Sinterklaas Is Coming To Town: A Guide For Newcomers To The Netherlands

If you’re new to the Netherlands from another EU country, you might notice some differences during the holiday season. It begins in early autumn when stores start selling pepernoten – pieces of bite-sized, spiced cookies – ahead of Sinterklaas’s arrival at the end of November. By December 6th, Sinter’s been and gone. To help you get into the festive spirit – Dutch style – we’ve put together this short guide.  

Who is Sinterklaas?

Not to be confused with Father Christmas or Santa Claus, Sinterklaas is a traditional figure in the Netherlands and Belgium. Every November he arrives in the Netherlands from Spain, in a boat, and is accompanied by his helpers the Petes – Pieten

In contrast with Santa Claus – who rides a sleigh with magical reindeer – Sinterklaas rides a white horse. He also participates in parades, known as intochten, some of which are shown on national television. These parades take place in all the major towns and cities across the Netherlands, welcoming Sinter and his Pieten from the first Saturday after Sint Maarten (November 11th).  

Similar to Santa Claus, Sinterklaas is known for delivering gifts to well-behaved children. In the Netherlands, children place their shoes by the fireplace, and Sinterklaas and his helpers fill them with small presents and candies. Naughty children are warned that they could be taken away as a punishment.

What happens during Sinterklaas?

Unlike Christmas Day and Boxing Day in other parts of the world, Sinterklaas is not a national holiday. However, if you’re living and working in the Netherlands at this time, you’ll notice that schools and some businesses close early so that parents can spend time with their children and family. 

Sinterklaas is all about the children, and present night – pakjesavond – on December 5th is the climax of the holiday. This is when friends and family gather to exchange surprise gifts or poems that they’ve made for each other. It’s also when traditional food is eaten, including:

A short history of Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas is based on a Christian saint who was known for his generosity and acts of kindness, particularly towards children and the poor. 

Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, a town located in what is now Türkiye, during the 4th century. Over the years, stories and legends around Saint Nicholas have helped shape the Sinterklaas tradition.

Elements of Saint Nicholas’s character – such as his kindness and gift-giving – are included in the Dutch (and Belgian) celebration of Sinterklaas. He’s usually depicted as an elderly, bearded man dressed in a bishop's attire, similar to how Saint Nicholas would have dressed. 

Today, in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas continues to be celebrated as a symbol of generosity and goodwill. And on that note, we’d like to send our warmest, heartfelt wishes to all InAxtion employees this festive season! 

Discover more about life and work in the Netherlands by visiting the InAxtion blog.