Celebrating Sinterklaas in London

sinterklaas arriving in Amsterdam

Sinterklaas arriving in Amsterdam in 2010. Image under creative commons license from: https://flic.kr/p/8Tdhyz

Celebrating Sinterklaas (St. Nicolaus)  as an expat has not always felt like a possibility. In the past I watched from afar as my friends and family in Holland posted fun Facebook messages. I never knew that many Dutch people where I lived, and if something is organized by the expat community it is mostly directed at children. However, it is one of my favourite childhood holidays. As time passed I have missed the period leading up to the big day more and more. This year, I decided to throw a party to celebrate and invite (international) friends to attend. It wasn’t perhaps the most traditional way you would celebrate in Holland, but I was determined to bring a bit of the Netherlands, and my childhood, to the UK and introduce it to my friends here. This included decorations, traditional food, and even music (and let’s just say that after a long search I was not able to find any Sinterklaas music in English).

I was not always a fan…

Sinterklaas in my childhood home in the Netherlands

Sinterklaas visiting my childhood home. He scared me so much that even being held by my cousin did not stop me from crying, until the good man eventually left.

It was not love at first sight I felt for Sinterklaas: Like most small children, I was terrified the first time he came to visit my home. I was just one year old, and my father arranged for someone to visit dressed up like St. Nicolaus. They were unable to get a reasonable picture of me, because during the entire visit I cried inconsolably. There is something about a strange man with a long white beard and long red robes that is universally frightening to children, until they learn to expect presents and candy to accompany this visit.

Sinterklaas is celebrated with many props: dedicated candy, cakes, songs, and decorations. In Holland it would be a piece of cake (pun intended) to put a fully themed party together, but imagine trying to source the seasonal sweets and decorations in London. Before I elaborate a bit more on the acrobatics I had to go through (with the help from some fantastic friends) to get all the supplies for the party, I need to tell you a little bit about what Sinterklaas is all about. In short: it is a holiday in celebration of St. Nicolaus, who was the Bishop of Mira (now Turkey). He was an honourable man and kind to children. Several versions of the story exist, some believe he would give sweets and money to poor children. The Dutch tradition says that he now lives in Spain, and every year arrives in Holland on a large steam ship. Bringing presents, candy, his helpers, and his trusted horse. The arrival of Sinterklaas on the steam ship is a televised event that draws crowds in the hundreds of thousands, and millions of viewers on TV.

Once he docks, Sinterklaas rides the streets on his horse, surrounded by his helpers who all have the same name: “zwarte Piet” (black Peter). These zwarte Piet carry around bags with candy and toss it at children during the parade. On December 5th Sinterklaas, allegedly, rides the rooftops on his horse, accompanied by his helpers. The latter go through the chimneys to deliver gifts and sweets in children’s shoes. Their faces are black from the soot, hence the moniker “black Peter”. Children are taught to put out one of their shoes containing a carrot or sugar cubes for the horse. This is comparable to leaving out cookies and milk for Santa. In this case, St Nicolaus remains thin, compared to Santa, because it is the horse who receives all the treats.

Sinterklaas on the roof

Sinterklaas and zwarte Piet on a roof, visiting mother and child. The Netherlands, 1925. From the national archives (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationaalarchief/)

The horse has to trot along all the rooftops in the Netherlands bringing around the gifts, so presumably it will also burn off everything it eats along the way. For the rest of us, there are traditional sweets eaten only in the period around Sinterklaas. Some examples are Taai-taai, pepernoten, and kruidnoten. If you are clever you might think you can cheat by putting out all your shoes and score extra candy. It doesn’t work that way though, Sinterklaas would know and would not reward you for this bad behaviour. In fact, children are warned about being good throughout the year because “Sinterklaas is watching”. Naughty children have the looming threat of being put in the sack (once containing the gifts), beaten with tree branches, and subsequently being taken back to Spain. This threat of kidnapping and corporal punishment is surprisingly effective in keeping Dutch children in line.

Don’t worry. This really is a joyful event and whenever Sinterklaas came to my school while I was growing up, he always said all the children had been good that year. Given that this is virtually impossible, his standards must be fairly low and the threat of being taken to Spain in a sack are not too concerning. Of course the whole thing is just a story, so the threat only works on children who still believe Sinterklaas is real. Not any different from the threat of receiving coal from Santa if you’ve behaved badly losing power once the kids realize Santa is not real either.

On or around December 5th, typically family and/or friends celebrate together. They give each other elaborately wrapped presents (called ‘surprises’) with a poem. A ‘surprise’ could be, for example, a computer made out of cardboard (containing the gift inside) for someone who likes computers. The poem is an opportunity to make a little fun of the recipient, and the poems have to be read out loud to the group. Personally, this is my favourite part and people take great pride and care in crafting some elaborate rhymes for the occasion.

me dressed up as a child

Me dressed up as ‘zwarte Piet’, who is Sinterklaas’ helper when I was about 4-5 years old.

It is also worth mentioning that many children dress up as zwarte Piet. They might go to school in costume on the day Sinterklaas visits.

