Sint Maarten & Sinterklaas

We haven’t yet been here a month but have already experienced two Dutch celebrations – the Festival of Sint Maarten and the Arrival of Sinterklaas in Amsterdam.

The Festival of Sint Maarten (Saint Martin) happens every year on November 11th and reminds me of Halloween in the U.S. (true Dutch do not celebrate Halloween, although there is a large influence of outsiders who have brought it to life). The quick history of Sint Maarten begins when he gave half his army cloak to a beggar no one else would help, and then devoted himself to Christ and a simple life. He was so highly thought of that he was more or less forced to become the Bishop of Tours later in life. He is now the Patron Saint of France. The Festival itself celebrates the last few days of summer before the long days of winter. Children came in with the last of the harvests, carrying lanterns and singing songs, and adults would reward the children with one last treat before winter. That tradition has continued and is now the Festival of Sint Maarten.

“I think the kids thought the closer they swung the lanterns in my face, the more candy they would get.

I wasn’t sure what to expect but was told to have candy on hand. I bought two bags of candy at the grocery store and turned all our lights on so children would stop. It’s getting dark here pretty early, so they started coming before Grayson got home from work. Max had fallen asleep in my arms when the first group came, and Penny chose that moment to finally figure out that our buzzer means there are people at our door. So she started barking like crazy and wagging her tail, but Max kept right on sleeping (he’s used to her antics at this point). I answered the door holding Max, and the adults “ahh-ed” and tried to hush the children…too late! A group of about eight small kids launched into their adorable little song, swinging their lanterns at me. That woke him up! This continued all night until we ran out of candy and had to turn off our lights. I think word spread that I had splurged on a bag of Kit Kats (there is mostly just gummy candy here) because we had a lot of kids at our door! The songs are in Dutch so I couldn’t understand them, but that didn’t stop the robust rounds. I think the kids thought the closer they swung the lanterns in my face, the more candy they would get. Pretty cute.

st-maarten lanterns

Just a few days later was the arrival of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) in Amsterdam. This tradition is so similar to our Santa Claus! Every year, Sinterklaas arrives in Amsterdam from his home in Spain in mid-November. He comes by boat with all his helpers, called Zwarte Piet. These helpers are very controversial in at least Amsterdam, as the literal translation is “Black Peter” and they are just that. As the story goes, they are black from soot as they shimmy down chimneys. Once he is in town, children leave out treats for him and his horse each night. Sinterklaas leaves coal for naughty children or treats for the nice each morning (he’s got Elf on a Shelf beat!). He stays in town until ‘sinterklaasavond’ (Sinterklaas evening) on December 5th, when he leaves a full sack of gifts on doorsteps before departing on December 6th.

“For those of you wondering, Max will reap the benefits of Sinterklaas on December 6th as well as those on Christmas Day.”

This yeaIMG_0040r, Sinterklaas arrived on November 15th. Amsterdam hosts the biggest parade for him in the world. His parade over one kilometer long floats the canals, and then Sinterklaas gets on his white horse Amerigo and parades through the city. His helpers throw candy to the 400,000+ crowds along the route. It’s a full-day affair! We live fairly close to his final stop on the Leidseplein, so we loaded up Max in his carrier and braved the cold weather and public transit for the first time to get there (easy-peasy, actually!). I completely misunderstood the timing of it all (hey, it’s in Dutch!), so we got there really early. There were so many people! The kids were all dressed up, and some adults too. Some helpers arrived early and sang songs for the kids. The songs were in Dutch, but there was one particular song that would get everyone so riled up, jumping and clapping their hands. Eventually, the parade came through, and Sinterklaas gave a speech from the balcony of the Stadsschouwburg, a theater on the Leidseplein. Max slept through the entire thing, and we walked home through Vondelpark.


For those of you wondering, Max will reap the benefits of Sinterklaas on December 6th as well as those on Christmas Day. But he’s cute, so it’s okay. Oh, and so will Penny.

Here are some quick links to read more about these holidays: Festival of Sint Maarten and Arrival of Sinterklaas

Sint Maarten children with lanterns photo credit to clouddragon@wordpress.


    1. Enjoy the “new” holidays! Looks like fun and Max looks like he is growing….next year he will watch I bet!

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