Culture/Traditions

Sinterklaas, Nikolaus, Befana or Heilige Drei Könige?


When you live in a multicultural family and context, there are moments where you have to decide which festivity (or holiday) you want to celebrate with your family, extended family, friends etc.

During this time of the year, there are a few traditions that seem very different, but are quite similar.

Sinterklaas or Nikolaus?

Saint Nicholas arriving by boat

Today, on the 5th of December, in the Netherlands people celebrate Sinterklaas and Pakjesavond, whereas in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary and some other countries, Nikolaus, Sankt Niklas or Samichlaus arrives on the 6th of December. He usually has only one helper: Knecht Ruprecht, Schmuntzli, Krampus, Bullerkas, Beelzebub, Hans Trapp, Housecker, Père Fouettard, Rupelz etc.., but in the Netherlands he has lots of Zwarte Pieten.

Well, if you live here in the Netherlands, you can  choose either to celebrate in the Dutch way, adapting to the social context or in the German, Swiss, Hungarian etc. way. We decided to adopt the Dutch celebration. As we never happened to be in Switzerland or Germany during these days of the year, our children never questioned the difference between these traditions. They accept it like the differences in classical tales (I will talk about this in an other article).

When I was a kid, I used to live in Italy and our italian neighbours didn’t celebrate San Nicola. As far as I know, only in the region South Tyrol, San Nicola is celebrated (San Nicola is also the patron saint of the city of Bari, but they don’t celebrate him like in Germany and South Tyrol). I remember that when I was a kid, my italian friends were very keen to learn about our german festivity. I was very proud of celebrating Nikolaus, but I also liked their festivity: the Befana.

La Befana or Heilige Drei Könige?

La befana

The celebration of La Befana seems very similar to Sinterklaas and Nikolaus, and takes place on the 6th of January.

La Befana is an old woman – often represented as a witch – who flies on her broom stick every year on the night between the 5th and 6th of January, the Epiphany day, to bring presents to children. She carries these presents in a big bag on her back. Usually she brings lots of sweets, and she will fill the stockings kids have left on the chimney. – Very similar to the Zwarte Pieten in the Netherlands, the sweets come down the chimney…

Well behaved children will find sweets and chocolates in their stocking on the day of the Epiphany. Those who didn’t behave will also get a few lumps of coal. Nowadays this would be sweets in the shape of coal.

Everyone loves La Befana in Italy, she is a lovely old woman with a long crooked nose, broken shoes and a patched dress.

In Germany, Switzerland etc. on the 6th of January they celebrate the Three Wise Men or Three Kings (Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar). In Spain, these three Wise Men will receive letters from children and bring them gifts on the night before Epiphany. In Spain, each one of the three Magi represents one different continent: Europe (Melchior), Asia (Caspar) and Africa (Balthasar). These Magi come from the Orient on their camels to visit the houses of all the children. Pretty much like Sinterklaas on his horse or Sankt Nikolaus… If the children in the Netherlands prepare a carrot and some hay for Amerigo, the horse of Sinterklaas, in Spain it is traditional to prepare food and drink for the camels (apparently this is the only time in the year they can eat).

In Spain and Portugal people eat a cake (Roscón de Reyes) to celebrate. It’s ring-shaped, most commonly bought, not baked, and it contains a small figurine of the baby Jesus (or another surprise depending on the region) and an actual dry broad bean.  The one who gets the figurine is crowned, but whoever gets the bean has to pay the value of the cake to the person who originally bought it.

In France, Belgium and Switzerland the cake (galette du roi, Dreikönigskuchen) contains a small figure of the baby Jesus or a small king, is shared within the family. Whoever gets the bean is crowned king for the remainder of the holiday and wears a cardboard crown purchased with the cake. The practice is known as tirer les Rois (Drawing the Kings).

In our family here in the Netherlands, we decided to celebrate Sinterklaas on the 5th of December along with all our Dutch friends, and Heilige Drei Könige like in Germany, Switzerland etc. with a little old woman arriving on her broom stick on the 6th of January…

Did you also choose to celebrate festivity in another way than you used to in your childhood? Or did you maybe choose to celebrate one festivity instead of another?

I would be very interested in knowing what made you take this decision and how you think and feel about it.

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15 replies »

  1. Hi there, I just stumbled upon your blog and had to laugh as we seem to have a lot in common! I also wrote an article about Sinterklaas… and I am also expat nearly since birth and multilingual living with a Canadian husband in CH. Let’s connect! Jenny

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  2. Jenny, I can understand. We came to NL when my son was 2.5. But when the children start going to school it’s getting more difficult. But it’s easier before they are 12-17 years old. – Where would you like to move to?

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    • Thank you for this input and information! That’s interesting! I like the Mexican style: I would love to try the Rosca de Reyes you mention in your post! Do you also have songs you sing on this day? Like the one about the French Galette des Rois?

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    • Annabelle, that’s what we’re doing too, usually. Sometimes we buy the galette at a local bakery: they still put lovely figurines inside.
      “J’aime la galette – savez-vous comment?”… 😉

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