Dutch Winter traditions: Curiouser and curiouser…
2022/12/21 | By Steve Voyce | Photo by Rasbak Molen
The Netherlands, like other European countries, has its share of winter traditions and festivities that may seem strange to outsiders.
St. Nicholas Day, on 6 December, is as individual as each country where it is celebrated. The tradition probably originated in the French regions of Alsace and Lorraine, where families tell stories of the saint, make special sweets, and children receive chocolate from St. Nicholas. In Italy, St. Nicholas Day is when unmarried women can pray for a husband. In many Slavic countries, St. Nicholas has an angel and a devil to help him decide whether the child was good or naughty. In much of Central Europe, children put out shoes the evening before hoping that St. Nicholas will leave them a gift.
In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas takes the form of Sinterklaas–in a red bishop’s outfit with a long white beard. Sint and his helpers arrive in the Netherlands from Spain, around three weeks before the big day in a procession that’s watched by children across the country. Why he chose to live in Spain is a mystery–historians refer to past Spanish domination over the Netherlands–as are the medieval outfits of Sinterklaas’ assistants, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Peter’s).
At the Amsterdam Sinterklaas Parade in 2018, the traditional Zwarte Pieten were replaced by Schoorsteenpieten (Chimney Peters). Instead of wearing the traditional blackface makeup that is central to the Zwarte controversy, Schoorsteenpieten have light smudges of soot (from bringing presents down the chimney). However, the fundamental characteristics of the Pieten¬–their cheerfulness and endless supply of cookies and sweets–continue unaffected.
Sinterklaas brings presents to everyone, often accompanied by a short poem and a chocolate letter. Families and groups of friends can draw lots to determine whose Sinterklaas they will be¬¬–like a Secret Santa gift exchange. Beware though, as naughty children are threatened with being taken back to Spain in a sack.
The tradition of blowing the Midwinter horn is generally thought to derive from a Germanic Yule custom to summon help and repel evil spirits.
Across the eastern parts of the Netherlands– Twente, the Veluwe, the Achterhoek and southeast Drenthe–the horn is traditionally blown between Advent Sunday and Epiphany (after Christianity replaced paganism to celebrate the birth of Christ).
The midwinter horn is held in the hands–traditionally over water supposedly for amplification–when played. It is said that once you hear the sound of the horn you will never forget it.
The West Frisian Islands (Dutch–: Waddeneilanden; West Frisian–: Waadeilannen) are a chain of islands in the North Sea off the Dutch coast, along the edge of the Wadden Sea. These Frisian Islands are popular as a summer holiday destination, but–perhaps because of winter isolation from the mainland–they have their own peculiar takes on midwinter traditions.
On the island of Terschelling mainly, but also other Wadden Islands, Sundrum is the name given to Sinterklaas. But with a distinction.
On these islands, Sinterklaas merged with an older pagan tradition, so on 6 December present-giving is combined with chasing evil spirits. These are said to lurk in chimneys and are hunted by people in unsettling costumes or dressed as what appear to be haystacks. For an inexplicable, and possibly misogynist reason, women are supposed to stay indoors–if they venture outside, they will be chased by the Sundrums and tied to a gate.
Possibly the strangest and least known (even in the rest of the Netherlands) of the Sinterklaas traditions takes place on the Wadden island of Ameland.
At around 17:00 on the evening of 6 December, all the lights on the island are turned off. If light shines from your house, your window could be broken or painted. Then, men who are wrapped in sheets and armed with sticks go out for banevegen– ‘sweeping the streets.’ In the pitch black these white shapes roam the streets, blow their horns, and the women and children of the island are chased into their homes.
When the disguised Sunneklaas (their version of Sundrum/Sinterklaas) comes to visit, he hits his stick on the floor and the woman is supposed to dance or jump over the stick. If she declines, she receives a light tap with the stick.
Locals are suspicious of outsiders who, they fear, will find this misogynist, and want to see their centuries-old tradition–with pagan roots–of chasing devils from villages stopped.
Whatever traditions you choose to follow this festive season, have fun!
Want to learn more?
Every year, actor and activist Patrick Mathurin puts on his scarlet cape and his tall pope-like hat and rides the streets of Amsterdam on a white horse as ‘De Nieuwe Sint.’ Read about him here.
About the author
Steve Voyce is a writer and editor and is always good.