Friday, 6 December 2013

Sinterklaas

In The Netherlands there is a celebration on December 5th and 6th called Sinterklaas. A sort of alternative Christmas in the way of gifts and songs. It is based originally on the feast day of the patron saint of children, Saint Nicholas (Sint Nicolaas), who later became the figure on which Santa Claus in the States was based.

The story goes that the Saint came by boat to the Netherlands from Spain, bringing with him his mischievous, Moorish helpers, Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters). And this continues today, with Sinterklaas arriving at the end of November, making his way across the low countries, visiting each town. Wearing red cape and white, flowing gowns underneath, Sinterklaas arrives on his grey horse, Amerigo. The children sing traditional songs to welcome him, and the Zwarte Pieten hand out sweets and gingerbread like cookies called pepernoten. (There are huge debates currently raging about Zwarte Pieten: if it is politically incorrect or offensive. Most Dutch people think the debate is ridiculous. However, they've come up with a PC reason for Zwarte Piet - poor old Piet is covered in coal dust from the fireplaces when delivering gifts...)

Sinterklaas on Amerigo with Zwarte Pieten on Terschelling
As soon as Sinterklaas is in the country, children put one shoe by the fireplace or back door at bedtime, usually with an apple or carrot for Amerigo, in the hope of a sweet or coin in return. Only if they've been well behaved, of course. On the 5th the small gifts are opened, brought in a huge burlap sack by a Zwarte Piet (or Papa!). Little poems about the receiver are usually written with the gift - these can be sarcastic and often poke fun. Sometimes the gifts are packaged in funny ways (called a surprise, pronounced "surprees"). It is a fun time, and not just for the children!

What I really like about this holiday is that there are loads of songs and there is a real "togetherness" in the whole spectacle. It is also quite creative, with poems, surprises, and music. Now it is also a huge thing on television, with live coverage of Sinterklaas' arrival, and programs especially devoted to games and song.

Traditions vary across the Netherlands and Belgium, but this is essentially what happens during the beginning of December, as far as I understand it. So, Prettige Sinterklaas, allemaal!