Celebrating the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas in Vaals, Netherlands

10 Nov

Travels introduce everyone to new places, people, food, culture and many more aspects. But if you are lucky and in the right place at the right time, you end-up getting a unique glimpse of local traditions, festivals, weddings that help you experience the local culture in a totally new way. Last year, I was lucky enough to be in The Netherlands on the second Saturday of November, to witness the annual arrival of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas), patron saint for children, in a Dutch city from Spain.

Sinterklaas is an old tradition dating back to the 3rd century. Per the local belief, Sinterklaas lives in Madrid and arrives in The Netherlands on a boat every year at a different harbor and then travels inland on a horse named Amerigo. He simultaneously also arrives in many local cities and towns and local children come together to welcome him. He is accompanied on this journey by his helper, Zwarte Piet (meaning: ‘Black Peter’).

The preparation and excitement around this arrival starts many weeks in advance. Schools start telling kids about the arrival, teach them Sinterklaas songs and there is also a daily Sinterklaas program on national TV that shows the trials and misfortunes that Sinterklaas and his team are facing while preparing for the trip. There is a new issue each day that is sorted by the next day and the kids are left in a dilemma on how will this issue now be sorted and whether Sinterklaas will be able to make it to The Netherlands at all that year. But everything is finally sorted and Sinterklaas finally undertakes the journey.

Sinterklaas, Vaals, The Netherlands

Since I was in Vaals on November 10 last year, I accompanied my hosts – P & J and their kids M & N to a local resort in Vaals, where our Sinterklaas was due to arrive from Spain. Many local kids of all ages gathered for the event and Zwarte Piets was working the kids and wondering if Sinterklaas will be able to make it or not. They kept coming up with new issues that Sinterklaas was facing on the way and the kids were worried whether he will be able to come. All of this was in Dutch so I had to keep on asking for help and my friend P kept me updated on the happenings. Zwarte Piets distributed candy and pepernoten (small, round, gingerbread-like cookies only available during this time in The Netherlands) to all kids. The kids in turn were singing Sinterklaas songs and waiting patiently for the long awaited arrival. I tried learning some of these songs too and also joined in wherever I could.

Finally we saw Sinterklaas arriving on a horse drawn carriage with loads of presents for the kids. The excitement all around from the very many sugar high kids was unbelievable. As the carriage advanced I finally saw my very first Sinterklaas. Like Santa Claus,  Sinterklaas was an elderly man with long white hair and beard. However unlike Santa Claus, Sinterklaas was dressed in a bishop’s attire with a white alb, a long red cape, red mitre, white gloves with a big ruby ring. He also had a long staff and a big book with information on the activities of each kid over the past year. His helperss, Zwarte Piet were wearing colorful court style clothes, but their faces were painted black. Apparently this is due to the soot of the chimneys from where they enter to bring the presents to the kids.  

Welcome, Fun, Songs and Games with Sinterklaas, Vaals, The Netherlands

 On reaching the gate of the resort, Sinterklaas disembarked from his carriage and walked to a small hall in the resort, while chatting and blessing kids standing close to him. In the hall he sat on a throne on a stage and was welcomed by everyone. His helpers and the assembled kids then sang and danced to many Sinterklaas songs and the kids received pepernoten and presents. There was also a photo shoot for the kids with Sinterklaas. M & N stood very patiently in the queue for their pic but at the last minute, when we had to get on stage, decided this was not for them and made a run for it. P had to catch them and we have a very funny picture of P holding the 2 reluctant kids for the picture. 

Pics with Sinterklaas, Vaals, The Netherlands

 Once the event for the day is over, Sinterklaas stays in a villa here for around 3 weeks (till December 5) and visits schools, hospitals and malls. And since he is officially in residence, children can now keep a shoe on their windowsill to receive gifts from Sinterklaas. They also have to leave a carrot and some hay for Sinterklaas’s horse and some snacks for Sinterklaas. Belief is that good children will get presents in their shoes and the naughty children will get a smack from a broom. Some stories also say that Zwarte Piet put naughty kids in their bags and take them back to Spain. However like Santa Claus, it’s the parents that eat the things left around and fill the shoes with candy and gifts for the kids.

On our way back with our presents from Sinterklaas, Vaals, The Netherlands

And finally the evening of December 5 is called St. Nicholas’ Eve ‘Sinterklaasavond’ when kids receive all their presents and on the December 6, Sinterklaas leaves Netherlands to travel back to Spain. 


Overall it was a lot of fun and I was so glad to be a part of such a local traditions. Even though I didn’t get any presents in my shoe (and thankfully no smack of the broom!), I loved the entire celebration and enjoyed with loads of the yummy candy and pepernoten.


Have you experienced the arrival of Sinterklaas in The Netherlands or any other such local traditions? Do share your experiences on the same in the comments below J

12 Responses to “Celebrating the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas in Vaals, Netherlands”

  1. Passport Overused November 10, 2019 at 18:38 #

    Great post 😊


  2. healthy habitually November 11, 2019 at 13:50 #

    How are you able to travel so much?! It’s amazing!!


    • getsetandgo November 11, 2019 at 15:34 #

      Thanks so much.. I literally travel at every possible opportunity 🙂


  3. crazedinnocence86 November 11, 2019 at 16:54 #

    I love this. I had an opportunity last fall when I was in Taos, NM and visited the Pueblo reservation. They had their festival for one of their saints (I don’t remember which one at this time) but it is the only one they allow the public to witness.


    • getsetandgo November 12, 2019 at 19:06 #

      wow.. sounds amazing.. Did you write about it? Would love to read more on this…


  4. Ace Vision Treks & Tours (P.) LTD December 16, 2019 at 11:20 #

    Great Article Thank you for Sharing,


  5. equinoxio21 February 14, 2020 at 00:00 #

    Nice memories. I lived in Holland for 3 years as a child. And there came SinterKlaas and Zwarte piet… Glad to see the later is still “legal”. There’s been a lot of controversy about the character…


    • getsetandgo February 15, 2020 at 09:47 #

      From what I have read, there is still quite a lot of controversy around Zwarte piet but for now this tradition continues as always.. It is so unique and so much fun…

      Liked by 1 person


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