Emma Thomson

Emma Thomson

  • Job: Freelance travel writer and author of Flanders: The Bradt Travel Guide
  • Favorite destination: Belgium
  • Likes:Travel writer, editor, broadcaster, photographer
On the morning of 6 December, all Belgian children rush downstairs to see if Sinterklaas has left something by the fireplace. Emma met the ‘Big Guy’ and tells you all about it.

6th of December

The toys of Sinterklaas
Pssst…today, I met the ‘Big Guy’ – you know, the one with the long, red robes and white beard. No, not Santa Claus, but Sinterklaas – a holiday figure still uniquely celebrated in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg on 6 December every year.

Little history

the statue of Saint Nicholas - Sinterklaas
Admittedly, they both look very alike, but Sinterklaas is far older. He was a 4th-century Greek bishop who was buried in Spain, became the patron saint of children and, tellingly, had a penchant for secretly leaving gifts – sound familiar?


The bed of Sinterklaas
Nowhere in Belgium is he celebrated with more gusto than the appropriately named¬ Sint-Niklaas, on the southwest outskirts of Antwerp. A statue of the jolly saint stands permanently outside their town hall, they host the Sint in de Piste circus, and each year, from 12 November to 6 December, their Fine Arts Museum, located inside an elegant 1930s townhouse, is transformed into the ‘Huis van de Sint’ – the magic-laced holiday home of Sinterklaas.

The arrival

Zwarte Piet and Emma Thomson
On arrival, one of his mischievous helpers, Zwarte Piet, greets me. Sinterklaas’ present packers hit the national news recently: they were on the verge of being banned because their blackened faces were considered racist and an insensitive reminder of the slave trade, but traditionalists were keen to point out that ‘Piet’ is only black because he’s covered in soot from shimmying down chimneys.

The house (huis van de Sint)

The big book of Sinterklaas
Wandering around the house, I peek into Sinterklaas’ red velvet-adorned bedroom, complete with bedpan, teddy bear and bedtime book entitled ‘Zwoele Nachten in Spanje’ (‘Hot Nights in Spain’) – a joke for the adults; I look longingly into the packing room piled high with presents; and marvel at his rounded spectacles resting lightly on an aged ledger listing boys’ and girls’ names in his office.
Kids meeting Zwarte Piet

There are rooms where kids can practice walking on the roof and posting parcels down a chimney; visit the topsy turvy bathroom, chimney shaped toilet and rainbow-coloured bunkbeds belonging to the Zwarte Pieten; and, waiting in the garden, his real white horse that he rides over from Spain.

A band – the ‘Peatles’ – plays an afternoon concert to entertain the children while they wait.

The meeting

Child visiting Sinterklaas
Finally, it’s time to meet Sinterklaas himself. Sitting resplendent in his living room, another Zwarte Piet by his side, he welcomes the queuing kids and hands them chocolate. I can’t stifle the big grin that breaks across my face on seeing the utter wonder on the faces of the children as they approach him. Crocodile tears dry up and whining halts mid wail as soon as they set eyes upon the white beard and kindly eyes – they look back at their parents, eyes wide, as if to say “You’re right, he’s real!”
Forget sitting on the knee of sweaty store-hired Santa Claus in a shopping centre – this is the real deal, and children never forget it. What’s more, you come away beaming like a big kid yourself, infused with joy and season’s cheer.  


The Huis van de Sint (Stationsstraat 85, Sint-Niklaas) is open 12 November –6 December every year Mon, Tue, Thu & Fri 4:00 PM–5:30 PM, Wed 2:00 PM–5:30 PM, Sat–Sun 10:00 AM–5:30 PM; free entrance; maximum age 7 years. 

Visit (Dutch only) for more information. 

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