Sinterklaas starts way too soon in the shops, just like in a lot of other countries people complain that shops start stocking Xmas goods much too early on.

  3. Mystica says:

    I like the idea of the special cookies. Since the Dutch ruled Sri Lanka or rather colonised it for some time, we do have lots of Dutch origin food including kokis and poffertjees and lots of Dutch names still in existence today!

    • leeswammes says:

      I don’t know kokis, Mystica, but it’s fun to hear that you have Dutch foods in Sri Linka. Aren’t poffertjes nice? (Explaining to others: they are very small pancakes, smaller than your thumb in diameter that we eat with powdered sugar).

  4. GeraniumCat says:

    I love the idea of little gifts in your shoe – I suppose it’s a bit like the advent calendars here which have chocolates behind each door, but I think it’s much nicer! I’ve been given pepernoten as a gift a couple of times – I think they are delicious. I think I’ll ask my son to look for them at the German market in Edinburgh this year.

    • leeswammes says:

      The gifts in shoes is really nice, GeraniumCat! As a child, you’d go downstairs in the morning and check whether there was something in your shoe. A bit like Christmas morning for other children.

      My family don’t actually eat normal pepernoten much anymore …. since we discovered chocolate-covered pepernoten. They are 20 times as nice!!! Hi hi!

  5. I like the idea of living somewhere that doesn’t obsess over December 25th, even if it’s just because there’s a celebration at another time of the month. And the gifts in shoes is sweet – it limits the amount you get much more effectively than stockings (Christmas stockings are often as big as a flour sack, I swear!). And I like the arrival by boat. It all sounds fun.

    • leeswammes says:

      Well, my family is “unlucky”” (or should that be lucky) that we’re living in the Netherlands but will celebrate Christmas in England. We don’t do much for Sinterklaas, though, as the kids are too old now.

      I know about the Christmas stockings, no way would you be able to wear them, they just look a little like stockings, really. πŸ™‚

  6. amymckie says:

    No need to enter me in the giveaway, I’m drowning in books here. Great post though, and great to hear more about Sinterklaas. I love the chocolate letters πŸ™‚

    • leeswammes says:

      Amy, how you could forsake the chance to win a book by a Dutch writer is beyond me! πŸ™‚

      Yes, the chocolate letters are fun and definitely one of the integral things about Sinterklaas.

  7. sprite says:

    Oh my gosh, I love this! I totally want a news program devoted just to Christmas stories every night in December!

    Sinterklass and Black Peter were the focus of a tv movie here in the U.S. about a decade ago explaining how eventually they came across the ocean to New Amsterdam, changing their names en route to become Santa Claus.

    • leeswammes says:

      I don’t know that movie, Sprite. So you were already familiar with Sinterklaas and Black Peter!

      Yes, a news program just for Sinterklaas is brilliant. Even at my age, I love it.

  8. It might be good to know that Santa Claus is a ‘descendant’ from Saint Nicholas! πŸ™‚

    One thing I like about Sinterklaas are the colourful velvet clothes Black Petes are wearing with huge feathers and all. But I really like everything together: all the special traditions that get us into the seasonal spirit. I don’t have any children, but still I enjoy this time of year. And I really don’t think it will be taken over completely by X-mas πŸ™‚

    BTW the most common candy that Black Petes hand out is kruidnootjes. It used to be pepernoten but almost no-one likes these :\ I know kruidnoten & pepernoten get confused a lot, but for someone getting upset by the wrong use of its & it’s it might be a point to make. πŸ˜‰

    Looking forward to Iris’ follow-up post.

    Thanks for sharing & happy holidays!

    • leeswammes says:

      Gnoe, funnly enough, I care deeply about “It’s” and “its”, but I’m sorry to say, I don’t ever use the word “kruidnootjes”. I never encountered this word as a child (or don’t remember it) and for me, Black Petes have pepernoten, no exception.

      I take it this is a big issue for you? πŸ™‚

      • gnoegnoe says:

        “I take it this is a big issue for you?” LOL No, not specifically. But in the context of a cultural histiry lesson I like to get the facts straight. You have to remember I work in a museum! πŸ˜‰

      • leeswammes says:

        Ah, that’s true. In a museum you don’t place bats in the birds’ section (so to speak).

