Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) Evening

Dutch Traditional Christmas - While serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in The Netherlands, 1963-1965, I first became acquainted with the Dutch Christmas Tradition of children anxiously looking forward to St. Nicholas Eve on December 5th.  I was serving in Apeldoorn and had recently been transferred from Amsterdam.  My companion, Elder James H. Dugger, and I spent the evening with the van Houten family--Sister van Houten, daughters Helga and Solebal, and sons Olaf and Tristan-- I learned that "Sinterklaas" traveled by ship from Spain to Holland every winter.  He wore red robes and a tall, pointed mitre on his head and he carried a large staff.  On land, he traveled from place to place on a white horse.  With him he brought a huge sack full of gifts for the children.  Accompanying him was "Zwarte Piet" (Black Pete), his trusted servant and companion who distributed the gifts to the children along with candy and other "goodies".

Families celebrate  St. Nicholas Eve at home with lots of good food, hot chocolate, and a letterbanket.  This is a "letter cake" made in the shape of the first letter of the family's last name.  In some families, each person gets a little letterbanket with their first initial.  They exchange carefully wrapped "surprises" accompanied by a personal verse written by the giver about the recipient, all signed "Sinterklaas".  No one is supposed to know who gave the gift.  Often they are wrapped in a potato or in other unusual ways.  A large gift may contain instructions as to where the recipient will find the gift.

Finally, at the end of the evening, the children set their shoes by the fireplace.  They fill their shoes with hay and carrots for the horse Sinterklaas rides through the streets on St. Nicholas Eve.  They sing a song about how they hope the cold, wet, foggy weather won't keep Sinterklaas away.  Then the children tell the parents how they have behaved during the past year.  The well-behaved children wake up to their shoes filled with nuts, candy, and other surprises.

"St. Nicholas" (Elder James H. Dugger)

"Black Pete" (Elder Golden V. Adams)

The traditional secular part of Christmas, where gifts were exchanged and families spent a festive evening, occurred on December 5th and St. Nicholas Day was December 6th.  The traditional Christmas eve and Christmas day was reserved for celebration of the birth of Jesus, The Christ.  Later in December, Dutch families decorate a Christmas tree and trim the house with candles, evergreens, and holly.  Some children hang up a stocking from the fireplace mantle on Christmas Eve, but there are no more presents after St. Nicholas Day for most Dutch children.

Families go to church together on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas morning.  They gather together for a large Christmas dinner and afterwards, the family gathers before the fireplace to tell stories and sing carols.  December 26th is the Second Christmas Day.  Often the family goes out to a restaurant to eat on that day.  This day Christmas Day is made special by many musical performances, concerts, and recitals.

Our Family's Tradition of St. Nicholas Eve - As Thanksgiving approached in 2007, and our family was in the midst of making preparations for holiday celebrations, Diane and I decided that it would be exciting for our grandchildren to experience our own "brand" of St. Nicholas evening.  I purchased small wooden shoes for each of our five children at the Old Dutch Store in Salt Lake City, along with stroopwaffelen (syrup waffles), a banket letter (chocolate letter beginning with each of our children's names as well as one for each of their parents--and of course, one for ourselves), a box of hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles for putting on bread or toast), some marzipan (almond flavored) fruit snacks, and gingerbread "Sinterklaas" cookie along with windmill-shaped "Speculaas" cookies.  Diane also found some small gifts for the grandkids, as well.

'Goodies' left for our children and grandchildren on St. Nicholas Eve

On the evening of December 5th, we had each of our children explain the Dutch tradition of St. Nicholas Eve and each of the families put the wooden shoe (klompen) outside the front door of their homes.  Diane and I drove around to each of their houses and delivered the various items that we had prepared.  It was exciting to see how each family handled St. Nicholas morning when they opened their front door and, sure enough, St. Nicholas had found each of their homes!

Each year, Diane and I have brought many of these traditional foods and gifts together for our children and grandchildren.  It has become an anticipated tradition, and our grandchildren are excited to tell their friends at school that Sinterklaas visited them!  When asked why Sinterklaas had visited them, but nothing had happened at their house, our grandchildren have been able to explain that because they are of Dutch descent, Sinterklaas remembers them on his special Eve.  This kindly bishop from Spain magically delivers his "surprises" to them to remind them that they belong to a special family, as well as a special European people.

Our table is piled with cookies from each of our families in the annual cookie exchange, giving a variety for all to take home.

Our children and grandchildren usually bring up the subject in conversation when we have our traditional cookie exchange later in December.  Each of our children make cookies that can be shared with other family.  Then they all meet at the appointed time, usually a Saturday, at our home and each family can then take the different kinds of cookies that the other members of the family have made and brought.  Good conversation, fun, and traditions are shared along with the cookie exchange.  Sometimes, this is done in conjunction with neighborhood Christmas Caroling, but always ends up with our children (and sometimes one or more of their spouses) gathering around the piano and singing Christmas Carols.  Diane and I love this tradition, and it brings such a warm spirit into our home--to say nothing of the closeness and the memories that it creates within our family.  (To hear one of their Christmas songs, click on the arrow at the top of this story.)

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Tom Cormier (website) on Wednesday, 09 November 2011 20:05


This almost sees surreal. the voices of your kids are spectacular! Silent Night is so perfect for them. The food, the table settings. You really know how to do it!! Beautifully written and excellent history too. Only yesterday I found an old picture of us singing carols to the neighbors, nothing like that any more.

Golden, This almost sees surreal. the voices of your kids are spectacular! Silent Night is so perfect for them. The food, the table settings. You really know how to do it!! Beautifully written and excellent history too. Only yesterday I found an old picture of us singing carols to the neighbors, nothing like that any more.