The feast of Saint Nicholas, a Dutch tradition

Next week, on the fifth of December, we celebrate St. Nicholas Eve in Holland. The feast of St. Nicholas (or 'Sinterklaas') is an age old tradition in Holland, dating back to at least the 13th century. The Dutch painter Jan Steen painted this wonderful picture 'Saint Nicholas Feast' approximately 1665-1668 (below). The painting hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
The description on the site of the Rijksmuseum reads: "A family celebrating St Nicholas Day. The children have just received their presents. The little girl is rather spoilt: she has a doll and a bucket full of sweets and toys. The boy crying, left, found the cane in his shoe. The older girl holds the shoe up triumphantly and another youngster points to it and laughs at the boy. But in the background, Grandma nods reassuringly to the unfortunate lad. Perhaps she has a present for him, hidden behind the curtain." (For a full description of the painting, visit the site of the Rijksmuseum here)

Jan Steen 'Het Sint Nicolaasfeest'

The original St. Nicholas was Nicholas, bishop of Myra (now in Turkey) who lived in the third and fourth century. He became known and revered for his kindness, fearlessness and religious beliefs. Over time, the story of St. Nicholas has been added to changed into the one we know today. The modern day St. Nicholas is a benevolent figure, living in Spain, caring for children, giving gifts and candy to those who have been good.
The feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated throughout the country (and Belgium too!) by both children and adults. The celebrations start about three weeks before the fifth of December, when St. Nicholas arrives from Spain on his steamboat, bringing his helpers ('Zwarte Piet' or Black Peter, whose origins are most likely Moorish) and lots of gifts with him. The arrival of St. Nicholas and his 'Pieten' is televised and broadcast live every year.

Arrival of St. Nicholas in the Netherlands

Two years ago I made St. Nicholas in miniature. I started with a porcelain figure I had bought several years ago. He was far too young looking so I used paint to age him and then wigged him and gave him a beard just like the 'real' St. Nicholas.

His clothing, miter and staff were quite a challenge to make, but turned out OK I think. Here he is on his visit to my house last year:


  1. Wonderful ! I love your Saint Nicolas. As much as I do not like the Coca Cola one. Do you know that the actuall image of Santa Klaus was made up by CC designers? that's why he is clad in red and white.In Northern Italy gifts were brought up by Baby Jesus, at least when I was young and still in my family. Santa has taken up the advantage on the sweet Little Lord.Have a nice day Rosanna
    The painting is amazing !

  2. Waht a great description of our local tradition Josje. But Santa isn't the same as St.Nicolas Rosanna. Santa has become a symbol of the chritmass traditions, but St.Nicolas has nothing to do with christmass. His own birthday was supposedly on the fourth of december and for that reason this childfrendly historical figure shares by giving presents to the little people among us. Why he does so, a day later on the fifth I don't know. Do you Josje?

    ps. Is there a black peter on your workbench? I remeber you'd bought some heads for that purpose. Can't wait to see one of those by your hand!!

  3. What a treasure Josje, you captured the essence so beautifully! Will he visit your mini house again this year? Maybe leave some goodies there. :)

  4. You are lucky to have a beautiful tradition such as St Nicholas. In countries of the' new world', like America, they do not have old traditions, so they understandably create their own (Such as Santa). I think it is sometimes hard for people living in Europe to understand this, as the different European cultures are steeped in different traditions, and it is great that you continue to honour those.

    Your miniature St Nicholas turned out very smart and I love his robe. I really admire everything you make, as it is obvious that a lot of time and effort, not to mention skill, goes into it.

  5. Hoi Josje,
    De schilderij van Jan Steen ken ik wel, maar niet bewust DAT Sintfeest was. Nu zie en lees ik pas na je beschrijving over de schilderij. Nu heb ik wat geleerd en bedankt. Dat vind ik erg leuk om te weten.
    Van je Sint pop heb ik al eerder gezien en erg mooi gekleed. En wat hoor ik over de Zwarte Piet? heb je al gemaakt van ligt in de la / doos? ;-)


  6. I'm an American, and I'm not fond of our version of Santa Claus either. It is sad that so many people(especially Americans) lose touch with the old stories and traditions.

    Your St. Nicholas is so well done! The fabric and trim you chose for his costume are just perfect,as is the expression on his face.

    Thank you for sharing..

    Kate in California

  7. Just fabulous!! How clever you are!! And do much interesting information. My birthday is 4 December too but I hope to be RECEIVING presents (including Lea Frisoni's wonderful book - yay!!) - I'm not planning on starting a St Nicolas tradition of GIVING them! (I'll keep that for Christmas)...

  8. Hi Rosanna, I knew CC firmly contributed to the Red and white Santa, but he had already changed into the fat jolly guy before that. Here's a page which tells you more about that:
    I didn't know about baby Jesus bringing the gifts, that's very funny!

    Hi Debby, well, basically Saint Nicholas and Santa are the same person. It is just that their stories have changed so much over the years that Santa has become this fat fellow who does his rounds on Christmas Eve. I think Sinterklaas brings his gifts on the fifth because apparently he died on the 6th of December, which then became the day of his remembrance. So the gifts are brought on the eve of this day. In Holland we also celebrate his birthday on the fifth of December, although we don't actually know when he was born.

  9. Hi Maya, I hope he will ;)

    Hi Lize, Thank you. Yes lots of time mainly. as I am a slow worker! On the topic of traditions, I think new traditions arise which are based on old ones. All people in the USA have traditions which have come from their ancestors, and now some of those traditions are still celebrated, just a little differently.

    Hi Lisette, Er zitten zoveel herkenbare details in dit schilderij, ik vind het zo leuk dat dit na al die eeuwen nog steeds herkenbaar is. Jaaaa die Pietjes, die liggen nog steeds in een la en ik weet niet of ik daar aan toe kom dit jaar, ahum...

  10. Hi Kate, I suppose it is the commercial side of it which we (you?) don't like. But I must say the feast of Saint Nicholas is becoming more commercial here too. And people here are starting to give gifts at Christmas as well, especially adults as St. Nicholas is primarily a feast for children (although as an adult I still love it!)

    Hi Norma, we always feel sorry for people who have their birthday around the fifth of December. Similar to having your birthday around Christmas day or New Years day. I was born on Easter day, yes, brought by the Easter bunny! But Easter has a different date each year so no problems there.
    Enjoy your birthday next week and I hope you'll get lots of lovely presents! (I'll keep my fingers crossed for you to receive that book!)

  11. I'm lucky I was born on this side of the world I guess, no big problems here with an early December birthday. And I know for SURE that I'm getting Lea's book because I saw it at my son's house lastnight but I was only allowed to look at the cover and peek at ONE page inside. It is a dream on paper, I can't wait to get it into my hands!

    Also, Josje, can you please email me (I've tried to contact you via Google friends connect but without luck) at - I'd like to make an arrangment to send you a little gift to say thankyou for being first poster and first follower on my new blog! The little box is waiting on my coffee table for a new home :)

  12. Hi Norma, Well, only a few more days to wait for that book...:)
    What a lovely surprise, a little gift for me? I thought you were going to be RECEIVING gifts this week, not giving them away, haha. Thank you very much!


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