Sinterklaas is coming to town

When large crowds gather in the centres of the cities of the Netherlands for THE event of the year, you can be sure many of these people arrived by bicycle.

Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas is the Dutch equivalent of Father Christmas or Santaclaus and his arrival is THE event of the year for Dutch children big and small.
Thousands gathered to witness Sinterklaas and his helpers disembark.

For most children in the world, Christmas is the time they get presents from either Father Christmas or Santaclaus. But the latter name derived from “Sinterklaas”, the Dutch popular form of Saint Nicholas, the saint who brings Dutch children their presents on the evening of the 5th December. It is a very old tradition that Sinterklaas arrives in the country mid-November with a steamship from Spain where he resided the rest of the year. After this big entrance and in the weeks before the actual present-night, children are allowed to put their shoes near the chimney at night and sometimes they will find a small present in their shoe the following morning. The arrival of Saint Nicholas is a very big event for all Dutch children big and small and it is broadcast live on Dutch television. Some hours or a day later, every city, town and village of the Netherlands celebrates its own arrival. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of people come to witness this festive event. And practical as the Dutch are, many of them cycled there.

A family arriving at the ‘s-Hertogenbosch location where Sinterklaas would disembark. The child dressed up as Piet has just jumped out of the bakfiets and runs after his brother dressed up as Sinterklaas who jumped off his father’s bike seconds earlier.
A girl arriving on her bicycle dressed up as one of Sinterklaas’ helpers.

Sinterklaas is accompanied by his –now controversial– black helpers called Zwarte Piet. To most Dutch who grew up with this tradition, this “Black Peter” figure represents warmth, togetherness and getting presents. But others point out that painting a white face black has a totally different and offensive meaning to them; that of the 20th century blackface minstrel traditions of the US and later the UK. That tradition is not widely known in the Netherlands and to most Dutch Zwarte Piet is (or was) just a harmless fairy tale figure. The discussion really reached the big public for the first time this year and took an ugly turn sometimes. But this blog is about cycling so I won’t go into this further. I do think that it was already clear from changed details this year, that the Dutch must and will gradually change their tradition, so “Pete” will become as inoffensive to others as he has already been to them for a long time.

In a festive parade Sinterklaas rode his white horse to City Hall for a reception by the major. The marching band is dressed up as the helpers Zwarte Piet.
In the ‘s-Hertogenbosch parade there were no Petes on bicycles, but one thought it was a bright idea to bring a stinking moped to the crowds with many young children to hand out candy…

Many of the children who came with their parents to the Sinterklaas arrival came dressed up as him or his helpers. The video shows how they arrived on their bicycles near the site where Saint Nicholas would leave the boat to enter the city on his white horse. Salutes were fired to announce the boat was near and marching bands played Saint Nicholas songs as thousands witnessed the gift-bearer on this tour to the main city square. On the steps of City Hall, the major festively welcomed him and everybody sang along with a welcoming song. One dad thought it would be a good idea to have his children stand on top of the bakfiets. But they really couldn’t look over all the tall adults standing in front of them, many of whom had a child sitting on their shoulders.

This week’s video tries to capture the festive atmosphere and the arrival of the spectators on an array of different types of bicycles in the city of ’s-Hertogenbosch.

I found an English version of the more than a century old song which is sung in the video to Saint Nicholas on City Hall Square.

Look there is the steamer
from far-away lands
it brings us Saint Nicholas
he’s waving his hands
his horse is a-prancing
on deck up and down
the banners are waving
in village and town

Black Peter is laughing
and tells everyone
the good kids get candy
the bad ones get none
Oh dearest St. Nicholas
if Pete and you would
just visit our house
for we all have been good

The Amsterdam Cycle Chic blog also had a post on the cycling visitors coming to see Sinterklaas!

21 thoughts on “Sinterklaas is coming to town

  1. So that’s why so often when I get little chocolates in my stocking at Christmas, they have a bishop on them. They must have been depicting Sinterklaas. I thought that the most modern form of transport at the time were trains. Some of them could go faster than 100 km/h, certainly faster than anything humans had ever done before the 1850s. I’m trying to sing the Dutch carols in Dutch, they tend to be simple and I can easily slow down the recording, great for novices.

  2. Mopeds would be a lot better if they were all electric and they, and motorcycles, those with motor sizes over 50 cubic centimetres (how has metrication in the Netherlands gone?) had to go in for annual inspections to ensure they complied with the regulations, especially those in relation to mopeds to ensure the limiter is still limiting the mopeds to 25 km/h for the snorfiets and 45 km/h bromfiets.

