Thursday 5 December 2019

Santa Claus but different – Sinterklaas

As many of us are getting ready to celebrate Christmas and all its traditions, I’d like to focus on one of them in specific: Santa Claus. I’m taking a bit of a detour, however, since I won’t be talking about the jolly man from the North Pole we’re all familiar with but about his Dutch ‘cousin’, named Sinterklaas.

But first a short history lesson.

The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to the third century AD and a man known as Saint Nicholas who lived in Turkey. There are many stories about his good deeds, and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6th. He was (and, in his various incarnations, probably still is) the most popular saint in Europe, especially in the Netherlands.

Which brings me neatly to Sinterklaas.

As you can see above, the Dutch version of the present-giving saint and specifically his clothes still strongly resemble those of someone high up in the church’s hierarchy. What else is different about Sinterklaas you ask? Well, for starters, children in the Netherlands get their presents on December 5th, and traditionally those would be dropped into or near shoes, which children would leave by the fireplace. Quite a few traditional Sinterklaas songs tell about leaving your shoe out and hoping for a present.

Sinterklaas is HUGE in the Netherlands. In fact, his arrival into the country—from Spain, by boat—is broadcast live on television every year. Don’t ask me why he comes from Spain or why he arrives by boat; I have absolutely no idea.

As this picture shows, Sinterklaas has helpers who go by the name of ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Pete). And yes, traditionally those were white people whose faces had been blackened. Why Sinterklaas’s helpers would be black isn’t entirely clear either. It’s not impossible that since the holy man (yes, that is how Sinterklaas is sometimes referred to) comes from Spain, he had Moors as helpers. It is just as likely that his helpers are black because they enter and leave houses through the chimneys when they deliver presents.

As you can imagine, these days most people frown upon that custom, and an alternative has been arrived at. Pete now only has a few soot smudges on his cheeks or isn’t blackened at all. Unfortunately, not everybody thinks it’s a good idea to change the tradition a little to get away from what is clearly an unthinking, hurtful, and discriminatory practice. As a result, the past few years have brought scenes where the arrival of Sinterklaas was spoiled by protests and counterprotests.

Another uniquely Sinterklaas thing is that in order to deliver the presents, he travels over the roofs on horseback. All children know he keeps notes on their behaviour in a big red book. In the past, kids were told that if they were very bad, Black Pete would put them in their sack and bring them back to Spain. Thankfully, that last frightening part of the tradition has been successfully abandoned for many, many years now.

But what I love and miss most about Sinterklaas is that the celebration often is about more than ‘just’ giving and receiving presents. The Dutch have expanded on the ‘normal’ exchange in two ways.

First of all, there’s something called ‘de Surprise, which literally translates as ‘the surprise’ but means a bit more. The idea is that you hide the actual present inside a creation that somehow depicts the recipient. For example, if I were to give one of you a present, I might put it inside a large book crafted out of cardboard.

The second addition to the gift would be a poem. And if the giver/poet had any talent and some time on their hands, the rhyme would describe both the recipient and the gift they were about to receive.

The following is my (very bad) attempt at an example of such a poem in English, but I think it gives you an idea.

Sinterklaas has been thinking long and hard
What to buy someone so smart.
He knows full well you’re always reading
And has no idea which book you might be needing.
He talked it over with his helper Piet
(who also has been known to read)
My smart assistant said, while laughing with glee
What those readers need is fifty stories, new and FREE.

There's a lot more I could tell you about December 5th in the Netherlands. I haven't even touched on the various sweet treats and chocolate letters. But I think this post is long enough now, so I'm leaving it here.

Whatever you are celebrating this month, I wish you a wonderful and peaceful time, hopefully including a surprise or two.

Happy Sinterklaas!

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