Saint Nicholas: Sinterklaas

@copy; Esther Wieringa (Flickr: wester)

The Dutch have their very own tra­di­tion in Decem­ber, Sin­terk­laas. This man should not be mis­taken for Santa Claus or Father Christ­mas even if they do have kind of the same job. Sin­terk­laas does not come from the North Pole and he does not have rein­deers, brown­ies or a red cap with a tuft. Sin­terk­laas lives in Spain and he has a white horse. Instead of the brown­ies he has Zwarte Pieten, Black Piets, who assist him on his jour­ney, lit­tle helpers with dark skin and colour­ful clothes.

They all board a ship sail­ing from Spain to a port (dif­fer­ent every year) in the Nether­lands and when arriv­ing, they are wel­comed by the mayor and cit­i­zens. They arrive some­time in mid Novem­ber just in time for the annual parade which is the start of the “Sin­terk­laas sea­son”. The fol­low­ing weeks are spent to the assess­ment of the behav­ior of the chil­dren dur­ing the past year. In short, if they have been naughty or nice. He keeps this infor­ma­tion in a large leather bound book, with gold print. They get to sit on his lap and then he asks them about their behav­ior dur­ing the year. And you can not lie to Sin­terk­laas, can you? That is why naughty chil­dren go straight into the sack and have to go back to Spain with Sinterklaas.

The eve of Decem­ber 5th is a spe­cial day for all Dutch chil­dren. This is when Sin­terk­laas rides around the coun­try on his white horse. Chil­dren put shoes under the chim­ney and they also place a piece of car­rot in them as a reward for the horse. Sin­terk­laas stops at the roof of the houses and send a Piet down the chim­ney to put some kind of gift in the shoes. This is often a piece of choco­late in the form of the receiver’s first ini­tial and peper­noten, small hard cook­ies. This is a very busy time for Sin­terk­laas, in the day he vis­its schools and other places and in the evening people’s homes. He knocks on the door and hand out gifts from his sack.

Of course he needs a bit help some­times, so kind souls dress up in a red cape with golden embroi­dery over white clothes, fix them­selves a nice white beard and put a mitre-shaped red hat with a golden cross on their heads and grab a golden shepherd’s staff to go with that. These clothes are much sim­i­lar to the ones worn by bish­ops. This because the model of Sin­terk­laas is said to have been Saint Nicholas, a bishop from Myra in Turkey born in 271 AD. There are numer­ous leg­ends about his good deeds. One story is that he saved three lit­tle girls from being sold by their poor father. By throw­ing three golden pieces for their dowry through the win­dow he saved them from a future in despair. It just hap­pen to be that the gifts landed in the stock­ings that the girls had hung up by the fire­place to dry. Another story say that he brought three chil­dren back to life after they had been chopped up by a butcher. He just put the pieces together and prayed and sud­denly they were alive with­out a scratch. He is also the patron saint of the sailors after calm­ing a storm at sea and when doing that he saved the lives of many peo­ple, includ­ing him­self. Old scripts say that Saint Nicholas died on the 6th of Decem­ber in 343 AD, that is why he is remem­bered this time a year. His relics have been the sub­ject of some dis­agree­ments, but they are said to be in Bari in Italy since 1087.

Saint Nicholas con­nec­tion to ship­ping might explain why Sin­terk­laas is said to live in Spain. In the 17th cen­tury the Nether­lands was a major ship­ping nation and the coun­try had close con­nec­tions with Spain. This would also explain the dark colour of the skin of the Zwarte Pieten, since Spain nat­u­rally gets more sun than north­ern Europe. Another expla­na­tion for it could be the con­stant climb­ing up and down sooty chimneys.

The cel­e­bra­tion of Sin­terk­laas is fore­most for chil­dren and fam­i­lies, but some friends also cel­e­brate with giv­ing each other gifts. Short humor­ous rhymes or poems are attached to the gifts and they often have a per­sonal touch. There are a num­ber of pop­u­lar songs about Sin­terk­laas and the sto­ries sur­round­ing him. Spe­cial food that is close con­nected to the cel­e­bra­tion are Spec­u­laas, a spiced cake filled with almond paste. Marzi­pan is another appre­ci­ated goodie.

On Christ­mas, the 25th and 26th of Decem­ber, Father Christ­mas visit some fam­i­lies and bring gifts. Oth­ers just do not care for the fel­low and all the fuss around him.


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