        I just like to call these types of foods (2 types!) “pepernoten”. The other word (kruidnootjes) is just not in my vocabulary.

        On the other hand, I’m strict when it comes to other word choices. For instance, I will never say that I live in Holland (unless I move there, then maybe). πŸ™‚

  9. Bellezza says:

    I loved reading about Sinterklauss. I remember reading of him before, perhaps when I lived in Germany?, but not such details as chocolate frogs, mice or initials. I loved seeing the Droste emblem by the S! That is a dear childhood memory of mine, as my maternal grandfather was Dutch, and he always brought us Droste pastilles for Christmas. Blessings on you!

    • leeswammes says:

      Belezza, in Germany I think they have Sinterklaas but comes with a devil-type helper I think. I don’t think they have the chocolates like we have.

      Yes, Droste is an old Dutch chocolate brand. They are still known for their pastilles. Fun! So you are 1/4 Dutch, I don’t think I knew that. Leuk!

  10. Cass says:

    I love the shoe-presents! I want to do that with slippers. Your Sinterklaas, however, is a bit more…imposing? than the American rosy-cheeked version. The history of the Zwarte Piets is fascinating…are they always people in black face?

    • leeswammes says:

      Cass, Sinterklaas used to be a bit of a grumpy old and imposing man but these days he’s much more friendly. He does keep his distance more than Santa Claus, he is someone to look up to.

      The Zwarte Piets are always black-faced. It’s a remnant of the Moors who would help the real Sinterklaas (Saint Nicolaas) with distributing the presents.

  11. Mystica says:

    Apparently kokis is a derivation from ijer kokis (spelling may be wrong) iron cookies. We dip an iron (normally a flower pattern) into batter and then dip into hot oil, it slips off the iron easily and thats kokis! I can remember my grandmother saying its dutch origin

    • leeswammes says:

      Mystica, the kokis are still not ringing a bell! πŸ™‚

      Iron is ijzer in Dutch. But we also have eier cookies (same pronounciation but it means egg cookies). Your explanation sounds more like waffles. It bugs me that I can’t think what this would be, but maybe we don’t even have that sort of cookies now, it’s possible.

  12. Margot says:

    Thanks for sharing this lovely tradition. I especially liked hearing how it began. A good message about helping people less fortunate. I also like the similarities between Santa Claus and Sinterklaas with the emphasis on bringing magic and pleasure to children. Happy Sinterklaas to you too.

  13. jan says:

    Wow leeswammes, I have not heard of Sinterklass before! What a facinating read! I would like to read more about where the legend comes from and the Bishop who originally came to bring money to the poor. These are interesting characters that help him. What is the origin of these? I find the idea of them taking naughty children back to Spain quite frightening! A bit of a mixed bag for children in the old days I would think! I am curious to hear a Sinterklass song that would be sung by the children near their shoes.
    Happy Sinterklass to you and thank you for a very interesting post today.

  14. Pingback: Virtual Advent Tour & Giveaway: Sinterklaas Evening | Iris on Books

  15. Nadine Nys says:

    As I grew up in Belgium, I’m familiar with the custom of Sinterklaas and I have always loved it. The most vivid memory I have is when I was standing in the kitchen with my back to the chimney and suddenly chocolates and cookies flew all around me. Ofcourse I was convinced Sinterklaas was on the roof of our house so I flew out to see him, but unfortunately I was to late.
    My mother told me that one day we were waiting to meet the holy man in a supermarket where all the kids could say what they wanted from him and when it was almost our turn there was a little boy who pulled off the beard of Sinterklaas so my mother turned round immediately with me and told me we would come back later to see him. Luckily I hadn’t seen Sinterklaas without his beard but I couldn’t understand why we left.
    I think I especially loved the idea that when you were good you were rewarded by this man who kept track of everything you did.

    I’m only sorry I’m too old now to belief in such a man.


    • leeswammes says:

      Thanks for sharing your memories, Nadine. I was devastated when I found out that Sinterklaas didn’t exist! I wanted to be a Black Pete and move to Spain. How’s that for seeing your career perspectives go down the drain at 8 years’ of age?

  16. Court says:

    Wow. I really don’t know much about the traditions in other countries. Thanks so much for sharing – I’m definitely looking forward to reading the rest of the Sinterklaas tradition later!

