As if November in the Netherlands wasn’t magical enough, my inner child was awakened today with Intocht Sinterklaas (Arrival of Saint Nicholas). In the middle of November each year, Sinterklaas arrives on a boat from Spain with his helpers the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) as they need to start preparing gifts for Pakjesavond. This is celebrated on December 5th, the eve of the feast of Saint Nicholas. On this evening, Sinterklaas calls around to every house in the Netherlands with presents for children who have been good. The naughty children get put into Zwarte Piet’s sack and taken back to Spain!!! Kids also put one of their shoes on the windowsill before bed and in the morning it is filled with little surprises!
Sinterklaas officially arrived in the Netherlands yesterday and was greeted by 45,000 people in Groningen. The activities of Intocht Sinterklaas in Utrecht kicked off at midday today. The city was bedlam. There was music, drums, bells, bouncing castles, face painting… it all looked so much fun! Every kid wore a Zwarte Piet hat and many were dressed up as him, face painted and all. Sinterklaas and his Pieten paraded down the streets handing out pepernoten (small biscuits) to children. Some Pieten found their way into the library and gave us all a giggle as they danced through the stacks, waving, singing and giving us all a well deserved giggle!
There has been some controversy in the news recently about Zwarte Piet due to his appearance. The story I’ve heard the most is that Piet’s face is black from soot as he goes up and down the chimney’s of children’s houses on Pakjesavond. Traditionally, it was said that Black Pete was an African slave that Sinterklaas helped free, and he was so indebted to good ol’ Sint that he became his helper. I can see why it can look racist to other countries when they see pictures and film of white people with black paint on their faces, but it’s a whole different atmosphere when you’re actually in the country. At the end of the day, it is a Dutch tradition, and the tradition of Sinterklass and his Pieten brings happiness to kids and adults alike. This year marks the 75th anniversary of Intocht Sinterklaas.
Intocht Sinterklaas marks the start of the festive shopping season. It also means that for the next two weeks, Sinterklaas and his Pieten will be seen randomly around cities handing out pepernoten, helping out charities and getting everyone into the festive spirit. It’s certainly a different festive experience to what I am used to, but I can’t wait to see what Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet leave in my shoe this Pakjesavond!