When I was a little kid, I too had such an outfit to wear to school celebrations. Sadly, there are not too many pictures of me wearing it, but I was able to find one.

I came across a very good article describing some of the basic things you need to know about Sinterklaas, and the city of Amsterdam also has a short explanation of what you need to know about the holiday. I’ve also added some additional resources at the end of this post if you want to expand on this basic introduction.

Dutch imports

While I intended to bake a few treats for the party, it made most sense to source as much as possible from the Netherlands. Luck has it that a couple of friends were coming over to London in the period leading up to, and over the weekend of, Sinterklaas. Dividing sweets, treats, and supplies between my mother and three friends none of them had to carry too much. There is also a Dutch chain of stores that has one location in London, and sells online. They did not have everything, but they did carry a few Sinterklaas sweets and decorations. A quick order later, and I was almost ready for the party.

One of the decorations I ordered from Sweet Table Shop. It was a window sticker of canal houses with Sinterklaas riding the rooftops and zwarte Piet carrying the sack of presents. Because at the time of ordering they did not yet ship to the UK, I had it delivered to one of my friendly helpers coming over from the Netherlands. The sticker I thought I ordered would have been re-usable, but sadly in my rush I ordered the wrong one. Both had an almost identical description and price, so I did not notice the difference between the one-time use type (which can also be applied to walls) and the re-usable type. Something to be careful of in the future! Perhaps I will leave it on the window for a while longer, now that Sinterklaas has left the country again. After all, it looks festive.

My friend Deborah, who came to stay for the Sinterklaas weekend and brought over the majority of the treats and supplies, found an awesome sack with a print of Sinterklaas on it, and the text “Sinterklaas’ sack”. Of course it is meant to be a symbol of the sack the gifts are carried around in. For fun I tried crawling into the sack to pretend I was being taken back to Spain, but afterwards we just hung it on the wall. The garland was a lucky find from Hema in the UK (surprisingly!).

Sinterklaas wall decoration

Baking Sinterklaas treats

I spent the majority of a Friday baking and preparing (while waiting for my Christmas tree to be delivered). It was absolutely worth it, even though my kitchen looked like a bomb of flour, sugar, and cinnamon had exploded in it. Foolishly though, I decided I would make my very first cheesecake, ever. With no real backup plan. Once I did a bit of research and got the idea they are not the most foolproof cake to make, I got a bit nervous. Thankfully it turned out great. It was just too bad that the majority of people did not get to taste is because I was saving it for the end of the party, in case it was a complete disaster once we cut it. I used this recipe as well as this video as a guide for my cheesecake. It was easy to bake thanks to the video: it is very helpful to see the consistency you are expecting from the batter when you have never made one before. To keep in true Sinterklaas spirit, I made the crust for the cheesecake from crushed up kruidnoten!

home made cheese cake

My very first home made cheesecake!

The second thing I baked was a traditional ‘boterkoek’ (a.k.a. “butter cake”). One of the key ingredients, you guessed it, is butter! This was my favourite treat growing up. Just like the cheesecake, I had never baked one before. My grandmother always taught me, in the context of bread baking, that how the dough feels and looks is critical. So again, I sourced Youtube for inspiration, and who better to teach you how to make butter cake than a cute little Dutch boy? While the video is in Dutch, if you do want to make a butter cake you can probably still follow it along or use an English recipe.

It turned out better than I expected, albeit not as sweet as I remembered it should be. I used approximately the recommended amount of sugar the recipe calls for, so it was by no means a ‘light’ treat. Nevertheless it is good to know that the store-bought version probably has even more sugar than mine. All things in life are relative after all…

boterkoek

My own home baked butter cake on the right, and taai-taai (sort of a soft gingerbread) brought over from Holland by my friend

stamppot met worst

Finger food versions of stamppot

The final ‘dish’ I made does not qualify as baking: I wanted to make an iconic Dutch winter recipe, but transform it into finger food. In winter the Dutch often eat “stamppot”. This is a dish of mashed potatoes with vegetables (where the veg is mashed in with the potato), and a smoked sausage on top. It is an easy and comforting one-pan dish, and because I like kale I made “boerenkool stamppot”. Which is basically mashed potato-with-kale and the smoked sausage. It had to be finger food, so I pre-made the dish in the morning and divided small portions out in muffin cases. Just needed to pop it in the oven for a few minutes to heat before serving.

The food groups were completed with the obligatory ‘kruidnoten’ (cinnamon cookies), ‘schuimpjes’ (soft marshmallow candy mixed with the kruidnoten), ‘speculaas’, ‘taai taai’ and chocolate coins. All of these, except the Sinterklaas themed chocolates, were brought over from Holland by my friend. The chocolates were an excellent find at Hema. Funny enough, one bag of chocolates contained exactly 1 Sinterklaas figure, and the rest were all his helpers. While this is just as it should be, I thought the accuracy was hilarious. It’s not uncommon to buy a bag of chocolate Santas after all, even though there should only be one. I suppose the construct of Sinterklaas allows for such accuracy. Then again, Santa is rumoured to have elves that help him, but they are not nearly as famous as zwarte Piet.

