The Sinterklaas Guide

November and December can be a very confusing time of year for expats in Holland, especially for those who have never heard the name Sinterklaas or seen a Zwarte Piet before.

Who is Sinterklaas?

If you were to ask a Dutch Person who Sinterklaas is the basic description you’d receive would be something along the lines of, “He is a very nice old man who has a long white beard, dresses in red and gives presents in December to all the good girls and boys.”

Sinterklaas vs. Santa

Whatever you do, do not follow this up by asking them how that makes him any different from Santa, not unless you want to seriously damage diplomatic relations between Holland and your own country. Santa and Sinterklaas are two very different people. They just happen to work in the same area of business. There are several very key differences for identifying them:

1) Santa Claus comes from the North Pole but Sinterklaas comes from Spain and saves money on his yearly heating bill.

2) Santa Claus dresses in red with a fluffy white trim but Sinterklaas goes with the slightly more fashionable gold trim and accessorizes with a staff.

3) Santa Claus delivers presents on the night of December 24th but Sinterklaas arrives in Holland in the middle of November, does some sightseeing, delivers presents on the 5th of December and returns home in time to enjoy a quiet Christmas.

4) Santa Claus flies to his destination but Sinterklaas arrives by steam boat. It is still unknown if this difference is because Sinterklaas is afraid of flying or Santa is afraid of water.

5) Santa Claus rides on a sledge pulled by 12 over worked reindeer but Sinterklaas rides a single white horse called Amerigo, saves money on animal feed and has to remember less names.

6) Santa Claus puts presents for children under a Christmas tree but Sinterklaas puts presents in children’s shoes regardless of how smelly they are.

7) Santa Claus has an elf equal opportunities program which has helped keep the fairytale creature unemployment rate down. Sinterklaas also has an equal opportunities program and employs Zwarte Pieten who suffer from A.D.D and regularly get their shoe polish mixed up with their face cream.

8) Santa Claus gives a lump of coal to children who have been naughty so that they might learn from their mistakes. Sinterklaas on the other hand has a zero tolerance policy and orders Zwarte Piet to throw naughty children into a sack and drag them back to Spain while beating them with twigs.

Looking for more? Find a full list of all humorous sinterklaas guides and posts right here:
All About Sinterklaas

51 responses to “The Sinterklaas Guide”

  1. Alison says:

    Brilliant! Despite having been here a few years and even participating in pakjesavon our first year, I didn’t realize until this year that the Dutch get a bit prickly if you try to translate Sinterklaas as Santa Claus for your American friends. Oh, the clatter they made! I have learned my lesson and hopefully won’t be stuffed in a bag and beaten with twigs on my way to Spain. ;)

  2. Alcyon says:

    May I make it a little bit more complicated?
    In some parts of Flanders, there’s yet another saint that gives presents to the children. Saint Martin visits our homes around 11 November, dressed up like Saint Nicholas, but having only one Zwarte Piet, living in Heaven en riding on a donkey… There are even laws to keep all those saints from fighting each other in the streets: up until 11/11, every saint you see in the streets, is Saint Martin. After that, it’s time for Saint Nicholas, and no Santas are allowed on the streets until after 6 December…

    We lived for some time in a region where Saint Martin was celebrated, while my parents lived in traditional Saint Nicholas territory. Our children were used to getting presents almost every weekend from half November right up to New year… :-)'s_Day

    • Stultum says:

      In some parts of the Netherlands we celebrate saint Martin’s too (Sint Maarten), but we do it a bit differently: the children go around town with lanterns, sing songs at every door and get candy.

      Now, when an expat compares this to Halloween…

  3. Invader Stu says:

    Alison – I used to make that mistake for a while as well and it is still funny seeing new expats in the office make the same comment during there first December and hear all the Dutch people around them suck in their breath.

    Alcyon – I love the fact that they actually have to have a law to stop saints fighting. That just gives me a brilliant mental image. I’d heard abit about Saint Martin before as well I think. I know Santa is supposed to be based of Sinterklaas but is Saint MArtin as well or visa versa.

  4. orangesplaash says:

    Nice list – There is also the Sinterklaasdicht (Sinterklaas poems) tradition that I believe is not there for Santa Claus.

  5. julia says:

    So he brings his horse with him on the steam boat?

