Understanding “Sinterklaas” in the Netherlands.

Guest post by Michel Daenen of Crossing Cultures.  Please do not copy or use parts of this article without correct attribution.

Sinterklaas (or Sint Nicolaas) is the children’s friend from Spain who brings presents for the Dutch children every year.
Sinterklaas (1)

This Saturday, he will arrive by boat to the Netherlands. It’s meant to be a cheerful children’s celebration, but lately it has also been the source of heated discussions. Sinterklaas is a sensitive topic in Dutch society. For the newcomer in this country it would help to become a bit more aware of those sensitivities around Sinterklaas and their background. That’s why I wrote this article.

When I was 3 to 6 years old, Sinterklaas was one of the yearly highlights of my life. Sinterklaas, the friendly tall man with the red robe, white long beard and hair, his rod and high miter, came every year to Holland by steamboat from Spain. We would welcome him at the dock of the town on a cold day in November, waving at him and his funny, athletic and silly servants called “zwarte pieten”. On Saturday evenings we would place our shoes in front of the heater in the living room, containing a hand written letter and some drawings for Sinterklaas complete with wish list for presents and carrots for his white horse.

Shoes by the fire
Shoes by the fire (2)

Together with my two older sisters I would sing typical Sinterklaas songs such as “Sinterklaas Kapoentje”, “Zie ginds komt de stoomboot” and “De zak van Sinterklaas”. Most of the time I had no idea what I was singing about, but I tried my best to sing as well as I could. Because every child of my age knew: if you are a good boy or girl, you’ll get presents from Sinterklaas, if you’re naughty, Zwarte Piet will beat you with his stick (called ‘de roe’), put you in his bag and take you to Spain. On Sunday mornings I would come in the living room and get exited seeing the carrots, letter and drawings having been replaced by chocolates and presents. Supposedly it was black Piet who climbed through the chimney at night in order to perform this wonderful magic trick. On the 5th of December beginning of the evening my parents wanted us to be upstairs and only come down when the bell rang. Entering the living room the table was covered with presents, sweets and chocolate. Heaven!

When I was 7 years old I found out I was collectively fooled about it all. Sinterklaas didn’t exist they told me. My parents ‘were’ Sinterklaas and “de Goedheiligman” I saw on tv was an actor. It was a shock to hear that even my two older sisters had been part of the conspiracy for years. Nevertheless, I hold sweet memories of Sinterklaas.

Now, about 40 years later, I have young children myself and the whole thing comes back to me: the songs, the presents, the suspense and also Zwarte Piet’s bag.

But times have changed during past decades. The “roe” is no longer there, the horse that was just a “Schimmel” to us is called Amerigo since the 90’s, Zwarte Piet is not always dumb anymore, there are some very clever Zwarte Pieten right now and Sinterklaas is not always the wise old man, sometimes he forgets things.  Along with Sinterklaas the last couple of years every autumn a nationwide discussion starts in the weeks before 5th of December. And it gets more intense every year.

The Stoomboot arrives (3)

It has become clear that not everybody in the Dutch society is happy with this event full of Dutch traditions. Some of the Dutch citizens, mainly but not exclusively and not all Dutch with a background from the former Dutch colonies Suriname, Indonesia and the Dutch Antilles, feel Sinterklaas to be a racist and discriminating event. At first the reply from other people in society was ‘nonsense, Sinterklaas has nothing to do with racism or discrimination, it’s only  tradition and we should not change a thing about it’, but more and more it was inevitable that things needed to be adjusted in this Dutch folklore. Especially since the UN Committee Against Race Discrimination called for change, concluding in August 2015 that ‘deeply rooted cultural tradition does not justify discriminatory practices and stereotypes’. It resulted for a while in emotional discussions on Dutch TV shows, newspapers and on the street. It was obvious that a sensitive snare of Dutch culture was touched, an episode of our history that is controversial, to say the least. Dutch people usually proudly tell foreigners about our Golden Age, some centuries ago, where we travelled the world, traded with all kinds of people in the East and the West and brought prosperity to our country. But part of this global trading was also slavery in which the Netherlands took massively part. Although the tradition of Sinterklaas is much older than this period in Dutch history, during and after the period of slavery it evolved to the stereotyping of black Piet being a dumb servant of the big white man, wearing big earrings and having fat lips. This is for some Dutch people a confronting memory of our past. Here lies probably the explanation for the emotions around the Sinterklaas-discussion. We’re not proud of that part of our history, yet it has brought us where we currently are: a multicultural welfare state with values like equality, freedom of speech and tolerance. On top of that, in a rapidly changing world with much uncertainty and (perceived) threats that create fear, people tend to cling on to their own identity, usually connected to one’s country. Then it is not about rational argumentation anymore, but about the “gut feeling”. So when you deeply feel the need of national identity it’s hard to let go of the artefacts of your culture that are part of that. You’ll strongly defend the status quo. Sinterklaas seems such an artefact. But in a society that by law prohibits discrimination and where we feel everybody who is a member of our society should get the possibility to feel included something needed to be changed. The question if you are included or feel included, are discriminated or feel discriminated is another one  I will not get into now. As said, something needed to be changed, but how?

In the tradition of Dutch decision making habits (the notorious ‘poldermodel’) different points of view and ideas were discussed at length. Then the phase of actively looking for the ultimate compromise started. Extreme positions seem not to get so much support: we probably won’t see the complete disappearance of black Piets, nor will we see no change at all. The middle of the road seems to be this year a Piet that has some black stripes on his face (‘roetvegen’), grime that is supposed to come from the chimney he climbs through. We’ll probably also see other coloured Piets: orange, blue, rainbow coloured. Is everybody happy with the outcome? Probably not… but as you know from your own changes you have gone through when moving from one place to another, it needs time to adjust to change. Change is inevitable.

Meeting Sinterklaas (4)

And what about  the children? What do they think about it all? Dutch Child Ombudsman Margite Klaverboer published September this year a report based on conversations with Dutch children. She also concluded things need to be changed as children with coloured skin told the researchers they do experience negative effects because of Sinterklaas, such as discrimination and exclusion. Interestingly enough she also heard many children suggest adults stop fighting about it and simply adjust the appearance of Piet. Although Mrs Klaverboer received a lot of hate-emails and criticism after she published the report, ‘major changes’ around Sinterklaas have started to happen since then. “Het Sinterklaasjournaal”, the daily news show about Sinterklaas on National television announced this year to continue to show black Piet but will add ‘white’ Piets without any make up. Another TV channel will only have Piet with the earlier mentioned black stripes.

It can be concluded by now that the Sinterklaas tradition further evolves and also that children seem to accept any modification of it with ease. In their drawings for Sint they change the look of Piet according to the outcome of the compromise. Like always the flexibility of children is something many adults can learn from. Personally I hope the Dutch ‘poldermodel’ brought us a sustainable and satisfying solution for all so that we soon can focus again on the wonderful experience Sinterklaas can be and should be for all children in the Netherlands.

Michel Daenen


November 2016.

Guest post by Michel Daenen of Crossing Cultures.  Please do not copy or use parts of this article without correct attribution.

Photo Credits:

  1. Photo credit: Dogfael via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-SA
  2. Photo credit: Jacob Johan via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA
  3. Photo credit: han santing via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC
  4. Photo credit: Walther Siksma via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND