When I first started dating a guy from the Netherlands, I had a lot to learn about the Dutch culture. I had been to the Netherlands one time but was still not familiar with the country’s history or traditions. To be honest, the extent of its reputation for me revolved more around sex and drugs than anything else. Over time, I became aware of and very fascinated by its flower story 🌷 and learned more and more about the country’s rich culture with every weekend trip there.

When I was visiting the Netherlands one fall weekend all the way back in 2007, we made a trip to the city center to see Sinterklaas, as he had just entered the country. You see, the story goes that Sinterklaas lives in Madrid, Spain, and only comes to the Netherlands a couple of weeks before he delivers gifts on Sinterklaasavond on the night of December 5, putting his arrival in Holland in mid-November. Each year he arrives at a different Dutch harbor so as many Dutch children can see him as possible.

Julia Willard, Falling Off Bicycles, Julie Willard, Julia Arias, Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas
Julia Willard, Falling Off Bicycles, Julie Willard, Julia Arias, Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas is accompanied by servants called ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (‘Black Peters’) who are dressed in clothing harkening back to 16th Century Spain. When Sinterklaas and the Piets come ashore from their boat, the local church bells clang in his honor. The Sint arrives in traditional garb (a red robe with a towering hat), then rides through town on a white horse. You can see the white horse in the first photos in the Roosendaal city center. The photos below show him enjoying a cruise through a small town in a convertible!

Every town in the Netherlands has a few Sinterklaas helpers, dressed the same as Sinterklaas and the Piets who help give the presents out.

Julia Willard, Falling Off Bicycles, Julie Willard, Julia Arias, Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas
Julia Willard, Falling Off Bicycles, Julie Willard, Julia Arias, Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas

So when I first saw Sinterklaas and his “helpers”, to say I was shocked would be an understatement. I’m not going to sugar coat it, the fact that thousands of people dress up in black face to represent Piet is truly shocking to me. It’s pretty surprising that this tradition still stands after all this time. You see, the “zwart” in “Zwarte Piet” (black Piet) doesn’t refer to the color of their skin, but rather the soot all over them from delivering the gifts to the homes for Sinterklaas. I am out of the loop on where the debate stands on this but I’ve seen it come up a few times over the years and it always ends up that they continue to dress up in black face.

So in mid-November Dutch children’s anticipation for all things Sint-related is at an all-time high, then his real visit to give gifts and sweets is the night of December 5. Children often leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the Sint’s horses only to find those gifts and goodies have replaced them the next morning.

Have you ever seen the 1947 classic Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street? In Kris Kringle’s ongoing proof that he is the real Santa Claus, little Susan observes him meeting a young girl with whom most expect him not to be able to communicate. Alas, he speaks fluent Dutch and they proceed to sing a classic Dutch carol together.

In the more recent (1994) remake of the film, the Dutch girl character was replaced by a deaf girl.

I finally got to see Sinterklaas arrive in Amsterdam for the first time in 2014 on a rainy November day. Tons of kids and parents had gathered along the Amstel River to get the first glimpses of the old guy. As is consistent with the story, the Sint arrives by boat, hence the river meeting point.

I was there to capture it all, albeit in less than ideal conditions. I was trying to get a few shots for fun but did my best not to get in the way of the kids, some of whom were seeing the Sint for the very first time.

Julia Willard, Falling Off Bicycles, Julie Willard, Julia Arias, Paris, France, here and now hypnosis, steve g. jones hypnosis

You can see Sinterklaas had dozens of Zwarte Pieten with him that day, as they we freshly arrived from Spain and had lots of goodies to give out to all these excited kids.

Eventually we all migrated to Leidseplein, where Sinterklaas made his declaration to the families. Okay, I don’t really know what he said, but I’m sure it was something cheery and festive! 😉

Usually there is candy thrown into the crowds as the Sint makes his way among his admirers.

Julia Willard, Falling Off Bicycles, Julie Willard, Julia Arias, Sinterklaas, Christmas, Leidseplein, Dutch traditions

On December 6, the Sint’s birthday, he is already headed back by boat from Rotterdam to his home in Madrid. And the anticipation for next year’s visit begins all over again…

Wondering about gifts and what role Christmas plays in Dutch culture? Christmas and St. Nicholas Day are separate holidays in the Netherlands, most of the gifts being given on the latter. Christmas Day is more spent gathering with family for a meal than as a gift-centered holiday, although there is evidence of this having changed in recent years as traditions from countries seem to meld more and more.

All images are © Julia Willard and may not be used without express written permission. Click any image in this series to be taken to my photography shop. Don’t see the one you want? Just email me!