    • G127 says:

      No: the horse stays in the Netherlands. Sinterklaas is always very happy to see him, when he lands.

      • Willem-Jan says:

        Actually: The horse goes with him to Spain a lot too. The years where we see him on the boat beforehand and those where we don’t see him there rate about 50/50.

  6. dragonlady says:

    Does Sinterklaas get mince pies and sherry and a carrot for the horse like Santa or does he have to wait till he gets home.Or maybe you leave some Tapas out for him.

    • Maartje says:

      Children often leave food for the horse, usually carrots, in their shoes when they put them out at night.

    • shasz says:

      Don’t forget to leave a beer for zwarte piet, (aka dad). Or this is ore something from the binnenvaart schippers (inland navigators if i’m correct)

  7. Tiffany says:

    What a riot! Loved em all, but #7 got the loudest laugh! Always wondered what the difference between the two was… guess now I know :) Thanks for this!

  8. French Bean says:

    Hm. I thought Santa had 8 reindeer and then an extra one with Rudolph. *shrugs*

    I will make a note to NOT get the two mixed up! Nor wonder why there is a penury of black shoe polish.

    • Sonja says:

      Santa does have eight reindeer well really nine with Rudolph, there’s Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen :)

  9. Jules says:

    Brilliant! Especially “Whatever you do, do not follow this up by asking them how that makes him any different from Santa, not unless you want to seriously damage diplomatic relations between Holland and your own country”

  10. Invader Stu says:

    Orangesplaash – You’re right. I forgot about that while making the list. There is no poem tradition with Santa.

    Dragonlady – Amerigo does get carrots left out for him but I’m not sure if anyone leaves anything out for Sinterklaas.

    Tiffany – That is one of my faves too

    French Bean – You are right. I correct this mistake and fire my researcher right away. Oh wait… I am my researcher… Darn.

    Jules – I know this one because I might have damaged Dutch/English relations beyond repair with it :p

    • Petra says:

      Children might leave a bucket with water, carrots, straw, for the horse. And drawings, letters and wishlists for zwarte piet, who brings them to Sinterklaas.
      No food or drinks for the visitor. Our zwarte piet used to leave a little note, using our paper and pen. And sometimes he drank something, leaving the glass with some black en red stains.

    • Sonja says:

      We May have poems? Not sure But we have Lot’s of Song’s :)

  11. Lonneke says:

    @Alcyon: Flanders is a part of Belgium….has nothing to do with the Netherlands……

    • Stephen says:

      Flanders and the Netherlands (and some other bits) were all part of the “Low Countries”. Netherlands split off after the Dutch wars against the Spanish 16th & 17th Centuries (the whole area was the Spanish Netherlands) (and of course Netherlands means Low Countries), Flanders, and Duchy of Liege and other areas remained Spanish Netherlands and then became Austrian Netherlands, now modern Belgium. In reality it is even more complicated.
      And (deep breath) Sinterklaas was surely originally Saint Nicholas (Sint Niklaas – or whatever the Dutch spelling is)?

      • Likeahike says:

        It’s the other way around. Sint Nicolaas got shortened to Sinterklaas by the Dutch. And when they emigrated to America in the 18th century, they took their saints with them. And because the Americans could not pronounce Sinterklaas, they turned it into Santa Claus.

  12. Ian says:

    This is my first experience of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. I work in a Dutch international school and have seen first hand, the diplomatic carnage it can cause

  13. belle says:

    Zero tolerance policy, great stuff!

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  15. French Bean says:

    And I just HAVE to ask…is it really *that bad* to ask what the differences between Santa Claus and Sinterklaas are?

    As a foreigner, I would just think it’s an innocent-enough question that is merited by curiousity, not a subject so severe that it would evoke World War III between Holland and the U.S.

    Or worse: have Sinterklaas himself horde me off to Spain with my skin sporting twig-like bruises.


  16. Invader_Stu says:

    Ian – I know how much of a shock Sinterklaas can be your first time but I can’t imagine what it must be like doing it for the first time surrounded by kids.

    Suus – It’s not spam about Viagra so no problem :p

    Belle – Thanks :)

    French Bean – No but you will be told in no uncertain terms that they are not the same person and that Santa copied Sinterklaas. And I always thought getting dragged to Spain does not sound so bad… they have nice weather there.

