Sinter Klaas Kapootje


It’s holiday time in Holland and as an introduction to this post, I kindly present a segment from one of my favorite holiday movies:  Miracle on 34th Street:

One of the things that always interested me is how other parts of the world celebrate holidays.  Living in Europe has given me an up-close-and-personal view of traditions that some people only read about.  With my birthday in December, I particularly find traditions that revolve around Christmas most intriguing. What I find fascinating, aside from the obvious food festivities, are the main characters of the celebration. To much confusion, many countries celebrate the birth of Christ and the feast of Saint Nicholas on the same day. This often results in heated secular debates, hilarious comedy (South Park’s ‘Spirit of Christmas’ pilot comes to mind) and hypothetical inquiries about the mish-mash of traditions as to which tradition goes with which celebration.  Hmm, what does a Christmas tree have to do with the birth of Christ anyway or Saint Nicholas for that matter?   To prevent confusion, some European countries hold separate and distinct celebrations. While traditions in countries vary greatly, the feast of Saint Nicholas or Sint Nicolaas as he is known here is mostly held on December 5th.  This is the alleged birthday of the 14th century Turkish cardinal (hence the red suit and mitre) known for giving all his worldly wealth to the poor before becoming a priest. Sinter Klaas, as he is more commonly known, is not the jolly fat man that Santa is (Santa’s modern-day image had been well defined by a Coca Cola ad campaign in the 1940’s) but a thin, old, stoic priest, dressed in a pointed hat, long white beard and red cardinal’s cape. December 5th is known as Pakjes-Avond or ‘package night’ and is the traditional day of gift giving. Unlike Christmas, this day is unfortunately not an official day off.  This often causes Pakjes Avond to be celebrated on the nearest weekend.

As the Dutch tradition goes, sometime in mid- November, Sint arrives in Holland by steamboat from Spain where he ‘summers’ in Madrid.  This is a nationally televised event that has every believing child glued to their TV or if they have access, standing outside waiting impatiently at designated docks for the steamboat to gloriously arrive.  With much pomp and circumstance, Sint disembarks his steamboat and is escorted to his gilded chair to give his welcoming speech.  Then with the same miracle that Santa is simultaneously at every department store in the US, everyone welcomes Sint as he mounts his faithful horse, Amerigo, and rides through every town.

He is accompanied by his entourage of black Moorish sidekicks, all named ‘Zwarte Piet’ or Black Pete.  Since actual Moors are difficult to come by in the predominately white Netherlands, the roles of the Zwarte Piets are played out by normally white Dutch people dancing around in black-face, wigs, and gaudy court jester costumes. At first glance, it doesn’t seem very P.C., in the same way that seeing an old film of the white Al Jolson in black-face singing ‘Mammie’ is.  In the ‘80s there was a movement of sorts to be non-discriminating, so instead of Black Pete, there was Pink Pete, Green Pete, Blue Pete, etc… It just got out of hand, so now the Dutch have their beloved Zwarte Piet back.  Now back to Sint’s journey. 

Along the route, the streets are filled with yet more children, each hoping to get a handful of sweets and tiny gingerbread cookies named pepernoten from the ‘Piets’ as they dance by.  Sint en Piet(s) will remain in cold, rainy Holland until after his birthday on December 5th. After that he will again board his steamboat, turn it around and return, exhausted, to sunny Spain. 

During the time that Sint and Piet(s) are in town, children may set out their shoe.  The concept is very similar to setting out your stocking except that kids can do this at any time.  Children set their shoes out with cookies for Sint and Piet and water, straw, carrots, and/or apples for Amerigo before getting off to bed.  They also add their wish-list.   While they set out their shoes, children are encouraged by their parents to sing loudly, loud enough for Sint to hear.  The next morning they will wake to find their shoes filled with small presents, pepernoten, and marzipan figures, and/or a letter made out of chocolate. 

The way Sinter Klaas gives gifts is not as gentle as with Santa. With Santa, if you are good -you get presents. If you are bad – you get coal.  If little Dutch kids are bad, Sint puts them in a sack and takes them to Spain. This rarely does any good as a threat, since most Dutch families spend 3 weeks vacation in Spain during the summer. But anyway, December 5 is the day to exchange gifts. However these aren’t ‘real’ gifts, per se, but are gentle criticisms from the past year. This often home-made gift is mostly accompanied by a poem that subtly points out those nasty character flaws of the recipient. An example is by getting grandma a bell since whenever grandma needs anything done, like hanging pictures or fixing the door lock. She will never call anyone to do it but gives gentle hints whenever someone visits. So, when she wants something done…ring the bell!

The poem would go like this:
Dear Grandma,
Sint knows that sometimes we can all use a hand.
Using tools and ladders are things for a man.         (Sint is a chauvinist too).
If you tried this yourself, I’d hate it if you fell.
The next time you want something done, please ring this bell.�
Sint and Piet

For a simply hilarious take on this Dutch tradition, and if you have 20 minutes to spare, then give a listen to David Sedaris 3 part commentary named ‘6 to 8 Black Men’.  Enjoy.  

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

The following is a recipe for Dutch Pepernoten.  Tiny Dutch gingerbread cookies.  Great for baking with the kids. 



Mix all the ingredients well to a dough and form about 100 balls. Put these on a greased baking tray and bake 12 minutes at 350 degrees.

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