Candy

Kruidnoten and candy at the top: kruidnoten were also the base for the cheesecake! At the bottom left the filled speculaas, and right some Sinterklaas themed chocolates. Funny enough; one bag contained only 1 sinterklaas figure, and the rest were all ‘zwarte piet’. Which was shockingly true to how it should be.

 

‘Parcel Evening’ (Pakjes avond)

December 5th is traditionally when Sinterklaas comes around and delivers presents, and it is as such known as ‘parcel evening’ (translated from Dutch). In Holland people would draw names from a hat (a bit like a secret Santa), and prepare small presents for each other. There are several other types of constructs possible for parties where you don’t know who or how many people are coming. I didn’t want to complicate things or scare off my international friends, so we omitted all gift giving.

However, Sinterklaas was very good to me anyways: the afternoon of December 5th I received a very special package. Let’s be honest, Sinterklaas had nothing to do with it but it was a nice coincidence. The package really came from the nice people at Maaslander. Some time ago they had a promotion on where you could get breakfast plates with a positive or fun message on it. My mom gave me some plates at the time as a gift, and recently some sadly broke. The promotion was on again recently, but I had just missed it and couldn’t get them anyways being away from Holland. I was devastated about the loss of my plates and got in touch with the company. I explained how much they meant to me, and they said they would see if there was anything they could do. It may seem silly, but they really put a smile on my face when I start my day eating my breakfast on one of them. On the day of ‘parcel evening’, a mystery box arrived, taped up with “fragile” tape, that also spelled it in Dutch. I instantly knew what it was, and beyond happy. A big thank you goes out to the team at Maaslander who made this possible, and made my Sinterklaas complete!

my new breakfast plates

Trying to translate what the plates say: (left) “You are so beautiful today, and yesterday too by the way”, and (right) “Greet the day with a smile and the day smiles back”. These positive messages really bring a smile to my face and guarantee a great start to the day.

The best present of all was having so many friends around, from close by and from far away. Both my friends Deborah and Natasja made it over from Holland, and Natasja even mentioned the party in her blog post about her visit to London! Another friend living in Toronto also came by. The rest live in London (including one more Dutch friend), but nevertheless represent many different nationalities. Sharing some of my heritage and the Dutch amongst the group sharing their experiences of celebrating Sinterklaas while growing up really made it special.

To give everyone at the party the full authentic experience, my friend Deborah suggested she would leave part way through the evening, remote-control the music to change to a song about Sinterklaas knocking loudly on the door (a classic!), and knock violently, followed by throwing candy into the living room. We already explained the Dutch traditions to my baffled guests earlier in the evening, including how Zwarte Piet throws candy at children, and the kids then dive for the candy and eat it, straight off the floor. Yes, to some that is gross. This is how we were raised though and strangely I have never heard of a kid getting sick. Perhaps the ‘5 second rule’ is true after all, because it is doubtful any candy remains on the floor for longer than that with a pack of sugar-hungry children going after it. Once the music changed from regular party music to the crazy-sounding Dutch music, our fellow Dutchies knew what was about to go down, and for a few seconds the international people looked confused, then ducked to avoid the flying candy. Nobody got hit or injured, and it elicited quite a few laughs. In Holland, some families arrange for someone to knock loudly on the door and once one of the children goes to open they are just met with a large bag filled with presents.

The cookies and candy proved very popular, and when everyone went home they got to take some Sinterklaas treats with them for the road.

sinterklaas candy treats

More information about Sinterklaas

Now that I have gotten you properly excited about Sinterklaas, you can learn more about it from a variety of sources. To get you started, here are two resources below.

An informative intro, including Dutch words, about Sinterklaas

This video gives a thorough introduction to Sinterklaas and how it is celebrated by Dutch people. It is though a lot less hilarious than David Sedaris’ take on the entire affair, which I’ve posted below.

 

David Sedaris’ take on Sinterklaas

From a Dutch perspective David Sedaris’ first impressions of our traditions is actually a bit wild. It is still fun to listen to a humorous first impression from a foreigner’s perspective.


Christine Buske is a former academic who left science at the bench, and now considers herself a woman in tech. She is a frequently invited speaker, and enjoys talking about career transformation (particularly leaving academia for the business world), tech, issues around women in tech, product management, agile, and outreach. She is a proud Canadian resident, and qualifies as a "serial expat".

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  1. Jenny

    23 December

    Sinterklaas is not the same when you don’t live in Holland anymore 🙁 I totally get it… haven’t celebrated properly in years either. This looks like a fun compromise though.

    • Christine Buske

      23 December

      Yes! Just throw a party, it takes a little adapting and depending on where you live a lot of baking. All worth it!

  2. Deborah van Hutten

    13 January

    Kom ik ineens op je blog via Natasja. Leuk om dit nog eventjes te lezen!

    • Christine Buske

      15 January

      haha hilarisch! 😀 super tof dat je even langs kwam, hier in London en op de blog!

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