  17. Wezz6400 says:

    “French Bean – You are right. I correct this mistake and fire my researcher right away. Oh wait… I am my researcher… Darn.”
    Stu? YOU’RE FIRED!

    In other news, anyone who get’s fired will be deported to Siberia. Good bye.

  18. French Bean says:

    The nice weather happens to be in the Barcelona/Alicante area, I think.

    Now, if I were dragged to France, I would be more tolerant of the beatings!

  19. Just a Plane Ride Away says:

    #8 is the whole reason we moved back to England.

  20. Alcyon says:

    @ Lonneke: thank God it doesn’t!

  21. Aledys Ver says:

    Very informative indeed!! :D
    What has always amazed me is that, being Sinterklaas from Spain, unlike most of his countrymen, he manages to arrive way in advance to distribute all the presents before Christmas! And, how come his Dutch is impeccably perfect? :D

  22. jimbo says:

    Aledys ver: even expats from Spain can, given a few hundred years, learn the language eventually

  23. Sinterklaas and Racism | Famsterdam Life says:

    […] notably arrives in November on a steam boat from Spain. But the differences with Santa Claus don’t stop at vehicle and land of origin. Sinterklaas adds an über-controversial side to the […]

  24. Alexandra says:

    I know this is an old post, but Santa is actually based on Sinterklaas :)
    A lot of people know this already, but some don’t: The character of Santa was ‘invented’ by Coca Cola (based on Sinterklaas)
    You can also see it in the similarity of the name:
    Santa Claus

  25. Lea says:

    I hope your not to mad at me for resurrecting this post from the grave, but I would like to remark that in Flanders, the horse is actually called “Slechtweervandaag”. This name comes from the series “Dag Sinterklaas”, which is part of the collective childhoods of many people.

  26. Toni says:

    Sinterklaas horse – “Slechtweervandag” – Bad weather today
    Literal translation.

    • Invader Stu says:

      Isn’t the name Amerigo?

      • Willem-Jan says:

        It is in The Netherlands. In Flanders it’s Slechtweervandaag.
        Some people in the Netherlands do joke that his actual name is not Amerigo but O-zo-snel. Also from a Sinterklaas song. It translates to oh-so-fast. (“Yes he comes in deep dark nights, on his horse, oh so fast.”)

  27. gesina bernstein says:

    if you giving the liberals their way and get rid of zwarte piete,,i will denounce my dutch heritage!!!! not that that matters,however,zwarte piet kept me in line in my misspend youth..

    • Invader Stu says:

      I’d be surprised if the Dutch ever get ride of him. He might change a little but there will be places in The Netherlands where he won’t change at all.

      • Petra says:

        Most heared comment on the racial discussion in my region.. Try to unemploy all black people in a normal company. That would be something to be punished for.
        All zwarte pieten were black. All politically incorrect songs were sung as they were written.
        Second sommend i hear a lot is when will there be no more reindeer in front of the sleigh. And what about the elves that work for santaclaus, that is wrong.

  28. Margot says:

    Brilliant! This is my first Christmas here so I’m very excited to come back to my first memory when I was a 4 years old girl…Sinterklaas! I’m half spanish half dutch and I’ve been always curious about the fact that Sinterklaas come from (the sunny) Spain in a boat…who knows why? (apart from what wikipedia says…)
    Ready to tell my spanish friends and family about dutch traditions and write them on my blog, hehehehehehe.

    • G127 says:

      The link to Spain comes from the time that the Netherlands was still a part of the Spanish empire: the real Sinterklaas came from Turkey. He was a catholic Saint that saved some children.

    • the wife says:

      Sinterklaas is also the patron of the sailors, that’s why he travels by boat…

  29. Rosie says:

    Of course Sinterklaas saves money…hes’s Dutch!!! Why have the additional cost of elves and reindeer? Surely it’s far more cost effective to live in Spain and enjoy the weather for the rest of the year.

  30. puurgenieten says:

    for those how can read dutch i woud advise the book of wildgeraas its about the history of sinterklaas santa and all realed things

  31. […] you do not know what Sinterklaas is, check this link and you learn something […]

  32. Laura says:

    I never saw the punishment in getting dragged to Spain, but somehow I was never naughty enough for Sinterklaas to take me there… ;)

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