Sinterklaas

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I moved to the Netherlands after getting married in August 1987. Despite all reassurance from my husband-to-be that the Netherlands is not that differerent from the society and norms in which I’d been raised, it felt like I’d landed on another planet. Until I’d moved to the Netherlands I had never, ever seen people hand a plate of cookies round the table so that there was exactly one cookie per guest. Until I’d moved here, I’d never been asked straight out what something I’m wearing cost and where did I get it. Until I came to this country, I’d never heard someone announce to a roomful of people that they were “going to the toilet”. It was a bit of a culture shock. This was nothing compared to my astonishment at St. Nicolaas.

The Dutch don’t know from Santa Claus, they have St. Nicolaas or “Sinterklaas”. Sinterklaas is not a toymaker living at the North Pole, he is a bishop living in Spain. Sinterklaas doesn’t travel by a sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer, he travels by boat and on a white horse called “Amerigo”. Most shocking of all, Sinterklaas doesn’t have industrious little elves in his employment, Sinterklaas is a slave owner. Yes, Sinterklaas has a slew of Moorish slaves all called “Piet” and because the Dutch pull no punches, “Zwarte Piet” just in case you didn’t get the fact that the Moors are black.

 

I find it fascinating, but not surprising, knowing what I know about the Netherlands, that St. Nicolaas is also the patron saint of prostitutes. The notorious “Wallen”, the red-light district of Amsterdam is directly behind the Nicolaaskerk. The flashing neon cross at the top of the Nicolaaskerk was a gift from the Amsterdam sex workers.



Sinterklaas comes into town this weekend. Every Saturday night up to Dec. 5Th, good little boys and girls leave carrots and hay in their shoes for Amerigo and sing terribly written songs up the chimney. Sinterklaas and the Piets leave toys and candy in the shoes of good boys and girls. If the children have been naughty, and he can check this in his big book, Sinterklaas leaves only coal in their shoes, and if they are extremely naughty, he takes them back to Spain in his big brown jute bag. It is not known what happens to these children in Spain, but given recent headlines and the historical precedent of the Spanish Inquisition, I don’t think it is nice.

This east-coast gal, who watched the city of Trenton burn from the other side of the river after the 1968 slaying of the Rev. King, who grew up in a town where the n-word was never used, who went to school in the wilds of North Philadelphia was shocked and horrified. Oh, my Dutch family assured me, we see it in historical context. I entered my first celebration of this holiday with misgivings.

Something about people “blacking up” as Zwarte Piet rankled—still does.

What really flipped my wig, however, was the zombie-like “whitened-up” Sinterklaas I saw on the former Dutch island of Curaçao, but that’s another story.

Another thing I don’t get about Sinterklaas is the candy that goes along with it.

I know about Hannukah gelt. I was pleased to see Hannukah gelt in the shops next to the pink sugar rats, which frankly gave me the willies. Only it wasn’t Hannukah gelt. It was “Sinterklaas geld”. I’m assuming there were pink sugar rats on Sinterklaas’s boat, but for the chocolate marshmallow frogs I can offer no explanation.


Given the choice, our sons chose to celebrate American Christmas (which isn’t even American, but kind of Austrian) when they were old enough not to believe in Sinterklaas anymore and their doing so has saved me a lot of angst and moral conflict. I’ve saved all that up for Christmas. Why does Santa Claus only employ elves? Are we talking a “closed shop” organization? Does he provide health insurance? Is it good for reindeer to fly around all night pulling such a heavy load on a meal consisting of only a handful of magic corn? Does Animal Welfare keep an eye on the reindeer?

* All images from Google

**Crossposted from my primary blog:  http://oursalon.ning.com/profiles/blogs/sinterklaas

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4 responses »

  1. In the months since I started reading your blog, I’ve envied you quite a bit. “Must be great living in a beautiful European country. So quaint. So rich in tradition.” I don’t envy you the Christmas season, however. The blackface would bother me quite a bit. I take it that black people in the Netherlands don’t play the Zwarte Piet role? Your post made me realize, though, no matter how much I love to learn about and experience other cultures, I would have a very hard time giving up my Yankee holiday traditions. Even other traditions that I think are lovely and appropriate, like the Mexican tradition that makes 3 Kings Day (Jan. 6) a bigger celebration than Dec. 25, would make me less than happy. Gotta have my ingrained US Christmas and Thanksgiving. That makes me feel a little bad to be so “culturalistic”.

  2. Thanks for stopping by!

    Believe it or not, some people of color black up…the minstrel tradition and Jim Crow are typically American taboos.

  3. Your kids can be happy, if Sinterklaas never was “invented” , Santa Claus would not have been there either because he was introduced by DUTCH immigrants!, Piet , he is black from throwing presents into the chimney, what is wrong with that?
    To bad you only get one cookie during a party, the Dutchies I know are very generous and welcoming, it is better to give than to take , they say!.

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