  17. Lorren says:

    I loved reading about this tradition! My family comes from Belgium and I have been wanting to include more traditions from our homeland in our Christmas tradition. I love the idea of leaving the shoe out – I used to have the children I babysat do this. If they were good, they got a treat. Now maybe I will do this when I have children to get them in the Christmas spirit. πŸ™‚ Thanks for the great post!

  18. oh says:

    Sinterklaas – a wonderful word, on its own. I love this entry. We get so wrapped up in our own traditions, we only get glimpses of others. And while I love the idea of things that fly (like sleighs and carpets, etc), the fact that Sinterklaas travels by horse is far more believable (tho’ the rooftop thing is where the magic comes in!) Oh, and I do love horses. I cannot imagine our jolly round US Santa on a horse!

    And everyone celebrates Sinter’s birthday? excellent. A good plan. OPens up the giving idea. And then, I love the shoes with letters to Sinter and treats for his horse. Best of all though, is that one must sing next to one’s shoe. I’m thinking of having the family sing by their Xmas stockings this year AND leaving Santa a letter rather than cookies and milk. Part of the fun of all our global sharing is “borrowing” some traditions here and there form one another.

    Thanks for this, I love it!

    • leeswammes says:

      That’s going to be fun Oh, when you have your family sing a song at their Christmas stockings! I think it makes it even more “real” that Santa is out there. And to think that he’s actually listening to you sing…!

  19. Rachel says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this Judith! I love hearing about the traditions of other cultures πŸ™‚

    I love that you get little gifts in your shoes! Do the parents decide whether they get to put their shoes out more than one day? Does that cause any jealousy in the neighbourhood that some kids get more gifts than others?

    I guess that it no different to putting a stocking out on Christmas eve to get a small gift off Santa!

    We used to put out a carrot for Santa’s reindeer .. and a bucket of water because I thought they would be really thirsty πŸ˜‰ and some Christmas cake and a glass of milk for Santa.. oh how I miss those traditions now I am an adult. Thanks for the giveaway too! That book sounds really interesting.

  20. I enjoyed learning about Sinterklaas from you and Iris. Chocolate, even if it’s in my shoe, sounds good to me. I’d let Sinterklaas in anytime. (We have those chocolate letters here too. I loved getting a C in my stocking!)

    Chrisbookarama at gmail dot com

  21. Claire says:

    Wow, I’ve never heard of it! I always like learning new things. & Yum, who doesn’t love chocolate?

  22. What an interesting post! I didn’t know about this tradition at all, even though I was aware that other European countries have different traditions at this time of year. How interesting!

    I found it quite funny that the Bishop is from Turkey but lives in Spain and only ever visits Holland to give out gifts πŸ™‚ I wonder if the Spanish know that they harbour such a famous man for 11 months of the year?

    My favourite bits are the gifts in the shoes (that would be the equivalent of how excited I got when I woke up to find that Santa Claus had left a stocking on the end of my bed!) and also the news every night – what a lovely idea.

    Hope you had a great weekend, Judith. Do you celebrate Christmas with your family too? Is your husband English (or did I just make that up?).

    My email address (as requested) just in case I win is:

    • leeswammes says:

      Boof, there is a whole history behind this bishop from Turkey in Spain coming to the Netherlands. But I don’t know it all and didn’t want to get too serious in my post.

      We didn’t celebrate Sinterklaas much ourselves as we will celebrate Christmas. Yes, my husband is Engllish and we’ll be going to England for Christmas, as most years.

      We had a get together with my mother yesterday (Sinterklaas day) with pepernoten and chocolate letters etc. So we still had some of the fun.

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  24. I was traveling and missed this great post, Judith! I hope there was something wonderful in everyone’s shoes!

  25. Kailana says:

    I love when people post together! Thanks for joining in with the tour and happy holidays!

  26. Wow, that’s a very interesting tradition. I would like to experience myself that kind of Christmas celebration. Cool, really really cool. I love the shoes part. Too bad, I’m not a kid anymore once I go there. πŸ™‚

    Happy Holidays to you, Judith! πŸ™‚

  27. Host says:

    Great post! In Croatia, we have something or rather someone similar – St. Nicholas. He was also a bishop famous for his charitable work and for helping children and seamen. Nowadays, children (and grownups sometimes πŸ™‚ ) leave their boots by the window on the 5th December for St. Nicholas. He comes in the night so that on 6th of December the boots are full of presents.
    Your customs are so great – I wish we celebrated St. Nicholas’ day whole month.

