Although he looks a bit like Father Christmas or Santa Claus, ‘Sinterklaas’ (Saint Nicholas) is a very Dutch character loved by children and adults alike. His annual arrival and parade in Amsterdam and the traditional festivities that follow are a real treat!

The legend of Sinterklaas

Saint Nicholas has had close ties with Amsterdam since 343 AD. Legend has it that Sinterklaas originally came from Turkey as St. Nicolaus, the Bishop of Mira, an honourable man who was kind to children. No one really knows why he then chose to live in Spain but historians point to the Spanish domination over the Netherlands in the past. The medieval attire of Sinterklaas’ assistants, the Zwarte Pieten, is equally mysterious.

Zwarte Piet (literally: ‘Black Peter’) has long been the subject of debate in Amsterdam and the rest of the Netherlands. In 2018, the traditional Zwarte Pieten were replaced by Schoorsteenpieten (literally: ‘Chimney Peters’) at the Amsterdam Sinterklaas Parade. Rather than wearing the traditional blackface makeup that is at the heart of the Zwarte Piet controversy, the Schoorsteenpieten are only marked with light smudges of soot from bringing presents down the chimney. The more important characteristics of the Pieten, such as their jovial attitudes and seemingly endless supply of cookies and sweets, remain unchanged.   

Grand arrival in Amsterdam

With more than a kilometre of floats and boats, Amsterdam hosts the largest Saint Nicholas parade in the world. Sinterklaas sails into town on a Sunday mid-November (14 November in 2021) with 600 Pieten and plenty of pepernoten (small spiced biscuits), welcomed by upwards of 400,000 spectators who line the canals.

The white-bearded legend traditionally makes his spectacular entrance into the city by sailing down the Amstel River and following a route through the city past the Nieuwe Amstelbrug, Torontobrug, the Hoge Sluis by the Royal Theatre Carré and the Magere Brug. The waterborne parade ends at the Scheepvaartmuseum (Maritime Museum) where Sint is welcomed by the Mayor of Amsterdam.

Sinterklaas' arrival in Amsterdam takes place in mid-November but the exact date varies each year. Celebrations also take place throughout the Amsterdam Area, including Zaandam, IJmuiden, Velsen, Santpoort.

The parade

Sinterklaas then trades his boat for his white horse Amerigo, and the parade continues through the streets. He's always accompanied by his band of merry helpers, the Pieten, who throw cookies and candy to the thousands of onlookers. After passing through the Prins Hendrikkade and the Damrak, Sinterklaas arrives at Dam Square early afternoon to kick-off a special musical programme for kids of all ages.

As the musical portion of the day comes to a close, Sinterklaas continues on through the Rokin, Muntplein, Rembrandtplein, Utrechtsestraat and Weteringcircuit until he reaches the last stop on his tour – the Leidseplein, where he delivers a special message to his smallest fans from the balcony of the Stadsschouwburg.

Have you been good or bad?

Once Sint is in town, children lay out their shoes before bedtime, along with water (or wine) and a carrot for the horse, in the hopes that there will be a gift left there by morning. The very good kids are usually rewarded with chocolate letters and marzipan while the naughty anxiously wait to see if they’ve been given coal, again.

Although the feast of Saint Nicolas falls on 6 December, the evening of 5 December is the main gift-giving occasion during the holiday season in the Netherlands. Called 'sinterklaasavond' (Sinterklaas evening) or 'pakjesavond' (presents evening), Sint drops off a sack full of gifts on the doorstep before heading back to Spain.

Following his late-night visit, much like at Christmas, everyone unwraps their presents from Sinterklaas and reads aloud the poems that have been written especially for each recipient. The author of these light-hearted poems remains anonymous. The day ends with songs and a nap-inducing feast, with treats like marzipan, chocolate letters, pepernoten (spice biscuits) and hot chocolate with whipped cream.

Sounding a lot like another jolly bearded man who gives gifts in December? Find out the differences between Sint and Santa.

Sinterklaas in Amsterdam