November 19, 2023
The Entry of Saint Nicholas in Amsterdam
The entry by boat of Saint Nicholas is one of the most festive occasions of the year in Amsterdam, and one not to be missed if you're in the city.
On Sunday, November 19, Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas), the patron saint of all children and the main figure of the Dutch holiday season, will make his much-anticipated annual arrival in Amsterdam.
Whether you choose to watch his boat dock at the Scheepvaartmuseum (Maritime Museum) in the harbor, or at the end of his parade route near Leidseplein, you'll be surrounded by children and families eagerly awaiting the white-bearded man on a horse of the same color.
Equally as anticipated are his Moorish helpers, the Zwarte Pieten ("Black Petes"), as they throw thousands of spiced cookies and candy to the crowds.
There are many different stories about the origin of Sinterklaas, also known as Saint Nicholas. According to the most popular tale, Saint Nicholas was born in the seaport town of Patara, Lycia around the year 270 AD.
He was born into a wealthy Christian family, and when his parents died in a widespread epidemic, he gave away the wealth he inherited to the poor and entered the priesthood.
In the year 303, the Roman emperor Diocletian commanded all the citizens of the Roman Empire, including the citizens of Asia Minor, to worship him as a god. Christians, who believed in only one god, resisted the emperor's orders and as a result were imprisoned. Saint Nicholas was among the many imprisoned. He was confined for more than five years, until Constantine came to power in 313 AD and released him.
Later in life, Saint Nicholas became the Archbishop of Myra and the guardian of merchants, sailors and children. He performed many good deeds including miracles. It is said that Saint Nicholas stopped storms at sea to save sailors and brought dead children back to life.
The legend of Saint Nicholas, who died 6 December around 340, became very popular in the Medieval Ages, when Italian soldiers transported his remains from his burial site in Myra to Italy.
In Bari, a small town in Southern Italy, a church was built in Saint Nicholas' name, and soon Christian pilgrims from all over the world visited the church and took his legend home with them.
As the tale of Saint Nicholas spread throughout the world, his character was adapted, taking on characteristics of different countries.
Saint Nicholas at the Prins Hendrikkade starting his parade through Amsterdam
At present, there are a number of different adaptations of this character all over the globe. Many believe he never existed at all due to the lack of historical evidence.
These same people also feel that Sinterklaas is a conglomeration of several different myths and legends, more probably a Christian variation of several Pagan gift-giving figures like the Roman Befana, the Germanic Berchta and Knecht Ruprecht.
Traditionally, in mid-November, two weeks before his celebrated Feast Day, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands by boat from his home in Spain (it is widely believed that Spanish sailors brought the legend of Saint Nicholas to the Netherlands).
Accompanied by his white horse (named Americo) and his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten, he arrives in the Netherlands to signify the start of the holiday season.
This event is broadcast live, and each year Sinterklaas arrives in a different city. Many people from across the country welcome Sinterklaas at the harbour and watch him parade through the city's streets.
During the two weeks before his "birthday", it is said that Sinterklaas rides across rooftops at night on his white horse, listening through chimneys for good children.
Nice children that leave carrots in shoes for Sinterklaas' horse, wake up to shoes full of candy and treats.
However, it is the eve before his Feast Day (Sinterklaasavond) that is the most highly anticipated by children, and the busiest day for Sinterklaas. This is the big day when Sinterklaas delivers presents to good children and coal to children who have been naughty.
On Sinterklaasavond (5 December), children anxiously wait for Sinterklaas to knock on their door, and when he does, children know that if they run to their door, a sack full of gifts will await them on their doorstep.
Following Sinterklaas' visit, each member of the family takes turns handing out presents and unwrapping them. Names are printed on each gift, and almost every present is accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek poem about the gift's recipient.
Families celebrate Sinterklaas' Feast by singing songs and indulging in a feast of their own, which consists mainly of sweets like marzipan, chocolate initials, pepernoten (ginger biscuits) and hot chocolate with whipped cream.
Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) always wear colourful and jovial costumes. They are adorned with gold earrings and hats with feathers and are generally considered simple and full of beans characters.
Their role is to assist Sinterklaas by performing various holiday tasks, like delivering presents down chimneys and recording names of naughty and nice children in Sinterklaas' book of names.
The traditional image of Sinterklaas is one of a bishop, clothed in a white garment and wrapped in a red cloak. He wears a tall red and gold hop'smiter (head dress) that covers his long white curly hair.
He usually wears white gloves, and in one hand carries a tall metal staff and in the other hand the book of names.
Like the North American concept of Santa Claus, he has a long white beard, however, unlike his North American cousin, he does not have a belly "like a bowl full of jelly".
Despite his colourful image, Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, is a very controversial character in the Netherlands.
He is called Black Pete because of his dark colouring, and while some attribute his skin colour to the soot from the chimneys he slides down, others criticise the character for being an old-fashioned stereotype and racist symbol of slavery.
The origin of Black Pete's character is not known, however many speculations have been made.
Some believe that Black Pete is a symbol of the medieval Christian idea of evil, when black was often associated with evil.
Others believe it is more probable that Black Pete is Saint Nicholas' Moorish servant, but with the absence of any historical proof, there is no way of knowing exactly what Black Pete represents.