In mid-November Dutch television broadcasts the official arrival of St. Nicholas and his helper Zwarte Piet live to the nation. Coming by steamer from Spain, each year they dock in the harbor of a different city or village. Wearing traditionalbishop's robes, Sinterklaas rides into town on a white horse to be greeted by the mayor. A motorcade and a brass band begin a great parade which leads Sinterklaas and his Piets through the town. Nearly every city and village has its own Sinterklaas parade.
In the following weeks before St. Nicholas Day, December 6, Sinterklaas goes about the country to determine if the children have been well-behaved. He and his Zwarte Piet helpers visit children in schools, hospitals, department stores, and even at home. The bakeries are busy making speculaas molded spice cookies of the saint. During this time children put out their shoes with wish-lists and a carrot or hay, or maybe a saucer of water, for the horse. When St. Nicholas happens by, the next morning children may find chocolate coins or initial letter, candy treats, pepernoten, and little gifts in their shoes. Everyone hopes for sweets, not coal or a little bag of salt.
The Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas on December 5th, St. Nicholas Eve, with festive family parties when gifts and surprises are exchanged. In the Netherlands, unlike other places, adults as well as children join in the fun. As the Dutch like an element of surprise, a small gift may be wrapped in a huge box, or it may be hidden and require following clues to discover where it is.
Gifts are prettily wrapped in special Sinterklaas paper or they may be hidden, for example, in a potato or an old sock. Each gift, anonymously signed "from Sinterklaas," comes with a clever rhyme that may point out a person's shortcomings in a humorous way. (For the less creative, there are books with suggestions for making rhymes and packaging disguises.) Originality, not value of the gift, is what counts.
Children sing traditional Sinterklaas songs while waiting for the saint to appear. A knock comes on the door and a black gloved hand appears to toss candies and pepernoten inside. Children scramble to gather up the treats. A large burlap bag, "de zak van Sinterklaas," also appears filled with gifts. At the table, decorated with speculaas and other sweets, guests may find their initial in achocolate letter at their places. Food is apt to include hot chocolate, Bishop's wine, and letter banket.
Sinterklaas is the most important tradition for the Dutch, a 2008 Centre for Dutch Culture survey found. Celebrated the evening of December 5 with traditional tasty foods, it is the main time for family gift-giving. The second ranked tradition is decorating a Christmas tree, followed by Queen's Day, April 30. Blowing out birthday candles and eating raw herring were also in the top ten.