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(The drawing in the header comes from the original book of J. Schenkman, St. Nikolaas en zijn knecht, Source: Internet)
A long long long long long long time ago, I used to live in Amsterdam. Feels like ages ago. Not too many know that in Holland, Santa Claus (Sint) is a bit of a weirdo. Let me tell you all about him 🙂
Sinterklaas aka Santa aka Sint is an elderly man. Hundreds and hundreds of years old, nobody really knows how many zeros there are. As for the looks, he resembles the orginal St. Nicholas the bishop from Turkey or Greece (there’s a clash here) who used to look after the children. As such, he is dressed in a long robe with a pope-like hat and a long walking stick. Of course hair, beard, mustache are Santa-like.
A bunch of girls I was with, and I of course, had no idea what so ever what was coming when we headed for the Dam Square on the 17th of November to take part in the annual Sinterklaas Parade.
Dutch Sinterklaas arrives by boat from Spain, accompanied by his always-white-horse and an uncountable amount of Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters).
The moment we came to an end of Kalverstraat, we found ourselves on the edge of an insane show. Whole square went mad: families, and you should know that the Dutch have many kids, 4-5 is quite normal, miniature canons rolled around shooting candy and traditional ginger cookies, directly onto people.
Zwarte Piets were literally everywhere; running around with those mentioned canons as well as bags of sweets making sure no kid was left empty-handed. All of a sudden I noticed good few of them sliding down the ropes on the walls of the Begijnhof building. They looked like spiders appearing from behind every corner, from every window, every door.
Then the Parade neared us. The Piets were only making the way and preparing the crowds for more fun and of course for the arrival of Mr. Sinterklaas himself. And Sint does not miss anyone. He visits schools, shops and cafes during his time in The Netherlands.
The moment he got off the boat, he jumped onto his stallion and continued on along with his colorful troup of helpers and platforms full of music and creatures. Everybody was amazed by the show and for us, foreigners seeing such a thing for the first time was an absolute shocker. No wonder that to the Dutch people, Sinterklaas is one of the celebrations they always mention as one of the most traditional. Because it is. And it is very unique on the global scale when you think of it.
Sadly I do not have many photos at all from the times I lived in Amsterdam, but perhaps this is why I hold some best of memories from these times.
I guess everyone knows the history of Santa Claus and that we celebrate his name day on the day of the year when he died, which is the 6th of December. In many countries, not all, this is when children receive small gifts, usually sweets and treats, sometimes prior to receiving further gifts on Christmas but in some countries, this day is of more value (gift-wise) than Christmas.
When I was a child, we used to get gifts only on the 6th December and none under the Christmas tree. I know this was celebrated differently in different houses but majority of kids I knew had the same way of celebrating this holiday. Christmas was more of a time spent with family and a big Christmas Eve dinner followed by walking to the church for a midnight mass carrying sparkling lights and freezing as hell to then sing carols for an hour and go back home playing with snow. Oh how I miss those days!
In Holland however, Sinterkaas comes on the 5th December, the eve of his name day. The Dutch say that it is because he wants to be home the next day to celebrate with the family but everybody knows that he really does not go home at all. Unless! he lives in the beautiful carribean island of Curaçao, that is one of the territories which still belong to the Kingdom.
The Netherlands had one of the most powerful flotillas back in the 17th century and therefore they controled a long list of places over the centuries.
Current overseas territories of The Netherlands are the tropical islands of Aruba and The Dutch Antilles (the “ABC Islands,” – Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao, all located off the coast of Venezuela and the central Caribbean islands of Saba, St. Eustatius, and the southern half of the island of Saint Maarten). Desite of being a part of the Kingdom, these territories are not part of the EU (unlike the French island if Martynique).
I am sure everyone knows Aruba for the flamingos and St. Maartens for the aircraft overflying the Maho Beach only a few meters above the tourists’ heads. If you don’t know what I am about, here it is:
So I guess, Sinterklaas is residing in the Curaçao island if the “going home story” is real because Curaçao is where he visits exactly on the 6th December.
Maybe you can find some more in the notes that Sinterklaas is taking. In fact it is more of a blog or a vlog even. Unfortunately only in Dutch but you can watch the videos in his and Piet’s journal.
The celebrations I was introduced to were as follows:
On the 5th December the whole family would sit down for their always-at-6pm-dinner after which, they would move over to the living area to read poems written for Sinterklaas, often about other people (they can be funny, mocking, sad, whatever, as long as they rhyme), and play some little spelletjes that are games and puzzles with the Sinterklaas theme.
