Saturday, 7 December 2013

Holidays Around the World: Part 1

We are a team of expats living in countries far from home and different cultures from the ones we grew up knowing.
Some of us have written about our memories from our homeland and some have written about our new cultures. Here are some of our observations on the Holidays in our part of the world.

Thanks to Shannon of silent magician for her help organizing and formatting our articles so we can actually view the photos!



The Dutch do not approve of Sinterklaas being compared with Santa Claus. True, they are both wise old men dressed in red and white, sport long beards, and deliver gifts to good boys and girls. However, the first time I said there must be a connection, I was answered with indignant sputtering. The second time I joked to the Sint himself that I knew his friend. "Friend?" he said, "Well..."

Sinterklaas is celebrated with much festivity, showmanship, and national pride. The actual day is December 5th, but events begin with Sinterklaas's arrival to the Netherlands in mid-November. He, along with his Zwarte Piet assistants, travels by steamboat from Spain. Many families turn out to their local harbor to greet the boat, and the official arrival in Groningen is complete with television coverage and special news stories for the kids.
Arrival by steamboat.

Once he has arrived, he of course needs a place to sleep, so various cities set up their own Sinterklaashuis which is open to children to visit and see how he lives. They can play with the Zwarte Pieten, have their photo taken with Sinterklaas, and sign their name into his official book.

While the Sint is in the country, children put their shoes next to the fireplace or radiator each night, offer a carrot for his horse, and in the morning find a treat. Typical treats include pepernoten, speculaas, and chocolate letters. While Sinterklaas is primarily a children's holiday, adults also get into the spirit by exchanging small gifts on the 5th, sometimes accompanied by a poem written for the recipient.

Sinterklaas is a beloved holiday, but it isn't without controversy. The Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) character has come under criticism. Opponents are concerned he is a figure of slavery and object to the use of the black face paint that is part of the costume. Just this year the issue came up before the UN. On the other side, many (though not all) Dutch see him as the popular side-kick who is part of their tradition. I have heard several origin stories about Zwarte Piet. One Dutch friend explained that he was a slave who Sinterklaas rescued and freed. After offering him employment, Piet was so grateful he decided to work for him. My friend wondered if the historically greater division between boss and worker might play a part in the conception that he is a slave. For Dutch children, the modern Piet is portrayed as a friend and has taken on the role of the competent assistant to the rather absent minded Sint. As society evolves, the character will likely evolve as well as the issue continues to be debated.

Zwarte Piet at the Sinterklaashuis.
For the time being, Sinterklaas and the Black Pieten start the holiday season here in the Netherlands, and they continue to bring much joy and excitement to both Dutch children and adults.
by Shannon of silent magician
follow Shannon on her blog @


  1. Thanks for this insight Shannon... always interesting to hear what goes on in other parts of the world.

  2. So interesting! Thanks for telling us about Sinterklaas, Shannon!

  3. Brilliant Shannon, I had heard this story from a Dutch friend and I believe it is similar in some other scandanavian countries too. Lovely.

  4. Very interesting.Thanks for writing this Shannon. So much to learn about other countries.