In Holland, children couldn't care less about Santa or Father Christmas. They know he's not real but just a man in a fat suit. The man they are waiting for, and who gives them their presents is Sinterklaas, along with Zwarte Piet, his helper.
Sinterklaas, or Sint Nicolaas, is a bishop dressed in red robes and a red mitre, and he arrives in Holland (and Belgium) on a steamboat from Spain. This year he will arrive on the 17th of November. Kids wait anxiously at the harbor for him to show up. The boat does not only bring Sinterklaas, but also his helpers, Zwarte Pieten, black men and women who are acrobats, jugglers, and hand out sweeties to the children. They are also the ones who keep track of who's been naughty or nice, so parents keep telling their children to be careful because 'Zwarte Piet can see and hear everything!'
After Sinterklaas has arrived, children can start putting their shoes out in front of the fire (or radiator as the case may be) for him at night. They will put a bowl of water next to it and a carrot in it for Sinterklaas' horse, on which he rides the rooftops, and usually a letter to Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, to let them know what they'd like to get. Just putting your shoes out isn't enough, you have to sing a few songs too! There are lots of special Sinterklaas songs, about the gifts he might bring, the sweeties, his helper Zwarte Piet and how they come through the chimneys (hence Zwarte Piet being black) to bring it all to the children.
Then, if you're lucky and have been good enough, you will find a little something in your shoe. Chocolate coins, chocolate initials, marzipan figures (typically Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, but also boats, carrots and shoes), or even a little toy, but nothing big. That's for Sinterklaasavond, Sinterklaas night, the evening of the 5th of december.
That evening, Sinterklaas will bring his presents to all those who have been good this year. Sinterklaas keeps track of all this in a big book, red with a gold cross on it. Some children are lucky enough to have Sinterklaas come visit their home, others will find a big bag of gifts on their doorstep, in the loft or sometimese they'll find gifts on the dinner table the next morning. It's a very magical time for young kids.
But then comes the time of doubt and disbelief. Maybe Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet aren't real. He did look a lot like the neighbour... And wasn't that Dad's hand throwing sweets in the living room when you weren't looking? And that letter that Sint wrote, that looked like Mum's handwriting....
By the time children are 8 or 9, they will have figured out (or have been told by their classmates) that Sint isn't real and their parents have been fibbing. As sad and heartbreaking as this news can be, it does open the door to a whole new ritual: lootjes trekken, or drawing names to figure out who you need to buy a present for, something that's done in clubs, families and even schools.
But buying presents isn't all: you have to write a poem and sign it with 'Sint and Piet' in which you will tease the person you've bought for, and give some hints about what the present might be, and you need to 'wrap' it in a so called surprise (pronounced the Frenck way).
A surprise is something you yourself have crafted, and which takes the mick out of the person you're buying for, or is something that they like, or something they don't want anyone to know. It could be anything, from a giant lipstick for the girl who can't get enough of looking at herself in the mirror to stinky socks for your smelly brother to a huge bucket of sticky stuff for your mum to wade through. When I was 13, I had to wear braces and my uncle made me a huge mouth with braces, wrote me a long poem about how I had a speech impediment due to my teeth being crooked, and he put a little bag with red food dye for the bit of flesh I had removed between my teeth. I had to do that all over again with this surprise, and in that little bag he had put a note saying where I could find my present. He had hid it somewhere in the house. It was the best surprise ever.
Sinterklaas can cause an awful lot of stress. Not only do you have to buy for someone, but thinking of what surprise to make them and actually crafting it as well as writing a poem can be difficult. In lots of homes there will be 'keep out' signs on bedroom doors, and people yelling to each other about where they left the sticky tape and glue, or how come they can't find the scissors or needle and thread. But come Sinterklaas avond it will all be worth it.
Sinterklaas is slowly losing it from his cousin Santa. Shops owners seem to be more interested in a commercial Christmas than this Dutch tradition, but I would hate to see this wonderful tradition go.
So even though I now live in the UK, I'm trying to keep the spirit of Sinterklaas alive. I will be watching Sint's arrival in Holland on telly for sure! And who knows, he might even send a Zwarte Piet over who will put something in my shoe. I have been a good girl this year, after all....
http://www.dutchmarket.com/skshop.html for Sinterklaas goodies!
http://www.omroep.nl/nps/sinterklaasjournaal/ you can watch Sinterklaas arrive here! Before November 17th you can watch last year's arrival, if you click on 'deze link' in the middle. Of course it's all in Dutch.
(I would like to add that the Helium suggestion for the title, to which they have added 'for Christmas' is wrong. Sinterklaas is not a Dutch way to celebrate Christmas, in fact, the two have nothing to do with each other.)