SINTERKLAAS, not Santa Claus

4th December 2012 2 By Nandini

‘It’s Sinterklaas not Santa Claus! Now repeat after me – Sin (as in sin, yes) ter (rhymes with err) klaas  – the aa is a just like when you say ‘aam’ in Hindi. Now try to remember he’s not the same as Santa Claus, although I agree he looks like him’.

That’s me speaking to little five-year old Meera.

Agreed they look alike!

Recently I met Meera and her parents who moved from India – welcome here as knowledge migrants. They came in summer, and of course Sinterklaas was still far away then and they heard nothing about him. But imagine my shock, when he was a week away from arriving from Spain and they still didn’t know anything about him!!! Nobody in Meera’s school in Amstelveen had so much as mentioned him or Zwarte Piet. None of the colleagues of her father in Amsterdam had engaged with him informally over a coffee about this festival. Apparently, the point that some colleagues would be going home early on December 5th was also missed.


And you can only begin to imagine my despair when the family was already getting ready in November for Christmas celebrations because they did know about Santa Claus. A lot of us do in far off India. When I was a child, the club my parents were members of had him there in person. We didn’t think of asking if he’d taken the flight or boat. In fact, his face was rather brown against his white beard. As were his hands. But we were too excited, (like kids in some other far off parts of the world) to sit on his lap and get a present if we’d been good. Which we always were. In fact Meera had already added Santa to her altar at home, amongst various Hindu gods and goddesses and was praying to him for presents, completely ignoring our own noble Sint.

Santa Claus is on Meera’s house altar

It’s not just I who lives in fear of our multi-cultural society in the Netherlands being drowned out by Santa Claus. If you don’t believe me go to the website of NEN oops – sorry it’s only in Dutch) so let me help out here.

What this site does is publish standards for goods and services in the Netherlands. They are an independent Dutch organization that works in the national, European and world context. They started out in 1916 by the Dutch Society for Industry and Trade and the Royal Institute of Engineers. Today, they have a turnover of 32 million Euros, 300 employees and 1,400 norm commissions. They give workshops, advice and publish handbooks and brochures.

I learnt about this website when the nephew of my partner (both born and grown up in Holland) arrived last Saturday at our family Sinterklaas feast with a handbook dangling below an armful of ‘pakjes’ (presents). He had printed it out, just in case we had forgotten the procedures towards a successful Sinterklaas viering. We’re Dutch but then in muli-culti sort of way.

The code for this particular quality control exercise is: NEN 0512. Passage talks about the beard and tells what the exact length should be, measured from which point, how it should remain attached through his public appearances and all that should go into Sint maintaining a dignified appearance. For instance he should not look like he put his fingers into a wall socket or like he has woken up from deep sleep.

As for Zwarte Piet, he should wear black shoes. Sports shoes are allowed provided the brand name is not clear, as that would commercialize the feast.

And so forth.

Zwarte Piet smiles at Meera

When I had learned of Meera and her parents’ ignorance of Sint, I had offered to take them to the ‘intocht’  – to see the parade. The Piets who skated down the streets and offered her sweets and pepernotjes were fascinating to Meera.  The pomp and show and the presence of the dignified old bishop in person definitely made its mark on Meera and her parents.

Meera is fascinated by the parade!

I had advised Meera’s mum to Google ‘Sinterklaas’ to find out exactly what she should do to enjoy the festivities, but she had not landed on the detailed handbook so carefully prepared by the NEN.

After we had all read our poems and discovered our surprises last Saturday, I went on to learn more about NEN. This is what I found out.

If you’re not Dutch but you think you should Google ‘Sinterklaas’, then chances are one of the hits would be the link to the NEN handbook. Problem is, you wouldn’t benefit from the good advice because you don’t know Dutch. So you would probably leave the site and try another link that wouldn’t give you half the valuable information that the NEN handbook does. But then you would have missed seeing the link on the NEN site to the downloadable English version of the same handbook with the same amount of incredible detail. It’s there somewhere – only there the handbook is called ‘Guidelines for Sint-Nicolaas Festivities’ Dutch standard 0512. So then you would have to know that Sinterklaas (in Dutch) is Sint Nicolaas (in English).

Oh the trial and tribulations of a multi-culti society!!!

In the school of my boys, (a very ‘mutli-cultural Dutch’ school in the center of Amsterdam), it’s a little easier. Each child took a print out home (in Dutch) with pictures like this.

This is what the text reads like:

‘For the children (and parents) of the higher classes,

subject: pulling lots, making surprises and writing poems

Today we have pulled Sinterklaas lots in the class. Each one of you knows which child he/she has pulled. This means that each child has to keep a very big secret. You may not tell anyone who you have pulled; not even your best friend (obviously you may tell your father or mother in secret). Exchanging lots is forbidden.

On every lot is:

The name of the child who you have pulled

The wishes of the child

The hobbies of the child

The favorite games, sport and TV program of the child

What are you going to do?

  1. You’re going to by a present of maximum Euros 6.50. It could also be two small presents that together are of the value of Euro 6.50. You try of course to buy a present that is on the wish list.
  2. You ask in the shop for a bill! You write your own name on the bill. You bring the bill to school. You get back what you have spent.
  3. You make a nice surprise. You will get ideas for an appropriate surprise on the basis of the hobbies of the child, his or her favorite game, sport or TV program or through the present itself. You can make the surprise from boxes, little boxes, toilet rolls, paper, carton, paint etc.

    Living conditions under surprise making

  4. You write a nice poem. You know who you have pulled with the lot so you may write a personal poem. The poem can be funny, but never painful for the receiver. On top the poem is written for who it is. You fold the poem double a couple of times, so that it is not obvious on the outside for who it is. On the outside of the surprise, one should not be able to see for who it is. That is exciting for everybody until the last moment.
  5. You bring the surprise (with the present inside and the poem on it, without a name) with you to school on: Tuesday 4 December. To transport the surprise, you may use a rubbish bag.

You do not pack the beautiful surprise once more in wrapping paper or anything similar. Actually the surprise is the wrapping paper for the gift! It is really nice at the beginning of the feast day to wonder at all the surprises that have been made. So, on the surprise table should not be any wrapped up surprises.

Much pleasure with buying the present, making the surprise and writing the poem!!!

Greetings from all the teachers from the higher classes


Getting there – surprise


(Tip for the following version of the NEN Guidebook : The kids at school pulled lots in person. But since families are spread all over the Netherlands, ‘lotjestrekken. nl  via the internet in an English verso would be very handy)






 Meera is getting ‘ingeburgerd’

Prayers near the fireplace

To save the search, here is the link to the web page of NEN where the English version can be downloaded.  Enjoy!


Sint Nicolaas

Photos of Meera at home were taken by he mother, documentary filmmaker and writer, Nina Subramani.