We have just been in Soest, Holland to join in the start of the Sinterklaas celebrations with our son and his family. The activities are so different from the way that Christmas is celebrated in the UK that we thought it would be interesting to share them with you.

Sinterklaas (also called Sint-Nicolaas in Dutch) is a traditional holiday figure in the Netherlands celebrated every year on Saint Nicholas' eve (December 5). The feast celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of, among other things, children. For children it can be more important than Christmas.

In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' Eve, is the chief occasion for gift-giving. Traditionally, presents are ingeniously wrapped, and are therefore called surprises. Also, presents are traditionally accompanied by a poem from Saint Nicholas.

Sinterklaas has a long white beard, wears a red bishop's dress and red mitre (bishop's hat), and holds a crosier, a long gold coloured staff with a fancy curled top. Sinterklaas carries a big book with all the children's names in it, which states whether they have been naughty or nice in the past year. Much is made of this in the family to effect improvements in the behaviour of children. Sinterklaas can be quite severe and takes naughty children back to Spain when they were not nice. He rides a white horse called Amerigo.

Sinterklaas is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful outfits, modelled after 16th century Spanish clothing. These helpers are called Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) in Dutch. From about 1850, Pete was said to be an imported African servant of Saint Nicholas. Today however, a more politically correct explanation is given: Pete's face is said to be "black from soot" (as Pete has to climb down chimneys to deliver his gifts). Nevertheless, the tradition has been accused of being racist, and attempts have been made to introduce Coloured Petes, who are coloured blue, red, etc., instead of black.

Sinterklaas traditionally arrives each year in November (usually on Saturday) by steamboat from Spain, and is then paraded through the streets, welcomed by cheering and singing children. Invariably, this event is broadcast live on national television in the Netherlands and Belgium. There is then a daily TV programme about his progress through the country and celebrities and newscasters appear on the programme to deliver deadpan stories usually about problems that may affect the delivery of presents and wind-up children expecting their presents. Last week, for example, a swarm of red balloons interfered with the docking of his boat from Spain.

His Zwarte Piet helpers throw candy and small, round ginger bread-like cookies, kruidnoten or pepernoten, into the crowd. The children welcome him by singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. Sinterklaas also visits schools, hospitals and shopping centres. After this arrival all towns with a dock have their own intocht van Sinterklaas (arrival of Sinterklaas). In places a boat cannot reach, Sinterklaas arrives by train, bus, horse or even carriage. Now Sinterklaas even has a helicopter but every effort is made on the TV programme to maintain the notion that Sinterklaas cannot be in two places at the same time and so that there is only one Sinterklaas. So last weekend, the TV programme showed him landing at Almeira at about noon; but an hour or so later he left there and his helicopter (in reality several) had synchronised landings in other towns and villages throughout Holland, including Soest.

Traditionally, in the weeks between his arrival and the 5th of December, before going to bed, children put their shoes next to the chimney of the coal fired stove or fireplace, with a carrot or some hay in it "for Sinterklaas's horse", sing a Sinterklaas song, and will find some candy or a small present in their shoes the next day, supposedly thrown down the chimney by a Zwarte Piet or Sinterklaas himself. However, with the advent of central heating children put their shoes near the boiler or even just next to the front door.

Typical Sinterklaas candy is the chocolate letter, the first letter of the child's name made out of chocolate, speculaas (a type of shortcrust biscuit), chocolate coins, a figurine of Sinterklaas made out of chocolate and wrapped in painted aluminium foil, and coloured marzipan shaped into fruit, an animal or some other object.

Children are told that Black Pete enters the house through the chimney, which also explains his black face and hands, and would leave a bundle of sticks (roe) or a small bag with salt in the shoe instead of candy when the child had been bad.

Children are also told that in the worst case they would be put in the gunny sack in which Black Pete carries the presents, and be taken back to Spain, where Sinterklaas is said to spend the rest of the year. This practice, however, has been condemned by Sinterklaas in his more recent television appearances as something of the past.

Traditionally Saint Nicholas brings his gifts at night, and Belgian and many Dutch children still find their presents on the morning of December 6th. Later in The Netherlands adults started to give each other presents on the evening of the 5th; then older children were included and today in that country sometimes even the youngest on the evening of December 5 (Saint Nicholas' eve), known as Sinterklaasavond or Pakjesavond (present evening). After the singing of traditional Sinterklaas songs, there will be a loud knock on the door, and a sack full of presents is found on the doorstep. Alternatively - some improvisation is often called for - the parents 'hear a sound coming from the attic' and then the bag with presents is "found" there. Some parents manage to "convince" Sinterklaas to come to their home personally. Often, the father of the house goes outside to "catch some fresh air" or "smoke a cigarette" and leaves presents behind at the door. He then comes back (year after year), pretending to be sad he missed it.

Presents are often accompanied by a simple poem, saying something about the child or with a hint to the nature of the present.

When the presents are too bulky in size or when the quantity of presents is too large, they have to be sneaked into the house while the kids are distracted.

Another aspect of "Pakjesavond" is writing small poems for gifts to adults. When children grow too old to believe in Sinterklaas, they are introduced to a different form of entertainment on Pakjesavond night, December 5th. People will write small personal poems for friends and family usually accompanied by a small gift or candy. This way it is also entertaining for parents and other adults. Students usually write teasing and embarrassing stories for each other. But this is expected and the stories are received in good spirit.

We don't know whether the British or the Dutch traditions are to be preferred. But children who participate in both cultures get a bonus - two lots of present-giving!

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