Dutch Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet

Firstly the sailing (well motoring) part – Volendam to Amsterdam is again another short hop of 15 nautical miles with one lifting bridge and one lock to navigate and pass through as you leave the Markermeer and enter the Noordzeekanal (basically the waterbody/river from Amsterdam to the North Sea Locks on the coast).

With the wind on the nose in the Markermeer we had to motor, and once in the Noordzeecanal it really isn’t practical to sail due to the shipping and it isn’t that far to Sixhaven marina either, so the motor stayed on.

Sixhaven Marina was almost full with only a couple of berths free, it is full of boats all tucked up for winter in the water with thick dock lines criss crossing the water and pontoons like a spiderweb.  Sixhaven is on the north side of the river and a free ferry takes you across to central station and into the city, these ferries run every two and a half minutes, (there are two of them) running back and forth constantly 24 hours a day (so many people!!)  but it is amazing it only takes us about 10 minutes to get into the city from the boat including the ferry ride.

This visit we took a free walking tour of the city . . .  by free it means payment by tips, which in a small group like we had leaves a bit of pressure to be generous, especially when at least half of the two and half hour tour was done in the rain and our guide was the only person without a rain coat or an umbrella!!

Amsterdam the city of bikes
Riding on the luggage rack is normal, when dinking teenagers or adults they sit side saddle

We learnt a couple of interesting bits of new information; we always stare in awe of the buildings that are never square always leaning and looking like they are going to fall over, well it turns out that yes, the sideways leaning is all accidental (or from age) but the leaning forward is indeed part of the design, this is for the pully/hoist on the top level of these tall skinny buildings so when hoisting loads (back in the day stores from boats, these days furniture for housing) don’t hit the building and damage either the load or the building.

Buildings along the main street canal
The Dam Square Palace

We were also taken to “Begijnhof” an inner city compound or gated housing community with a amazingly green courtyard and garden dating back to the 14th century which was built for members of a Catholic Sisterhood, the women lived like Nun’s however were under no actual vows.  They did have to be unmarried, to make a vow of chastity and to promise obedience to the parish priest, but since they were not expected to make a vow of poverty, they were free have their own possessions.  They could renounce their vows at any moment and leave the Beguinage, for instance to get married.