  3. All this time I had always assumed that the reason Piet was Swarte was because SinterKlaas sent him down the chimney with the presents instead of going himself – so Piet got sooty.

    I’m afraid our Santa traditions in the UK have become rather pale imitations, and mainly commercialised. They still have a celebration of Santa in Ireland though – the national news has a report every Christmas Eve news bulletin on Santa’s flight plan, progress and ETA in the country.

    1. Well the ‘Soot-Theory’ cannot be sustained when his clothes remain colourful and clean. That is one of the contradictory explanations.
      In this country the Sinterklaas tradition is very much alive. It really is the highlight of the year for Dutch children big and small. (So that includes the parents!)

  4. Any decision about the future of Zwart Piet should take account people like me who come off a Thalys train in Eindhoven and bump into “blacked up” people without any context, other than the racism we experience in daily life. I’m surprised that defenders of the tradition are not concerned about the image they present to the world (and that they seem ignorant of the Netherlands’ racist colonial past.

    1. You will always see things unfamiliar when you visit a foreign country. That is also the charm of travelling. On the other hand, when a country becomes aware they have a tradition that offends the whole world but themselves, it would be a good idea for that country to reconsider what is the core of that tradition and change the needlessly offensive parts. Because that has to be clear: none of the people celebrating this tradition has a racist motive. They just want to portray what is to them a harmless fairy tale figure. It is very hard to convince the average Dutch person that the rest of the world sees it differently. The Dutch are aware of their past, but they just don’t connect it with this at all. I think we need to carefully raise awareness. Shouting ‘this has to end now’ is also disrespectful to people who genuinely have no wrong motives but rather leads to unwanted reactions that do involve racism. Having this tradition makes no difference, there are many countries in the world just like the Netherlands that also still have to deal with racism and xenophobia. That has to be addressed and you can only do that with education.

      With this I end this discussion, because all I wanted to show is the people arriving by bicycle to what is a very important holiday celebration. We will sort out the negative aspects in this country over the coming time, but discussing this has no place on a blog about cycling.

  5. Great post. Thank you. It reminds me of a scene from the film Alles is Liefde. All of the children suddenly find out where Sinterklaas is hiding and so they all get on their bikes and ride there. There is a great scene with them all riding through the snow. I just wish I could find the clip on YouTube.

  6. Hi, very interesting.

    A question on the Sinterklaas, rather than cycling, arriving on a boat from Spain – does this mean that the tradition dates from before the Revolt in the 1560s against Spain? I can’t see the tradition growing after the Revolt of his living in Spain. I’d assumed that Sinterklass arrived with a boat load of gifts (justly) robbed from Spanish ships bringing tribute back to Spain from the Americas (& desperately needed to fund the wars in the Netherlands and elsewhere).

    1. That’s an interesting line of thinking and I personally do think the relationship the Dutch have with Spain as a former part of it (the Dutch national anthem still has a line in it in which we swear to be loyal to the king of Spain!) does have something to do with some of the Sinterklaas traditions. The outfits of the “Petes” also refers to costumes worn in Spain by the moorish (and thus black) people in that country. In the mid 19th century the Dutch romanticed the 17th century and the time shortly after the Dutch independence from Spain in 1648. In my video you can also see two men on black horses in beautiful mid 17th century black velvet costumes worn by Dutch noblemen: another referral to that time.
      But the Sinterklaas tradition we know now dates back to an 1850s children’s book, written by an Amsterdam teacher. He introduced Spain out of nowhere and also the steamer, which –at the time– was the most modern means of transport he could have chosen. As is often the case with popular traditions, the origins are often obscure and some of the explanations contradictory. There are also clear relations with other traditions (like shoe/chimney vs. stocking/chimney) and even some ancient Germanic rites (the horse riding on the rooftops in the night was also something that the old Germanic tribes knew).
      But to come back to your question. Sinterklaas was known in the 17th century and maybe also in the 16th, but the custom to have him arrive from Spain is from the 1850s.

      1. I wonder how much Spanish you know and how much Dutch most Spanish people know. The only few words of Spanish I know are what my brain picked up while babysitting my little sister who liked to watch cartoons that also featured spanish lessons mixed in.

  7. I really appreciate your wise, careful way of expressing your views, now again on a topic that has raised quite some controversy and was often not discussed very maturely. You’re setting a very good example, Mark

  8. Dear Saint Nick,

    I’ve been very, very good this year! May I please, pretty please, have some cycle-safe streets this Christmas?


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