St. Nicholas Day in Metro Vancouver

On December 1st, 2012, your family can visit St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas) at the Amsterdam Greenhouse and Garden Center in Pitt Meadows. It’s a fun way to experience a European tradition at Christmas time.

If you’re thinking “Pitt Meadows! Out there?”, don’t worry.  It’s not far from Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody by way of Lougheed Highway or Kingsway, which moves faster than Lougheed.  If you live on the east side of Metro Vancouver or in Surrey or Langley, you simply get on a highway, nip up the Mary Hill Bypass over the Pitt River bridge, hang a left on Old Dewney Trunk road and, presto, you’re there!

Here are the details:

* complimentary hot chocolate and Dutch treats

* enter a colouring contest to win prizes. (PDF to print drawing. Drop off by December 2nd, 5 PM.)

* visit Sinterklaas from 10 AM – 2 PM (Bring your camera.  Sinterklaas is dressed differently than Santa Claus.)

* 10:00 AM  Children can create their own table centerpiece using fresh greens. (Children 7 and under need adult supervision.) A cost of $10 per child will be deducted from the cost of materials used.

What Is St. Nicholas Day?

St. Nicholas Day (or Sinterklaasavond) is a Dutch celebration related to St. Nicholas Day.  St. Nicholas was a saint who lived in Turkey in the 3rd century AD. The legend is that the original saint threw money down a chimney into socks, that were drying, in order to help some young sisters for their dowries so they wouldn’t have to go into prostitution.  December 5th is the birthday of St. Nicholas. Knowing this story helps because you can now say to your child, with confidence, that St. Nicholas lived a long time ago and helped people in this way. You can say “let’s put out our shoes and see if he will come and visit us.”  If they ask you whether or not St. Nicholas really DID visit your house you can say “hmnn. I wonder. What do you think?”

Between the third week of November, when St. Nicholas arrives with great ceremony on a barge (or train) with his helper in Dutch communities and December 5th, children set out their shoes at night with a carrot or hay and a bowl of water for St. Nicholas’ horse.  They sing a Sinterklaasavond song and can also provide a drawing for St. Nicholas. In the morning they will find any number of special treats or small gifts including: mandarin oranges, letter shaped pastry with almond paste or chocolate letters (of the child’s first initial), chocolate coins, marzipan figures, spiced cookies, gingerbread biscuits or a chocolate St. Nicholas wrapped in foil. In many ways this is similar to the advent calendar or more elaborate advent calendars which can include small, simple gifts. In the Netherlands the children receive most of their main, larger gifts on December 5th – the birthday of St. Nicholas.  In families with older children or adults, gifts are given Secret Santa style and disguised in paper that reminds the recipient of an embarrassing moment in the previous year or teases him/her about a character trait in a gentle way.  The giver also writes a rhyming poem along the same theme as the wrapping of the gift.

Here at BC Family we don’t do nightly small gifts from late November until December 5th. Instead we have an advent calendar. We also don’t do a major gift exchange on December 5th; however, to experience the spirit of St. Nicholas Day we put out shoes on December 5th and receive a gift on the actual St. Nicholas Day on December 6th. (In Belgium and various former Dutch colonies, the focus for St. Nicholas day celebrations is on the 6th.) When the children are older, we could do the silly gift exchange and poem giving party. This seems to be a social event that Dutch friends really enjoy.

While the western tradition for Santa Claus on December 25th has crept into Dutch culture, for the most part the emphasis for gift giving is towards the end of the first week in December.  December 25th and 26th are reserved for traditions related to the religious celebration such as an evening mass and early breakfast that includes a fruit Christmas loaf, salmon and pate, for example.  Christmas dinner does not usually include turkey. On the 26th another meal is held with family and friends to eat left overs and there can be outings such as skating.

If you’re thinking that you’d like to try something new for this Christmas season, why not get a head start using some popular traditional Dutch Christmas recipes?  As for the other St. Nicholas traditions, depending on the age of the children in your family, you can pick and choose which traditions you would like to try. Don’t worry if you are not Dutch or do not have Dutch heritage. The traditions we all celebrate at Christmas time are already an international affair.

Dutch Christmas Recipes:

  • Duivekater A sweet, decorative bread.  More tips for making it. You can see duivekater bread in the bottom right hand corner of the Jan Steen Feast of St. Nicholas painting shown above.)
  • Kerstkransjes Christmas wreath cookies that can be hung on your tree. So pretty!
  • Kruidnootjes Small, tasty gingerbread cookies.
  • Bishop’s Wine A mulled wine.
  • Kerststol A Christmas loaf with fruit. (This photo gives an idea about how to decorate the loaf with marzipan pieces.)
  • Marzipan To eat as it is in interesting shapes, or to form decorations for other baked goods.
  • Appfelflappen This photo gives an idea how to form the pastry.
  • Kerstkrans A wreath shaped pastry decorated with candied fruits and filled with sweet almond paste)
  • Banketstaaf or banketletters: pastry logs or letters filled with sweet almond paste
  • Jan Hagel cookies (a simple but tasty Christmas cookie)
  • Advocaat Basically an eggnog liqueur.
  • Oliebollen A New Year’s Treat. (It’s worth buying a little deep fryer just so you can make this treat.)
  • Speculaas A spiced cookies recipe not requiring the mold and Speculaas cake. (You can also find the cookies by President’s Choice at Superstore.)
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