The compound is also the site of the city’s secret church.  When Amsterdam city was taken over by protestants (around 1578) the catholic church in the compound was closed down for many years before eventually given to the English worshipers. Having lost their chapel the Beguines first continued their worship in one of the houses in the yard using a different house from Sunday to Sunday.  Eventually at the initiative of the parish priest, in 1665 two of the houses at numbers 29 and 30 were bought and joined together (keeping the outside looking original like two houses), and in 1671 the first stone was laid for a new chapel, which is directly opposite the large church taken over by protestants (about 10 meters away).  The first service in secret chapel took place 1682.  We can verify that it certainly doesn’t look like a church, you enter through what appears to be a normal house front door of a small house, but it actually opens up into a large area and feels and looks like the inside of any catholic church.
Today Begijnhof remains a closed housing community (of some 110 houses) exclusively occupied by single, childless women over the age of 30, whilst the religious emphasis no longer remains, the gates are still locked every evening and women who become involved in a relationship are required to find alternative accomodation.  (Sorry only the one picture borrowed from the internet as it was raining quite heavily so we kept the camera in its case!)
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Begijnhof a walled community in Amsterdam city 
We were also lucky enough to be Amsterdam for the weekend of the Sinterklaas Parade and what an experience that is, not just to see the parade (both on the water and in the streets) but also to learn about this unique tradition which is not, as we first expected their version of Santa Claus but an additional Christmas character and tradition that is held in addition to the normal 25th of December Christmas Day.
Sinterklaas Water Parade
 Firstly the parade, which stops the city both the water traffic and the street traffic.  With more than a kilometre of floats and boats Sinterklaas sails into town on a Sunday mid November each year with 600 Zwarte Piet’s (Black Pete) assistants and plenty of “pepernoten”  (small spiced biscuits which look alarmingly just like dog  biscuits/kibble) and are given to the children in the crowd.  The parade draws crowds upwards of  400,000 spectators along the canals and streets.  Once the boat reaches Maritime Museum Sinterklaas trades his Spainish ship for his white horse and the parade continues through the streets to the Royal Palace in the towns main square (Dam Square).
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Sinterklaas arriving from Spain on a boat 
The Legend of Sinterklaas.
Saint Nicholas has had ties with Amsterdam since 343 AD.  Legend has it that Sinterklaas originally came from Turkey as St.Nicholas (the Bishop of Mira) an honourable man who was kind to children.  No one really knows why he then chose to live in Spain but historians point to the Spanish domination over the Netherlands in the past.
Sinterklaas’ assistants “Zwarte Piet” (literally Black Peter) remains the subject of a heated debate in Amsterdam and in-fact the entire Netherlands.  With threats of the United Nations becoming involved due to the polarising appearance which some take offence to.  For centuries traditional depictions involved exaggerated features, black skin, red clown lips, frizzy hair (golliwog) the minstrel caricature of black people that has long since fallen out of favour (blackface, slavery and racism).
For these reasons “Black Pete” is undergoing transitions into “Pete”.
Transformation (over a series of years) include new clothes (aligning with Spanish historical costume), the blackness of his skin is disappearing to become just faint black smudges (some call sooty pete – as if he got soot on his skin when coming down the chimney, rather than being black), removal of the red lips and less prominent hair.
Black Pete’s (Zwarte Pieten) in Transition to Pete
Sinterklaas The Traditions – Lay your shoe & sing songs with the family!
Once Sinterklaas is in town, children lay out their shoe before bedtime around 1-2 times per week. They put letters and wish-lists to Sinterklaas in their shoe, hoping that there will be a little gift left there by morning. Traditionally the shoe is put in front of a chimney. Along with the shoe kids have water and a carrot or apple for the horse.
Kids and their parents usually sing 2 or 3 songs together to get Piet’s attention.
Kids are usually rewarded with candies like chocolate alphabet letters and pepernoten (the treats that look similar to dog biscuits), a small toy or gift or even a letter back from Sinterklaas brought by Piet who climbes over the roofs at night and enters the house through the chimney (or the door with a secret key – sounding familiar threre)!
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Although the feast of Saint Nicholas falls on 6 December, the evening of 5 December is the main gift-giving occasion. Called ‘sinterklaasavond’ (Sinterklaas evening) or ‘pakjesavond’ (presents evening), Sint drops off a sack full of gifts on the doorstep before heading back to Spain on December 6.  Different to Christmas, the gifts from Sinterklaas are accompanied with poems and/or self-made ‘surprises’
A Black Pete on a water jet pack in the harbour
Harbour action
When inquiring as to the difference between Sinterklaas and Santa Clause people are very firm in the two being different characters and in fact they go on to detail the differences;
The Big Day;
Sinterklaas – 5th December
Santa Claus – 24th December
Sinterklaas – a saint (serious credentials) dating back to th middle ages
Santa Claus – concocted from a mixed bag of Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas and made his debut after anglican colonisation of the Dutch by the Americans
Sinterklaas arriving at the Maritime Museum where he trades the boat for a horse
Sinterklaas – Religious icon, red papal gown, white bishops alb and a red mitre emblazoned with a cross.  He carries a golden cruiser inspired by the pastoral staff.
Santa Claus – overweight, dresses for comfort rather than style.
A Black Pete with a boot wheel on his bike 
Sinterklaas – charters a boat from Spain then rides an elegant white grey horse when on Dutch soil.
Santa Claus – it takes a sleigh and nine flying reindeer to get this guy around
Acrobatic Black (or Sooty) Petes 
Sinterklaas – A confirmed bachelor, lives most of the year in Spain, he is obviously staying out of the sun there going on his tan or lack there of!
Santa Claus – the North Pole which every Nordic country seems to want to claim him as its own true son.  There is also a Mrs Claus.
Sinterklaas on his White Horse for the Street Parade
Terms and Conditions;
Sinterklaas – Is very stern on good children receiving gifts in their shoes (candy) and the bad receiving coal.  Furthermore rumours do circulate about very naughty children being snatched in their sleep.
Santa Claus – Seems softer and gives kids the benefit of the doubt leaving gifts for all
Sinterklaas – Delivers a tonne of candy to the children but never indulges himself.
Santa Claus – Cookies, milk, whisky, mince pies all laid on for his enjoyment.

So in short the Dutch are fiercely proud of their Sinterklaas and the tradition is very much alive and well (despite the awkwardness around Piet).  We are further assured that the Dutch do also participate in Christmas Day and all that comes with that as well . . . well who wouldn’t want to do Christmas twice!!!

Links to our previous visit to Amsterdam with Red Roo in April 2017:

# 83.  Amsterdam  The Netherlands 12/04/2017

One Comment on “Dutch Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet

  1. Hi,Maree and Phil,how are you.

    Bad weather!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Verry nice pictures of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten in Amsterdam.

    Best regards,

    Robert and Ria from Lemmer


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