Tuesday, November 30, 2010

St. Nicolaas left the party

The Dutch do not have Santa Claus. Well, actually we have him too, but he plays second fiddle to Sint Nicolaas. Our Saint Nicholas, also known as Sinterklaas, is a very old traditional figure. December 5, the evening before his birthday, is “present evening” - the annual gift exchanging tradition that other countries know on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve.

Saint Nicholas was a bishop in the Turkish town of Myra around the fourth century. His fame for helping children gave him the stature of patron of kids – these days we have mixed feelings reading this, but the 4th century was definitely a different time, I do hope. What caused the change in location is unknown, but tradition tells us that Saint Nicholas later moved to Spain, where he lives surrounded by his Moorish male servants, called Zwarte Pieten, or Black Pete’s. Please don’t ask, but I can add to this picture that every year mid November the bishop sails to The Netherlands with his Black Pete’s on a steamship, packed with presents, and of course, his white horse. His arrival is broadcasted on national television, and he mysteriously appears in every town at the same time. Saint Nicholas rides his white horse over rooftops, where the Black Pete’s drop presents down chimneys for little children who placed their shoes in front of the stove, fireplace or just central heating – preferably with a carrot for the horse or a nice painting. Singing traditional Saint Nicholas songs as loud as possible helps very well. But the apotheosis is the evening of December 5, when the Good Holy Man – yes, that’s how we call him too – delivers presents at every door. A tricky problem for kids with a bad conscious, because the naughty ones used to be abducted to Spain with Sinterklaas and his black Pete’s. In a sack that is, but if your acts weren’t too bad, a beating with Black Pete’s rod would your only possible punishment. I know, this calls for explanation, but I can’t. However December 6 everything is over again, because Saint Nicholas and his servants disappear back to Spain, without anyone noticing it.

The Saint Nicolas tradition was brought to the New World with Dutch emigrants, where it mixed with the Christmas Man that was known in other cultures. Saint Nicolas gave his looks – a red outfit, red hat, white hair and a long white beard – and his name to the Christmas man, and evolved into Santa Claus. The horse somehow became a sleigh with reindeer, and Santa learned to fly through the skies, and without doubt that is a step up from riding rooftops on a horse. The Black Pete’s shrunk into white elves, and once again, this calls for further investigation. We however still have our Sinterklaas, and for many years he withstood the eminent advances of Santa Claus in our neck of the woods, as a robin defending his territory in a garden. As you might understand the tradition I pictured above, it is best enjoyed when there are still children around who are young enough to firmly believe that Saint Nicolas is a reality. But we live in a world where television shows us Christmas according the American way of life, and more and more people give in to that when their children get older. Still, Saint Nicolas has a firm position and is more popular as Santa Claus. So, December 5 is for many the occasion to give each other presents accompanied by rhymes, pointing out the good and not so good events around the recipient, but all in a humorous way. An evening that calls for special candy, hot chocolate, or warm red wine.

Scene from horror movie adaption 'Sint' by Dick Maas.

I have left the Saint Nicolas tradition myself. But as I see it, the Saint Nicolas feeling left the party. I still long for the old fashioned Saint Nicolas evenings of yore, with a few presents, short rhymes that get to the point quickly, and after the exchange of presents is over, a nice evening filled with laughter over a glass of wine. But that intimate old fashioned evening seems impossible these days. Way too many presents are given, whose nature often got out of hand being too expensive and grand, and above all – the rhymes got longer and longer, and hence the evening developed into a bore that just does not seem to end. The last Saint Nicolas evening I was participated in ended past midnight – while 10.00 PM should be the moment to call the ceremony closed and move on the part where you just enjoy the evening. Alas, the family seems to think otherwise – and so I value Christmas morning so much, when I put my presents under the Christmas tree. Un-Dutch, I know, but such a nice morning that is.


  1. Cornelius KoelewijnDecember 1, 2010 at 9:59 PM

    Sinterklaas, with all the traditions, seems to be typical Dutch - even though I've met lookalikes in the western part of Germany too. I agree with Martin part of the fun is to stick with the tradition. Have some traditional food (chocolate, speculaas, banketstaaf - don't even know the English translations...), some presents and rhymes, and that's it.
    I can't remember when I lost my belief in Sinterklaas. It must have been when I went to primary school. I remember my mother warned us to be nice and friendly, or otherwise the black peters would take us to Spain. She saw them on the roof opposite the street watching us, but of course we (my brother and I) saw nothing. Sweet memories...
    One of the nicest Sinterklaas celebrations I had was with some fellow students when I still was in university. We bought and/or made budget presents, composed rhymes and of course sang some tradition Sinterklaas songs. It was a very pleasant evening.
    It's still funny though to see toddlers who still firmly believe in Sinterklaas. It brings back memories of your own youth and the years of innocence. Maybe that's one of the big values of Sinterklaas...

  2. Very interesting read! Learning about other countries' Christmas-time traditions is something we really miss out on in North America.