Later on that evening a usually male family member would dress up as Santa and try to squeeze into the fireplace. That’s if possible. Some, I personally know, would even climb up the fireplace chimney a little (they may have istalled little ladder or a few bricks in there for that very occasion – the Dutch really mean it with Sinterklaas) to then drop down with a big bag of presents. Incredible show, but not all houses allow for such show, the 16th and 17th century merchant houses often do have sufficient size fireplaces though. In the lack of same, there is a traditional alternative, where Sinterklaas knocks on the front door, leaves a huuuuge bag of presents in front of it and disapears. Children run to open the door and find the abandoned bag. We all know what comes next.
But in the olden day traditions and the actual story about Sinterklaas (which of course is still celebrated in this manner), he would have ridden on his white horse from roof to roof with Zwarte Piet, who would listen first about the good and bad people did and then would go down the chimney to leave the gifts inside the shoes left around the fireplace or a Christmas tree. In fact he would have been swapping gifts for the carots and cookies left by the kids inside their shoes.
Due to the rich and colorful past of the Dutch, there always had been a melting pot of nationalities, skin colors, languages, etc. easily noticed in the country. The Dutch are also internationally considered to be very open minded and tolerant. For centuries, they have owned and controlled more or less exotic territories bringing wives, slaves, helpers, surely children, co-operatives, sailors and others from everywhere their huge flottillas traveled. To get an idea, see this article listing past Dutch colonies.
You would think it natural then that Sinterklaas, being such an old man, would come somewhere from those times and it would also then be natural that his helper would originate from one of these places where the Dutch would have been acquirying such “helpers”.
Traditionally then Black Peter was a young black faced boy with curly hair and funky Renaissance garment. That is what Dutch kids are born into and it has not been questioned for centuries. But the story behind the existance of Santa’s black-faced helper has become very controvercial in the recent decade. So controversial that apparently even the United Nations decided to get involved. Especially in 2020 with the Black Lives Matter movement, the idea of Piet has been turned around comletely to such an extent that a brand new version was created called Sooty Piet with a white face. Whether it would stay white after running down so many chimneys during one night I am not so sure…. Soot marks are apparently enough to depict the outcome.
Historians who got involved in the matter claim that the history of Zwarte Piet accompanying Sinterklaas comes from the Wild Hunt of Odin, who always rode his white horse Sleipnir, accompanied by two black ravens, Munnin and Huginn. They would also eavesdrop on people. Others believe Zwarte Pieten were Moors who used to assist real Sait Nicholas. Well, could be, give the Moorish history in Spain where Sinterklaas arrives from afterall. Others yet claim this is linked to the winter solstice and people painting their faces black for the rituals. Not sure about this one myself to be honest.
In 1850 an Amsterdam primary school teacher, Jan Schenkman wrote a book called: Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht (Santa Claus and his servant). In these times such boys would have worked as unpaid slaves. In the book illustrations Piet was depicted as black Moor from Spain. This is the first known picture of Zwarte Piet. He was an assistant to the stern and punishing Sinterklaas.
As years went by, the role of Piet has also changed. Only 40 years later Sinterklaas softened and it was time for Zwarte Piet to became the scary character. He would rattle his chains and threaten children with his roe (a mini-broom made of bundled up sticks). In fact, nowadays Piet brings gifts to the good children but the naughty ones are playfully warned that they would be whipped and taken away to Spain in one of Piet’s burlap sacks unless they promise to change. The Piet as we know him, a friend to good children has evolved only since 1960s.
The organisation fighting to preserve the traditional Zwarte Piet called Sint en Pietengilde, claims that supporters are
“generally surprised when they notice that people see Zwarte Piet as a racist figure.”
Read more in this article.
What do you think? I personally think that it is important to keep traditions. However and sadly so it is unfortunate that this tradition comes from the times when the servants were brought from exotic parts of the world where people were less off and therefore often turned into slaves. As such the Sooty Piet seems like a great solution to the problem and it should really end this debate. Since Piet is now considered more of a friend and a young helper to an old and not fully able bodied Santa, then let’s keep it this friendly way. And more so, let’s have Sooty Piets of all ethnic backgrouds. After all, people of Holland are a beautiful colorful melting pot.
And when you think of it, in the medieval iconography, Saint Nicholas would have been portrayed as an old man taming a chained demon of yesteryear, enslaved and forced to assist its captor. Would we rather have that? I sure not. And to me, Sinterklaas in Holland will always remain a magical event.
Perhaps this Sinterklaas poem answers some questions:
Hope your local Santa appeared this year ‘cos you’ve been good Boys and Girls, right? If not, not too worry, maybe some other version pops over around Christmas 🙂
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