Tuesday, December 5th, we celebrated St.Nick's day. That is the day we exchange gifts in the Netherlands. In our country, the religious Christmas and the gift exchange are two different things. The day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ is December 25th, just like in other countries. We actually have a Second Christmas Day too, on the 26th. That's because, traditionally, people would go to church on the First and go see family on the Second.
But, back to St. Nick. We call him Sinterklaas, which is an abbreviation of Sint Nicolaas. He arrives on a steam boat (called Pakjesboot 12, or Present boat 12), about two weeks before the 5th. On a Saturday morning he arrives in the country, which is aired on national TV. The days after that he arrives locally, in ports, streams, or by car or other means of transportation.
St.Nick has a lot of helpers, called Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes. They are boys and girls whose faces are black with soot, because they have to go down chimneys to distribute presents. Typically, little kids (the true believers) can put their shoes by the chimney (or back door, or somewhere else) before they go to bed, and when they wake up they find that their shoes have been filled with candy and little presents. This is done on the week-ends between the arrival of St. Nick and the actual celebration of his birthday (which is done December 5th instead of his real birthday, the 6th, because on that day he is too busy with his own presents).
On the night that his birthday is celebrated (typically the 5th, but the Saturday night is popular too, he can't be in all places at once after all) everybody is excited. After a knock on the window and a ringing of the door bell there is a big basket (which looks a lot like mom's clothes basket) full of presents and candy. There are traditional songs, and traditional candy. It's a great time for traditions.
The people that are not so believing anymore, usually draw names. It's kind of like a Secret Santa. You buy a present for the person on your paper and that's when it starts. You have to make up an original way to wrap it. For instance, if someone is a soccer player, you might hide the present in a papier-maché soccer ball. Or if someone asked for slippers, you can make him huge paper slippers and hide the present in there. Step 3 is to make a poem. In this poem, little jokes are made about the person. He has to read the poem out loud before he can open his present, so everybody has a good laugh.
Needless to say, St. Nick is my favorite holiday in the year. Anymore though, more and more people start giving presents at Christmas, once their kids don't believe in Sinterklaas anymore. I think that's a loss of our culture. Besides, Santa Claus was made up by Dutch immigrants in the United States who wanted to keep their tradition, yet change it to their new culture. And Coca Cola did the rest...Because St. Nick is so important, nobody has any Christmas decorations up until December 6th. That would be showing a lack of respect for St.Nicholas..