    • leeswammes says:

      Host, your St. Nicholas is the same as our Sinterklaas – his official name is St. Nicholas, too. I didn’t know you have a similar thing in Croatia! Do you also celebrate Christmas with presents? We don’t.

      • Host says:

        Yes we do celebrate Christmas with presents but they are brought by Baby Jesus not Santa πŸ™‚

      • leeswammes says:

        That’s interesting, Host. Baby Jesus because it’s his birthday? How does he bring the presents? I’m just trying to picture what the kids in Croatia will think about how Jesus delivers the presents. Like Santa Claus has a sledge with raindeer and Sinterklaas has his horse that he takes on the roofs.

  28. Host says:

    Oh – I forgot about an e-mail address! Here it is:
    franalokas (at) yahoo (dot) com

    • Host says:

      It is nothing elaborate; he just appears by magic and brings the presents for good children. Croatia had the communist regime until 1990 and religion was forbidden. We secretly celebrated Christmas and out granny would tell the stories about the birth of Baby Jesus and how he loves good children and he rewards them for their kindliness. The Santa Claus came on The New Years Eve and brought presents but his name translated in English would be Grandfather Frost – it had nothing to do with religion. After the 1990 he was renamed into Santa Claus who brings presents on Christmas and Baby Jesus disappeared 😦 So nowadays children are only taught about Santa, unfortunately.

      • leeswammes says:

        Thanks for explaining. I find it funny that when religion was forbidden you had Baby Jesus deliver the presents and now that it’s not forbidden anymore, he’s disappeared.

        I like Grandfather Frost, that sounds so nice!

  29. Esme says:

    Great post. I love how the celebration of Christmas is slightly different in Europe (okay) more than slightly different than it is in N. America. First of all you keep to tradition more-no Happy Holidays-and it is quainter over there-not commercialized as it is here. We do not celebrate with the chocolate here as much-of course that is my favorite part of the story.

    Let me ask you-if Sinterklaas is Turkish bishop-why is he coming from Spain?

    • leeswammes says:

      Esme, that’s right, Christmas is not so over-commercialized here, but really only because there are no presents. Believe me, the shops are trying their best to get you to decorate to the full and to buy expensive foods for Christmas dinner.

      But, that’s the Netherlands. in England, where I lived for a long time, things are very much more commercialized. Christmas is big business there. I’m not sure if it is different from N. America.

      This Turkish bishop, I’m not sure why he came from Spain. Maybe that’s where he spent some time, or maybe that’s where people expected bishops to come from in the old days? Or maybe Spain was exotic enough for people, Turkey would be too far-fetched for them? As you can tell, I don’t know.

  30. Don’t know if it’s too late to comment on the post to enter! I re-tweeted about it, and will tweet again today.

    coffeeandabookchick at gmail dot com in Florida

    I love to learn about how each country and culture celebrates for the holidays! I’m all about trying some of that pepernoten, too! I lived overseas as a kid, and I want to say it was in Greece when we put out our shoes and would get candy in them the next morning! I sort of miss that tradition in the States.

  31. leeswammes says:


  32. Erika says:

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful tradition. We celebrate St. Nicholas Day at our home – on a small scale. He leaves a toy and a candy in our shoes. I’d love to get some wooden shoes to use each year.

    • leeswammes says:

      Erika, how nice that you also celebrate St. Nicholas day! Is this a tradition because some of your ancestors are Dutch?

      We don’t have wooden shoes, I don’t think many people have. For St. Nicholas we just use the daily wear shoes. πŸ™‚

  33. Beth F says:

    When my brother and sister-in-law lived in Lieden the told me about this tradition. I especially loved the putting out the shoes (instead of the stockings, which are common in other parts of the world). My nephew was upset because he was just a toddler and though his shoes were too small to get many presents, so he put out his dad’s shoe instead.

    I’m going to have to find a recipe for those biscuits. Off to read Iris’s post now.

    • leeswammes says:

      Beth, Sinterklaas will leave a present *next* to your shoe if it doesn’t fit in, but of course, to be on the safe side, a bigger shoe is handy. πŸ™‚

      I’ve never made pepernoten myself, I don’t think many people do. They are abundant in the shops though.

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