As the days get colder and shorter, a much-needed source of light and warmth sails down the Groningen canals. A large bearded man stands out in the crowded green boat. He is dressed in red and white, with a large bishop’s hat adorning his head like a crown. The first thing to come to mind is Santa Klaus, but November 19th seems way too early for Christmas traditions. Hundreds of children and families fill the streets, yelling ‘Sinterklaas’ and waving to the boat in excitement.
This is the scene I see on a regular November morning as I take a stroll. Colourfully-dressed children pour through the streets, making their way to the canals, where they might catch a glimpse of Sinterklaas. The city centre streets are so crowded that cyclists have to get off their bicycles to avoid knocking over any children and bystanders like myself are forced into the procession. I make my way to higher ground to take in the incredible sight.
Accompanying Sinterklaas is his reliable white steed, Ozosnel (previously known as Amerigo), and his trusty helpers, the Black Piets. Dressed in various colourful outfits – from red to purple, yellow and green – a sea of Black Piets give the excited children delicious pepernoten, a tasty gingerbread that leaves you wanting more.
While the arrival of Sinterklaas is surely enough to lift your spirits in the wintertime, the elation and holiday spirit doesn’t end there. His arrival from Spain is just the beginning for many Dutch children. In the weeks following, children can watch ‘Sinterklaas Journaal’ to keep up with news about Sinterklaas in anticipation of the 5th of December. It is on this day, Pakjesavond, that Sint and his Black Piets work together to give every well-behaved man, woman, and child a present. Before Pakjesavond, is also customary for Sinterklaas to leave a couple of little gifts in your shoe in the form of candy or chocolate letters, pepernoten, and other trinkets.
I spent the past weekend with my boyfriend’s family, who have always celebrated Sinterklaas with more passion and holiday spirit than Christmas. When I suggested that Christmas was the best holiday of the year and that Sinterklaas seemed to be a knock-off version of Santa, I was almost thrown out into the cold. And now I can truly see why Sinterklaas is so important. For many Dutch people, childhood was synonymous with a belief in Sinterklaas and his Piets.
Growing up in Zambia, I spent my Christmases sitting by the pool in 30-degree weather. My family certainly celebrated the Christmas tradition of exchanging gifts and eating delicious Christmas food, but there was no emphasis on the mythology of Santa Klaus, and thus no sense of magic. We didn’t need theatrics to lift our spirits because the summertime did it for us. Now living in the Netherlands, where the Sun rises and sets after a few hours, and the cold seeps into your bones, I understand the need for magic. Anything warm, sweet, and cheerful to lift our seasonal depressed spirits is encouraged in the darkest and coldest season of the year.
Although there are many parallels between Sinterklaas and Christmas, I don’t see a need to get rid of one. Everyone wishes the dark and depressing winter had more uplifting occasions. The more gezellig time we spend with our friends and family, the better we will be at beating the beast of December.