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This Sunday, November 13th, Sinterklaas arrived in the Netherlands, and the entire city of Amsterdam celebrated with a massive parade to herald his arrival. Jesse and I spent the day at our friend Sarah’s house, who works as an au pair, since it’s much more fun to celebrate kid things when there are kids around!

Since Sinterklaas arrives on a ship from Spain, the day starts with a giant boat parade up the Amstel and through the city’s canals. The bridges and streets were packed with people, and the water was similarly packed with boats, horns tooting and honking.

Sinterklaas is dressed a little bit like the pope–since he’s a saint, of course. And his helpers are called Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes. They are everywhere, all Dutch people in blackface, which I try hard not to consider racist. The kids are told it’s because of the chimney soot. Right?

It’s hard not to get into the spirit of it all, since even the adults get excited when Sinterklaas waves to them. Kids dress up like Zwarte Pieten, candy is everywhere, and the whole city becomes a happy party. After the boats go all the way up the city into the harbor, the big guy gets out and starts the walking parade back through the city, on foot (and horse). Hundreds of Zwarte Pieten go ahead of him on roller blade, bike, tractor, horse, and foot, handing out candy, goofing off in front of the kids, or playing music.

We waited and watched, and waited, and ate peppernut candy and cookies, and waited some more. The kids got more and more excited. And then, there he was! On his white horse, waving to everyone. Over the next few weeks he’ll appear in hospitals and schools across the country, and on December 5 kids will put out wooden shoes and a carrot for his horse next to the fireplace, and receive presents in the morning.

It’s funny how this is so similar to American Santa Claus, but so, so different at the same time. While other countries celebrate Saint Nicholas, it’s obvious where America got the name Santa Claus from. Another difference that I love is that in America people love to point out that the jolly old man is not real. While here the entire city, every parent, and even older kids pull out all the stops to keep the magic alive.

Welcome Sinterklaas! Let Christmastime begin!

Excited me, Sinterklaas on his white horse, and the leftover peppernuts on the street.