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Each December in the ABC Islands – Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao – locals and tourists celebrate the traditional Dutch holiday known as Saint Nicholas Day.
Throughout the weeks leading up to the feast day on December 5, Sinterklaas – the Dutch precursor to the American Santa Claus – makes appearances throughout the islands and distributes gifts. Much like the Christmas season in America, the weeks surrounding Saint Nicholas Day are a very exciting time for Curacao and her sister islands. When you visit Curacao this year, add a little fun to your vacation by participating in some of the traditions of this special holiday.
As the character known as Sinterklaas appears each year to celebrate the feast day of Saint Nicholas, the fictional character of Dutch custom certainly bears a resemblance to the venerated saint. Saint Nicholas was actually the bishop of Myra, a city in what is now Turkey, in the 4th century. In the Catholic Church, Nicholas came to be the patron saint of children as a result of numerous stories claiming that the bishop had saved many children from lives of destitution, some from death. Today, Sinterklaas appears in Europe and the Caribbean wearing the traditional red cloak and mitre (pointed hat) of Catholic bishops. He carries a gold staff known as a crosier and keeps a large book with the names of each child under his arm, complete with designations on who has been naughty or nice (zoet or stout in Dutch tradition). As the American version of Santa Claus is based in large part on this Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas is also known for his great white beard.
Much as Santa Claus relies on the assistance of his elves to deliver gifts to all the world’s children, Sinterklaas employs a number of helpers known as Zwarte Pieten. Known for their black faces and colorful 16th century clothing, the Zwarte Pieten actually found their beginnings in a Middle Ages tale about the devil. The original legend stated that on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ feast day the devil was enslaved, evil was overcome and Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) came to serve Saint Nicholas. In recent centuries, the legend came to state that the Zwarte Pieten’s faces are black with soot from sliding down chimneys to deliver gifts. Within the last few years, efforts have been made to incorporate helpers with different colored faces into the legend, explained by Sinterklaas passing through a rainbow in his boat. In Curacao, keep your eye out for these playful helpers during the holiday and you may be rewarded with a special treat.
Dutch tradition always held that Sinterklaas sailed each year from Spain and was greeted with great fanfare upon his arrival. In Curacao, this tradition remains intact and represents one of the island’s most exciting events for locals and tourists alike. A few weeks before the feast day, Sinterklaas will make his scheduled arrival to the island. Immediately afterwards, Sinterklaas and his helpers lead a parade through the streets, handing out treats along the way. In the weeks leading up to Saint Nicholas Day, Sinterklaas can be seen throughout Curacao in shopping centers and resorts, interacting with excited children and curious adults. As a result of the holiday, many resorts and tourist destinations feature special events during the season and tourists are always encouraged to participate.
If you visit Curacao with your family during this holiday season, you can also participate in the gift giving traditions of Saint Nicholas Day. While Sinterklaas is in Curacao, it is customary for children to leave their shoes near the chimney or front door each night. Current holiday tradition still holds that Sinterklaas and his helpers make a flight each night and drop candy and other small gifts down each chimney into the shoes. You can also celebrate the feast day of St. Nicholas by creating either a “present evening” on the eve of the holiday or receiving gifts from Sinterklaas on the following morning.
In Dutch tradition, families often hear a knock at the door and find a sack of presents outside for the whole family. If you are staying at a resort in Curacao during the holiday, the resort staff will be able to help you celebrate this traditional holiday with your family.
As Saint Nicholas Day falls in the heart of Curacao’s tourism season, there isn’t a better time to visit the island. During your time in Curacao, join in on the celebration and add a little Old World tradition to your Caribbean holiday.